IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF ST.BRENDAN

- the most famous Kerryman .. the most famous Irishman .. of all times

            The big man's hair and his heavy, rich clothing are torn by a gale force wind.  The book of the gospels is gripped firmly in one of his hands and the other points west towards America.  

            On these days coming up to his feastday on May 16 the great bronze sculpture of St Brendan on top of Great Samphire Island on Fenit pier was a good place to start.  

            Panels along the steps climbing up to the sculpture give the outline of Brendan's amazing story.   At 2pm on Saturday June 9 Bishop Bill Murphy will bless new slate slabs that mark seven sites associated with Brendan.

            The island flora of the Faroes, the volcanoes of Iceland, the icebergs of Greenland, the fog off Newfoundland, the flowers and grapes of Florida .. all of these have been associated with descriptions in the accounts of Brendan's voyage to America between 564 to 571.

            We stood at the edge of the sand spit that joins the mainland to Fenit Island where it is said, on the night when Brendan was born here in 484, a bright light was seen for a great distance and thirty of the cattle of the local chieftain gave birth to thirty calves.   In this place Brendan developed his passion for God and the sea.

            After his ordination in 512 Brendan established his first monastery at Kilfenora (a short way from Fenit).   As well there were foundations in Ardfert, on Mt Brandon and many other locations in Ireland and all over Scotland.  Adamnan, an Abbot of Iona described him as 'the greatest founder of monasteries of them all'.   It is said there were over 3,000 monks in monasteries he had founded by the time of his death.

            From Cathair Airde – the home of Brendan's foster father – we looked down over Kerry Head, Banna, Barrow, Fenit, Tralee Bay and the Slieve Mish Mountains.   A herd of cattle were drawn from all parts of the great field by the singing of the Ardfert Ladies Gospel Choir.

            Brendan's greatest Kerry foundation was at Ardfert where the 12th century cathedral has now been magnificently restored.   Fr Gearoid O Donnchadha explained that the account of Brendan's huge voyage is “an exploration in poetic, imaginative and artistic form of the fundamental  questions of life  .. of a loving God who had forgiveness even for Judas”.

            Brendan journeyed to Britain and Brittany and was a friend of the three great saints of Wales – David, Cados and Gildas – and he taught St Malo.

            At Tobar na Molt/Weathers' Well outside Ardfert where Brendan was baptised

we heard that, following his people's expulsion from Kerry, Brendan followed them to Connaught where he established many more monasteries.   Clonfert became one of the great schools of Ireland.

            Our final stop was at Tearmon Erc where mounds of earth are all that now remain of Kerry's first cathedral presided over by Brendan's mentor St Erc, the first Bishop of Kerry.  

            Brendan had a lifelong friendship with some of the greatest Irish saints – Colmcille, Brendan of Birr, Kieran of Clonmacnoise, Kieran of Saighir, Ruadhan of Lorrha, Canice of Aghaboe and Kilkenny, Comgall of Bangor, Cormac of Durrow.  

            All of the 20 great schools of Ireland – that formed the Island of Saints and Scholars - were founded during the 200 years that straddled Brendan's 93 year life. Remember him next Wednesday May 16 and visit his places with Bishop Murphy on June 9.

                                                                                                                - Frank Lewis

                                                                                                                      May 8 '07

 

Slí Bhreanainn – The Brendan Way

 

Welcome to Slí Bhreanainn.  You are honouring Saint Brendan, one of the greatest of Irishmen. He is renowned as a missionary who spread the word of God along the coast of Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Brittany, and certainly as far as the Faeroe Islands. He is also renowned as an explorer of distant lands; many credit him with the discovery of AmericaColumbus, on the eve of his voyage to the West Indies said ‘I go to seek the promised land of Saint Brendan’.  So great was the reputation of Saint Brendan that he was given the title of The Navigator and, if he himself did not reach America, other Irish travelers did and their exploits came to be accredited to Brendan, the greatest of them all.  Brendan’s chief foundation was in 561 in Clonfert, County Galway, an area to which his people, the Altraighe, had migrated. Clonfert was one of the great schools of Ireland and influenced the development of Europe over the next 600 years. He also founded a convent for his sister Brig at Annaghdown, County Galway. It was here, with his sister, that Brendan died in 577, on May 16th, in his 94th year.

