St. Brendan the Navigator 583 AD
It was around a year ago this time that we, meaning the Langdon family, began our trip/pilgrimage to holy sites in Ireland and the UK. Arriving in Ireland on May 15, our ventures really began on the feast day of St. Brendan the Navigator (May 16, 583). Martina dubbed St. Brendan the "patron of our pilgrimage” for numerous reasons. Besides the fact he traveled far and wide with fellow monks throughout the British Isles and beyond, she knew of my special affinity for St. Brendan from our trip to Ireland 27 years ago. On that distant trip and this one the presence of St. Brendan was strong and discernible at the numerous places associated with him and his travels, none more so than Dingle Peninsula and Mount Brandon. Brigid and Martina were not yet born on our initial trip, but they could experience and understand my sentiment that "I LOVE Dingle."
St. Brendan, of the lineage of Fergus Mac Roy renowned in Irish lore, hailed from western Ireland near the sea. As a young child, St. Brendan was fostered by St. Ita or Deirdre, "Foster Mother of Saints," at Killeedy (Church and monastery of St. Ita), and taught and ordained by St. Erc. St. Erc was a nobleman at King Lochair's court when St Patrick crossed swords with the King's Druids (spiritually speaking), became a follower of St. Patrick and eventually a bishop. Prior to St. Brendan’s voyages, romanticized during the middle ages, he studied under St. Jarlath of Tuam, also a descendant of the famous Fergus Mac Roy, before returning to St. Erc to be ordained. He also studied under St. Finian of Clonnard, “the tutor of saints,” together with the other "Twelve Apostles of Ireland," as well as with St. Enda of the Aran Islands, and others.
There is a book, Lives and Legends of Saint Brendan the Voyager, first printed in Dublin in 1893 with a facsimile reprint in 1994 by Llanerch Publishers, Felinfach, by Denis O'Dononoghee, based on the Book of Lismore, for anyone interested in a more extensive account of his life and the legend of his voyages.
As a sixth century saint on the western "edge of civilization" during the flowering of Celtic Christianity, he's a significant personage and inspiring figure. At the age of 80 he would take to the seas once again pursuing his vision of Hy Brasil, the Isle of the Blest, first revealed to him on the second highest peak of Ireland and overlooking the western sea, a peak thereafter named for him – Mount Brandon, and seek to convert more peoples who had yet to hear of Christ. There is historical data indicating these voyages took him as far as America, not as an explorer like Christopher Columbus, but as a missionary and sojourner for Christ. It is certain Christopher Columbus knew of St. Brendan’s voyages, went to Galway, Ireland to seek out more information, and included Irish sailors on his crews when he sailed for America.
Dingle Peninsula is a place of singular beauty and charm. One of the oldest surviving oratories (churches) of early Irish Christian architecture, Gallarus Oratory, is located there. A simple and elegant rectangular church made of dry stone; it has stood intact for nigh unto 13-14 centuries. In the vicinity is Ardfert Monastery, an early establishment of St. Brendan's, as well as Kilmalkedar (Church of St Maolcethair). Each site is majestic, peaceful, and solemn, but then, there's Mount Brandon overlooking and crowning all.
To scale to the top of Mount Brandon is an indescribable experience. I mean that literally. There are no words that fittingly convey the experience. In terms of natural beauty, one could certainly describe it as exhilarating and awe-inspiring, a patchwork of colors and shades, a blending of earth and sea and sky while stretching into endless vistas. The higher you climb the more spectacular the view, and the peak of Mount Brandon, towering above the rest, is ethereal, floating in and out of the mists, where the occasional sojourner encounters sheep and rocks, blending with clouds. It is a solitary place, but one filled with grandeur, if not enchantment. Yes, a lovely place. But, this is not of what I speak.
When locals talk about St. Columcille's monastic settlement on the Island of Iona off the western coast of Scotland (another site we visited), they say, "Yon's a think place." They mean a place where the veil between this world and the next is less dense, where the "other world" is more accessible. Isn't this the attraction of places of "pilgrimage," of holy places? In the words of Tennyson, “to breathe nearer heaven." It is only in this vein that one can properly appreciate Mount Brandon, of encountering the "other-worldliness" of sanctified ground.
The first time I scaled Mount Brandon 27 years ago, I did most of it alone. Rosie, our oldest daughter, was only a year and half old and after hiking part way up, Sarah stayed with Rosie while I continued to climb and climb and climb (if you've ever scaled to the top of a mountain, even a relatively small one, you know the peak always looks closer than it is). This time, Brigid and Martina scaled to the top with me. I did not remember from the first ascent many years ago the last portion being so steep and rocky, not to mention rigorous, but I was much younger and more vigorous then (now, not so much). At last we reached the summit, alone in the world, or so it seemed (except for the sheep). There, as I remembered, at the very peak is St. Brendan's cell and holy well on a rocky promontory and a sheer cliff on the other side.
Here St. Brendan had dwelt for a time, attended by angels and storming heaven with his prayers: “The kingdom of heaven suffers violence and the violent take it by force” (Matt. 11:12). Hearty souls, these Celtic saints, seeking out sanctuaries amidst the wild places of nature “to do penance” and commune with God. It feels like walking on "holy ground,” a place sanctified by the life and prayers of the Saint. I found myself on both ascents praying for every person I knew and loved and had ever met throughout life’s many twists and turns, striving to remember them all. In each ascent up Mt. Brandon I also experienced myself both connected with others and alone with my own soul. In each case, I was anxious to reach the summit and to savor the ascent. I longed to embrace the solitude and include all at the same time. I don't know how to explain these seemingly contradictory thoughts and longings, but such were my sentiments.
