#80: IRISH VOYAGES: COMPARE AND CONTRAST. When Tim Severin in 1976 left Ireland in a small vessel adventurously aimed west—the trip recorded in THE BRENDAN VOYAGE (McGraw Hill, 1978)—it was just the latest (and most daring) acknowledgement of the stubborn hold St. Brendan keeps on the Irish imagination—one still surfacing in retellings, translations, stained glass, civic sculpture and, most tellingly, in “The Disappearing Island,” the lovely penultimate poem in Seamus Heaney’s collection THE HAW LANTERN (Faber, 1987). The story of St. Brendan’s life and voyage exists in several redactions in several European languages—his story is a meeting point of the genres of saints’ lives and the native Irish tradition of the immrama, the sea voyage to fantastic places. Part of the lure is, of course, the tale’s possible truth. Did Brendan reach not only Iceland, but Greenland, even Newfoundland? Is the Isle of Choirs Shakespeare’s “still-vext Bermoothes”? It’s a question to let your imagination run on, and run riot it has with many people. But behind all this is the Latin text, the Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis, with its Christian tone of reverence and wonderment. Where the monks go, they offer up Mass and celebrate the churchly year; it is a stability they carry within, as it must have been carried by Columcille and all the itinerant and self-exiled Irish saints. John J. O’Meara’s fine translation THE VOYAGE OF SAINT BRENDAN: Journey to the Promised Land (Colin Smythe, 1976) has woodcuts from a fifteenth-century German edition—the perfect accompaniment, as Brendan’s monks move through the enameled landscapes of medieval illumination.
That interior point of balance is what is missing and destroyed in the Irish tale of Sweeney, the medieval Buile Suibhne. Sweeney is a local king who runs afoul of a cleric, Ronan Finn; he destroys Ronan’s psalter, kills one of his novices, and falls prey to Ronan’s curse, one of those utterances of “dark rending energy” of the legendary Irish temper. (Cleric, yes; mild-mannered, no.) Sweeney goes through a strange, avian transformation: “He was revolted by thought of known places / and dreamed of strange migrations…. / he levitated in a frantic and cumbersome motion / like a bird of the air.” From there Sweeney lives herded from place to place by his panics, hiding in trees and shrubs, living on watercress, “bird-brain among branches”—and gives utterance to poems, as Seamus Heaney says, “piercingly exposed to the beauties and severities of the natural world.” And as they accumulate the names of the actual Ireland Sweeney traverses—“From Galtee to Liffey / I was swept along and driven / through bitter twilight / to the slopes of Benn Bulben”—what happens is almost the opposite of the effect of Brendan’s voyages from a known Ireland to strange isles: Sweeney’s poems set a layer of strangeness and fantasy over the familiar map of Ireland. And while the Navigatio is a thorough Christian work, the Buile Suibhne is “in the grip of a tension between the newly dominant Christian ethos and the older, recalcitrant Celtic temperament.” However you want to read it—even, as Heaney says, as “a quarrel between free creative imagination and the constraints of religious, political and domestic obligation”—it’s a story that burrows down in and stays in your mind—roaring, pathetic and wind-chilled. Seamus Heaney’s great translation is called SWEENEY ASTRAY (Faber, 1984) and it ranks with the best work of this gifted and prolific poet.
The first voyage of Patricius, the fifteen-year-old son of a well-to-do fifth century Anglo-Roman family, was involuntary: he was kidnapped by seafaring marauders, spirited away to a distant island, and made a slave. After six years of slavery—which served, paradoxically, to deepen his Christian faith—he was helped by dream-visions to escape his keepers, and worked his passage for his voyage home. Upon returning to England, a sense of evangelical mission grew upon him: he completed his education, took orders, and returned to the island of his captors to work for their conversion—becoming thereby the colossal figure of Irish myth and history, St. Patrick, whose name is associated with Ireland even by people who couldn’t find Ireland on a map. He is the patron saint of Ireland and the main figure of Catholic Irish reverence; but he is, when you look a bit more closely, a strangely elusive figure. In some of the early Irish poetry and some of the Fenian tales, all the way forward to Yeats’s “Wanderings of Oisin,” Patrick and his Christian monks are seen as party-stoppers, keg-corkers and killjoys (a view of Christianity which has by no means died out). No more hunting and drinking and tale-telling—Mass and prayers and self-denial. The party’s over, boys. On the pro-Patrick side, there are legends and miracles (driving the snakes out of Ireland, etc.), Muirchu’s short hagiographic life, one extraordinary lyric, “The Breastplate,” of dubious ascription, and two pieces of Latin prose from Patrick’s hand, the Letter to Coroticus and the Confession. From none of them, nor from Phillip Freeman’s trim and intelligent biography ST. PATRICK OF IRELAND (Simon and Schuster, 2004) have I ever been able to get any sense of the man. The impersonality of the Latin, even in translation, is like the figures in medieval illumination, behind which no psychology lurks. Freeman’s book is good on period and setting, restrained in speculation and embroidery, and nicely readable—you’ll know more coming out than going in. But much, almost all, of Patrick will remain hidden, including the most heartbreaking mystery of all—the end of his mission. In the Confession, it is plain that he has riled his British ecclesiastic superiors, and that he is being called on to face charges and discipline—we hear from Patrick the panic and rage of a man being pulled from a work he has given his life to, and that he loves. And it’s there our knowledge of Patrick stops short. Barring fresh historical evidence, we’ll never know if Patrick was called to return to England in disgrace—a final voyage as little welcome as the first.
The medieval period in Ireland may be my favorite period in all of history, and there are a rafter of readable and popular books on the subject: THE FLOWERING OF IRELAND: Saints, Scholars and Kings, by Katharine Scherman (Little Brown, 1981), EARLY CHRISTIAN IRELAND, by Liam and Maire de Paor (Thames and Hudson, 1978); THE QUEST OF THE THREE ABBOTS, by Brendan Lehane (Viking, 1969); THE IRISH TRADITION, by Robin Flower (Clarendon, 1948); CELTIC HERITAGE, by Alwyn and Brinley Rees (Thames and Hudson, 1989). Christopher Bamford’s CELTIC CHRISTIANITY: Ecology and Holiness (Lindisfarne, 2000) is a good anthology. Francoise Henry’s three beautiful volumes on early Irish art are out of print but you can probably find them if you have access to a decent academic library. Bruce Arnold’s IRISH ART: A CONCISE HISTORY (Thames and Hudson, 1989) is a good introduction.
The best-illustrated book on the period I know of is Peter Harbison’s guide ANCIENT IRELAND: From Prehistory to the Middle Ages (Oxford, 1996), with wonderful photos by Jacqueline O’Brien. There’s currently a reprint of Muirchu’s Life of St. Patrick from Nabu Press; it’s also easily found online.