 

There are seven stations on the Slí Bhreanainn, each recalling aspects of Brendan’s life:

 

  1. Samphire IslandSaint Brendan Monument and Heritage Park.
  2. Fenit Island
  3. Kilfenora
  4. Cathair Airde
  5. Ardfert Cathedral
  6. Tobar na Molt – Wethers’ Well
  7. Lerrig – Tearmon Eirc

 

Some of the places on this trail are open to the public.  You are asked to respect the private property of owners where there is not public access.  Do not trespass where there is no right of access. Start on Samphire Island on Fenit pier.

 

1.  Saint Brendan Monument and Theme Park, Great Samphire Island, Fenit.

 

Slí Bhreanainn begins on Great Samphire Island in Fenit Harbour.  Now joined to the mainland by viaduct, (built in the early fifties, replacing a late 19th century wooden structure) it once provided shelter for ships serving Tralee that anchored in Fenit Roads, south-east of the Island.  The area saw sadness during the ten years after 1846 when famine ships took countless people from here to Canada and the United States.  The most famous of these ships was the Jeannie Johnston, whose replica graced Fenit docks briefly at the beginning of the second millennium. Today, Fenit is principally a fishing port and leisure centre with an expanding marina.

 

To the east can be seen the Blennerville windmill outside Tralee; to the south, Cathair Chonroí, a prehistoric hill fort that is shrouded in myth and that could communicate by fire with the Aran Islands, 65 miles to the north.  To the west is Mount Brandon, possibly named after Saint Brendan.  To the north-west are the Maharee Islands. One of these is Oileán tSeannaigh where there is quite a well preserved monastic settlement (c.600).  On Good Friday 1916 the German ship, the Aud, carrying munitions for the Easter Rising, lay to the north of the islands waiting for a signal from Fenit which didn’t come. To the north lies Fenit Island where Brendan was born in 484. Fenit Island Castle, of the Fitzmaurices, is on the north-east of the island.  It was destroyed in the Elizabethan war in 1580. Beyond Fenit Island is Kerry Head and the home of Bishop Erc at Kilvicadeaghadh.

 

The monument was sculpted by Tighe O Donoghue of Glenflesk and cast in Bronze by Cast of Dublin.  The boat-shaped plinth was constructed by local stonemasons Tom and Eugene Farrelly.  In keeping with the tradition of the Fianna, Brendan is depicted as following their battle strategy – glún le glaoi agus troig le taca (knee bent toward the battle tumult, rear foot against a support – so there could be no retreat), leaning into a force 10 storm, like those he must often have faced at sea on his own travels, with his cloak blowing out behind him, grasping the Gospel, pointing out to sea and urging ever forward to spread the word of God. 

 

The artifacts in the theme park, which is wheelchair accessible, are largely the work of Eoghan and D’Ana O Donoghue of Glenflesk.  Bas-reliefs under the statue depict scenes from the Navigatio (Voyage) of Brendan.  Further down are a depictions of a tri-circle motif from Newgrange, Co. Meath, a 5,000 year old burial chamber,, representing the unendingness of eternity; Ogham writing of 400-800AD; the Riasc stone near Ballyferriter, West Kerry c.700AD; a bronze age wedge grave, common in West Kerry; a clochán, or beehive hut, used by monks c.500-900AD, and a bullán, or Neolithic stone art, of which there are countless examples in Kerry.  Subscribers from all over the world paid for the park and statue with the help of Tuatha Chiarrai, the local LEADER group.  Partnership Trá funded the Slí Bhreanainn, the Brendan Way.

 

Go north, along the viaduct and R558 for 1,000 metres to the Post Office.  Turn left and go 900 meters to the start of the Causeway that leads to Fenit Island.

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2.   Fenit Island. 

 

Do not go beyond the limits of the beach. 

 

To the north is Fenit Island, or Fenit Within.  Near the castle to the north-east there are remains of two churches and a burial ground. There is also evidence of dense habitation in times past. Somewhere here is the most likely place of Brendan’s birth in 484AD.  His parents were Finlug of the Alltraighe and Cara of the Corca Dhuibhne.  He had brothers Domaingin, Faitleac and Faolán and a sister, Brig.