On this trip, we did not visit St. Brendan's monastery at Clonfert, where he was laid at rest; "his place of resurrection." It is said Clonfert and his grave contains soil that could be from no other place than Dingle. Dingle, on the western sea, and Clonfert which is inland, are knotted together as the lands and people St. Brendan loved and served. He was 93 when he breathed his last, departing for his heavenly homeland after a lifetime of sojourning and missionary labors for the sake of the Kingdom of God, drawing so many with him. St. Brendan, pray to God for us.
If Dingle Peninsula and places associated with St. Brendan is a favorite of ours in western Ireland, Glendalough is a favorite in the east. It is a majestic valley at the base of two lakes, the Upper and Lower Loughs, framed by hills leading to the Wicklow Pass. As they say, "Glendalough: somber sometimes, lovely always."
Glendalough is home to the spiritual community founded by St. Kevin (Coemgen in Irish meaning of a gentle or shining birth) in the 6th century. St. Patrick foretold of a great monastic center at Glendalough 30 years before St. Kevin's birth, and it's been known as one of the four great pilgrimage sites in Ireland. It's still a favorite destination of pilgrims and tourists alike, drawn to its natural beauty and sense of sanctity.
St. Kevin was of the royal blood of Leinster, the Provincial Kingdom in southeast Ireland. According to tradition, 12 angels with golden lamps attended his baptism by St. Cronan. At seven years of age, he went to live and study at a monastery, nurtured and instructed by St. Petroc of Cornwall.
St. Petroc was the son of a Welsh Chieftain (King) and one of the three patrons of Cornwall along with St. Piran and the Archangel Michael. He was a missionary throughout Dumnonia (the region of Cornwall and Devon and southwest England) as well as in Brittany. His first monastic center was on the west coast of Cornwall at Lanwethinoc (Church of Wethinoc, an earlier holy man), now called Padstow (Petroc’s Place). His primary monastic center was further inland at Bodmin, initially associated with St. Guron. There’s still two holy wells in Bodmin, one dedicated to St. Guron, as well as the ivory casket which contained St. Petroc’s relics. Some of his relics remain at the Cathedral in Exeter.
Some time after St. Kevin was ordained, he set off in search of a place of sanctuary guided by an angel. This took him through the Wicklow Mountains, itself a place of rare beauty, until he arrived at Glendalough. He spent 7 years in seclusion, not interacting with a single soul and feeding on wild nuts and plants as nature provided. His dwelling was a cave in the hillside of the Upper Lake, now called St. Kevin's bed. He's one of numerous Irish saints notable for his affinity to wild animals and their tameness in his presence - a bird that built its nest in his hand, a wild boar seeking shelter in his cloak from hunters, and an otter who returned his Psalter dropped in the lake as he recited his "divine office," to name a few.
After this period of seclusion and solitude, he was instructed by an angel to once again enter the society of men to instruct them. Others began to gather around him, and in time Glendalough became the great monastic center and school St. Patrick had prophesied. As with many of the other saints of the time, St. Kevin was close to many holy men and women of the period. He visited St. Columba and St. Comgall of Bangor, along with St. Cannich (Kenneth), on his way to spend time with his “soul friend,” St. Ciaran of Clonmacnois. It was St. Kevin who administered “last rites” to St. Ciaran after the two had conversed for a considerable time on holy matters.
The foundation of St. Kevin’s cell on the Lower Lough, originally of ‘beehive’ shape found on Skellig Michael and elsewhere, is still there today. The first church of the monastic city that grew around him is called Reefert Church (or Church of the Sepulchers), because it is the resting place of numerous Kings of Leinster. Farther down the valley is the church dedicated to him called St. Kevin's Kitchen and numerous other stone churches built upon the originals, seven in all. One of these is the Church of Our Lady wherein he was laid to rest.
There was also a willow tree at Glendalough that bore apples until at least the 12th century, as recorded by Gerald Cambrensis, and it was stated the apples were much prized throughout the whole of Ireland. The story is a young boy in St. Kevin’s care asked for an apple, and “the servant of God blessed one of the willows and immediately through his prayers sweet apples grew thereon.” Another special tree was a yew planted by St. Kevin himself. In many of the old monastic sites in both Ireland and throughout the UK, yew trees abound. Besides being evergreen some of them are as old as 2,000 years, dating to or near the time of Christ. Trees with special qualities are a unique feature associated with the Celtic lands and religious establishments beginning with the Glastonbury Thorn - planted by Joseph of Arimathea according to legend – that bloomed at Christmas time in addition to it’s normal spring blossom.
Other treasures preserved at Glendalough for many centuries included the harp of St. Kevin and relics he brought from a pilgrimage to Rome where he was warmly received and honored. His travels also included places in Scotland where a number of churches bear his name. Despite his rigorous asceticism, at times fasting for long days nourished only by angels and cross vigils standing in the lake, he lived to 120 years old according to his "life."
Our first visit to Glendalough was in late October, mist clinging to the valley amidst a patchwork of fall colors, and in the morning light it indeed had a somber tone. This added to, rather than detracted, from its beauty. This trip was at the beginning of the summer on an idyllic day, Glendalough shining in glory and bathed in sunlight. Distinct from the other time and season, but just as lovely. As the hostess of our BNB said, there's never a time or season when Glendalough isn't beautiful. Little wonder St. Kevin, when he had passed through the Wicklow Gap, settled in and chose this picturesque valley of two lakes as his “place of resurrection.” St. Kevin, pray to God for us!