Although it is set in the sixth century and features many of the historical personages who gave significant impetus to the learning, building, and evangelizing that distinguished the onset of Christianity in Ireland, Brendan is less a historical novel than a meditation on the profound simplicities of the religious faith. It takes as its focus the remarkable career of Saint Brendan and through it represents the spirit of the age. The period is depicted as one in which the human mind was more liable to be overwhelmed by the proximity of God’s presence in the world and when the world of creation impressed itself more immediately and strikingly on the senses of those who lived in it.
As the historical note at the end of the novel makes clear, the protagonist Brendan is noteworthy for a number of different reasons. The fact that he was a saint is one obvious reason for his significance. He was also an important churchman, and he founded the monastic settlement of Clonfert, a name that survives in contemporary Ireland as that of a Catholic diocese. Yet these achievements, relevant as they are to an appreciation of the reality of the protagonist’s context, pale in comparison to Brendan’s legendary status. From at least the tenth century onward, Brendan’s name has been synonymous with voyages of discovery.
Two of these voyages are recounted in the novel, the first by Brendan himself in what is in effect a ship’s log. Nothing more than extremely localized geographical locations and climatic conditions are provided in this clearly incomplete narrative of the journey. Internal evidence suggests that the coast of Iceland is sighted. Of much greater importance is the second voyage, an account of which is provided by the novel’s narrator, Finn. The second voyage locates the other world of pre-Christian Irish mythology, Tír-na-Nog, a name that means “the land of eternal youth.” This landfall is not only Brendan’s apotheosis as a navigator but is also the basis of his historical status as a...
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