 

Together with Kilfenora (3), Fenit was one of the most important parishes in the diocese of Ardfert as evidenced by the taxation lists of 1300.  To the east can be seen the present parish church of Churchill and beyond it Cathair Áirde (4) the home of Áirde Mac Fidaigh, foster father of Brendan.  Slightly to north of east, five miles away, can be seen the spire of the present church of Saint Brendan in Ardfert (5).  Further to the north-east, beyond Banna Strand, lies Tearmon Eirc at Lerrig (7).  To the north, almost at the tip of Kerry Head, is Kilvicadeaghadh, the residence of Bishop Erc.

 

On the day of his birth came two important visitors.  First, came Áirde of Cathair Áirde (4) with gifts.  Bec Mac had foretold the birth of Brendan the previous night in Cathair Áirde.  Áirde was likely the local chieftain and he claimed Brendan (then named Mobhi) as his foster child. After a year with his parents, Brendan would spend the next four years with Áirde in his cathair in Listrim.  Next came Bishop Erc who had seen a bright light shine over Fenit the previous night. He took Brendan to Tobar na Molt (6)   for baptism.

 

Return south for 900 metres; turn left on R558 at the post office and go 2,000 metres. On your left is Kilfenora.  This is on a blind bend so please be careful.  There is no access to the site.

 

 

 

 

 

3.   Kilfenora

 

Kilfenora was also called Kilmore (Cill Mhór, the Great Church), stressing its importance in mediaeval times when it was associated with Fenit as one of the most important parishes in Ardfert Diocese.  Very little of this once great church is now visible above ground.  Its name, Kilfenora, shows it had to do with Brendan – he was possibly its founder, about 520 – as the name Fionnoir is a pseudonym of Brendan.

 

Carry on east for 950 metres; just beyond the Tankard turn left under the railway bridge.  Keep on this road for 2,800 metres to the second crossroads (Scrahan).  Be careful of the first crossroads (Ballygarron, at 1,200 metres) as it is blind and requires a zig-zag, left and right.   Turn left at the second crossroads and go 1,200 metres.  The highest point on your left is Cathair Áirde, about 400 metres in from the road.  There is no access.

 

 

 

4.  Cathair Áirde

 

This hill fort, clearly the home of a most important person, is named in the Beatha Bhreanainn, the Irish Life of Brendan, written in the first part of the eight century.  It is also named in 16th century maps and is so called to this day – a remarkable incidence of continuity, given the turbulent history of the area.  From the top, one is granted a superb view over Fenit Island, Barrow, Ardfert and the plain of North Kerry.  Very little is left of this ring-fort though its outline is quite clear.

 

The Irish Life tells us that, on the night of Brendan’s birth, Becus Mac , the ‘chief prophet of Ireland’ came to the house of Áirde Mac Fidaigh to announce to him “There will be born this night, between you and the sea, your true and worthy king, whom many kings and princes will adore….”. Airde’s own great-grandson would be Finian, founder of Inisfallen Abbey.

 

Carry on straight for 3.700 metres to Ardfert, passing the modern Church of Saint Brendan at 3,500 metres.  Cross the main Tralee-Ballyheigue road, R551, carefully and turn left.  150 metres ahead you will see Ardfert Cathedral.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5.          Ardfert Cathedral

 

Ardfert Cathedral is built on the site of a monastery founded by Saint Brendan about 520 AD.  This was probably a wooden structure of which nothing remains.  About 800 AD a ‘cyclopian’ church was built (A), using the huge stones that were incorporated into the North wall of a later church of c.1200. This site also included a Romanesque church built c.1145.  All these churches were burnt by Viking, Irish and Norman spoilers.  Clear evidence of burning can be seen in the north wall.   When the Romanesque church was destroyed, Teampall na hOighe (C, of the Virgin) was built c.1190, largely with material taken from the Romanesque church, of which the west wall and doorway remain (B).

 

The round tower, the tallest in Ireland, was built in Viking times and fell in an Easterly storm of 1771. (D)

 

Teampall na Griffin (H,c.1450) was built as a church for morning Mass. The imposing battlements were also added at this time.

