To start off with the histrionic statement – Christopher Columbus was not the first European to reach the Americas. The honor is commonly believed to belong to one Leif Erikson, the intrepid Viking explorer from Iceland who arrived in North America almost 500 years before Columbus, and also established the Norse settlement at ‘Vinland’ (a location which is estimated to be at the northern tip of present-day Newfoundland). But is there more to the New World exploration drama than the usual mix of Spaniards, Italians, English, Vikings and even Chinese? Well, that seems to the exact case – with a fascinating hypothesis involving St. Brendan, an Irish monk who is said to have taken an epic journey nigh 500 years before Leif Erikson in the 6th Century AD.
St. Brendan the Navigator(or Bréanainn) is believed to be born in the year 484 AD, in the province of Munster, in the south-west part of Ireland. He is also considered as the one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland, with himself being ordained as a priest in 512 AD. His navigational pursuits around the scattered islands and realms of Ireland began soon after this major life event – with a host of successful voyages reaching various spread-out locations, including the Arran Islands, the Scottish Hinba island, Wales and even Brittany in France. Most of these endeavors were fueled by his dedication to Christianity, and hence the spreading of the word of God – which led to the establishment of many monasteries around Ireland proper.
Interestingly, St. Brendan’s legendary journey to the New World also pertained to the Christian notion of paradise and the Garden of Eden. According to Navigatio Sancti Brendani (or the ‘Travels of St. Brendan’), a later account of the fabled voyage which was penned in the 9th century – the expedition was supposedly undertaken when St. Brendan had already passed the prime of his life. Inspired by St. Barinthus’s claimed visit to Paradise, the adventurous priest secluded himself atop a hill on the undulating Dingle Peninsula. In a quite symbolic manner, this thin stretch of the jutting land directly points to North America; and it was the roaring waves of the Atlantic Ocean that planted the seed of curiosity in the monk’s mind. At once he decided to undertake a perilous voyage that would go beyond the vast reach of the ocean, into the very Garden of Eden.
The provisions were made with a crew of fellow Christian monks, and a big boat was constructed in a traditional Irish manner with a round-bottomed structure and square sails (which is known as currach). The entire marine craft was then made water-proof by strategically draping it with leather skins. The sea-travel itself as expected was strewn with remarkable incidences, including that of encounters with hefty-sized sheep, a monster sea cat, psalm singing birds, fire-ball throwing giants and floating crystal towers of huge proportions. The seven-year old voyage poetically came to fruition when the navigators ultimately reached an enchanting wooded land which boasted of verdant trees, fragrant flowers, lush fruits and even captivating gems. The adventurers supposedly walked for 40 days on this land, until deterred by a large river. Finally, they made it back to their ‘currach’ with loaded gems, and successfully traveled back to Ireland with first hand news of their fantastical adventures.
Now, according to many historical sources, the account of Navigatio Sancti Brendani was by all means a ‘Medieval bestseller’. In fact, the narrative embellished with Biblical allegories was so renowned that many then-contemporary cartographers included the realm of ‘Paradise’ or ‘St. Brendan’s island’ in their maps. Even Columbus himself was most probably aware of this legendary feat when he made his momentous voyage across the rarely traversed Atlantic Ocean. But in spite of all the tales, archaeological evidences have still not definitely determined the presence of the Irishmen in North America during the period of the early Middle Ages (as opposed to the Norse site of L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland).
So, that brings us to the question – what lends credence to this incredible conjecture that puts the Irish monk at the pantheon of New World exploration? Well, quite curiously, the first known European colonists of America are the ones who tantalizingly provide the much needed allusions. Yes, we are talking about the Vikings themselves. The sagas of the Norsemen provide numerous glimpses into how they perceived different foreigners; and in various cases, the Irish were seen as sea-faring people with aptitude for exploration. Celtic mythology also mirrors this appraisal, with fantastical accounts of the famous Irish voyagers like Bran and Maeldun.
The most intriguing contents of these sagas relate to how the Vikings found Irish-sponsored Christian missions in Iceland from before the time they colonized the island. The ‘tumble down the rabbit-hole’ continues with one special Scandinavian account mentioning the Norsemen meeting with a particular group of Native Americans who had supposedly seen Europeans before their encounter with the Vikings. There are even vague tales in the early medieval sagas that hint at some natives of New World speaking a derivative of Irish language. Consequently, it comes as no surprise that the Vikings under Leif Erikson called the expansive landmass south of Vinland by the name of ‘Irland it Mikla‘ (or Greater Ireland).
Now, we fleetingly did mention something about the lack of concrete evidences that support these exploration hypotheses. But that doesn’t mean there have been no ‘claimed’ evidences of Irish presence in medieval North America. To that end, the most famous report would pertain to marine biologist Barry Fell’s sensational discoveries of petroglyphs (etched rocks) in West Virginia that supposedly had engravings in the manner of the Ogam script, an Irish alphabet used during late antiquity. Some of these stones were touted to even have inscribed descriptions of the Christian nativity – ‘transatlantic works’ that could very well be attributed to St. Brendan. Regrettably, most scholars and historians are still not convinced of these findings, with criticisms mainly directed at Fell’s method of deduction and conclusion.
Some have also been skeptical of the rudimentary technology of the ‘currach’ boat and how it would have been nigh impossible to cross the Atlantic with such a less-advanced marine craft. Quite incredibly, author and adventurer Tim Severin proved many wrong, when he successfully crossed the ocean in 1976 with the aid of a currach. He started his voyage from Ireland, and then replicated the presumed route of St. Brendan by making stops at Iceland, Greenland and ultimately Newfoundland – with the entire expedition taking just an year to complete.
Now of course, Severin’s heroic achievement doesn’t prove that the Irish were the first Europeans to reach America, especially due to the lack of proper historical affirmations. However, we should also take into account that many early 20th century historians similarly dismissed the Viking theory – but 60’s archaeological findings proved otherwise. In any case, the modern Irish people can only cross their fingers for some intrepid explorers to come across definite clues that could corroborate St. Brendan’s fantastical journey into ‘Paradise’.