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Land to the West: St Brendan’s Voyage to America

By Geoffrey Ashe

Was an Irish priest who lived some time during the fifth century the first European to travel to America? Eminent historian Geoffrey Ashe examines the legendary voyage of Saint Brendan.

The discovery of America is a question which has preoccupied historians for centuries. Long before Columbus brought his three little ships to the Bahamas, man had speculated about the existence of land over the Western Ocean. It is now accepted that the Vikings probably made the crossing, by a different route, sometime in the tenth century. But even before the Vikings, there was a tradition set forth in writing which affirmed that the Irish sailor-saint Brendan had found his way, hundreds of years earlier, to a mysterious coast straight out across the Atlantic from his native Ireland.

In the earliest full account of Saint Brendan’s voyage, the Navigatio Sancti Brendani, there are striking affinities between phenomena recorded as encountered by the saint and the real topography of the North Atlantic. Islands of sheep and birds, an isolated rock, an island of hellish fire and a crystal arch correspond closely with the Faeroes, Rockall, the volcano Hekla in Iceland, and a typical iceberg formation. How much of all this did Saint Brendan see with his own eyes? 

Geoffrey Ashe investigates suspected megaliths in New Hampshire, Mexican ringed crosses oddly reminiscent of Ireland, and the famous bearded white men of South American sculpture and legend. Lastly, he tries to establish whether the story of Saint Brendan’s Voyage was a significant influence on the plans of Columbus. 

The resulting book is not only a piece of exciting historical detection – in the manner of the author’s Arthurian studies – but a book to fire the imagination on man’s earliest exploration of the globe. 

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