 

In 1579 English soldiers took over the Cathedral for the ‘reformation’, installed the first Tudor bishop in 1588 and within thirty years reduced it to a ruin.  In 1641, Lord Kerry, whose castle was close to the East side of the Cathedral, sided with Cromwell and Confederates burned his castle.  Flames spread to the Cathedral and left it much as it is today.

 

In 1670, a ‘makeshift’ structure (K) was run up using ill-fitting material from Lord Kerry’s castle and from Teampall na Griffin which was destroyed in the process.  This structure served as Cathedral until the late 19th century when the whole site passed into the hands of the Irish Nation.

 

 

 

 

Go back the 150 metres onto the Tralee road (R551) and go east 350 metres towards Tralee.  Turn left at the Texaco station and go east for 2,000 metres; cross the Abbeydorney-Tralee road and go 1,500 metres to the Doon Road; turn left and go 100 metres.  Tobar na Molt is on your right about 350 metres through fields.  You may request permission to enter at the house next door.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6.            Tobar na Molt Wethers’ Well

 

Tobar na Molt is a holy well that has been a place of devotion since pagan times.  It is the source of the Tyshe river that supplied Ardfert in Brendan’s time.  It is a spring of pure water.  Near it is a mound that is thought by some to be the grave of Saint Ita, a friend of Brendan.  There is a large monument that may have been an altar or tomb from Ardfert Cathedral or Friary or from Kyrie Eleison Ab77bey in Abbeydorney. Three figures are on the front of this monument.  These are reckoned popularly to be Bishop Erc in the middle with Brendan and Ita on either side.  There is a legend that at one time a planter from Oakpark in Tralee tried to acquire the monument.  He hitched it to two bullocks and headed straight for Tralee through Doon.  However, near the top of the hill the bullocks stalled and nothing would persuade them to go further.  The planter had to unhitch his team and leave the monument.  Next morning it was back in Tobar na Molt.  Some say it came on its own, others say some locals went and retrieved it. The hill is since called Bullock Hill.

 

The source of the name is also a subject of controversy.  Some say that Áirde Mac Fidaigh gave three wethers as a baptismal fee to Bishop Erc for baptizing Brendan.  Others relate the name to an incident that occurred during penal times when priests were celebrating Mass at the well.  English redcoats with dogs came upon them and things looked very serious until three wethers jumped out of the well and led the dogs and soldiers north to a place near Ballyheigue called Akeragh – or Áth Caorach, the ford of the sheep - where they disappeared.  Meanwhile the hunted priests made their escape.

 

Bishop Erc brought Mobhi, as he was then called, to Wethers’ well for baptism.  Immediately, a white mist covered them and Erc, taking this as a sign, called the child Bréan  Fhionn (White drop or mist) which is the name by which he was known thereafter.  After baptism, Brendan returned to his parents for a year, after which he went as foster child to Áirde.  At age five he returned to his parents and to the tutelage of Bishop Erc.

 

Continue north to the Ardfert-Abbeydorney road (1,000 metres), cross it and wend your way 1,600 metres to the next T-junction.  Go right for 200 metres, go left for 100 metres and left again for 1,500  metres to the Ardfert-Causeway road.  Make a right and go north for 2,100 metres to Lerrig Cross. Make a left for Banna Beach and go 1,100 metres.  Tearmann Eirc is on the right. (Alternatively you may return to Ardfert and at the cross facing the Cathedral bear right for Causeway.  Lerrig Cross is 5,200 metres.)

 

  1. Tearmon Eirc

 

Tearmon Eirc (locally called the Múcán) has been venerated from time immemorial.   There is very little left of the place that was Bishop Erc’s See, just about half an acre of grass-grown mounds that have been jealously preserved from disturbance by the local people.  Tradition has it that this is the oldest church in Kerry.  The word Tearmon means Sanctuary and shows that this was a privileged place of refuge in troubled times, a place no one dared violate.  It was here that Brendan was ordained a priest about 510.  Meanwhile he had spent time in Connaught with Saint Jarlath and had learned the rules of the saints of Ireland.

Proceed west for 3,800 metres and turn left on R551 for Ardfert, 4,000 metres.  Banna Beach is on your right.  May God and Brendan go with you; go n-éirí do bhóthar leat.