10th century round tower - attached
Sea horses glisten in summer
Perhaps this stanza from a seventh-century poem resembles the vision of Saint Brendan, about one hundred years earlier, standing on top of one of Ireland’s highest mountains overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. After this experience he felt compelled to build a boat for himself and fourteen followers, and set sail for the unknown beyond the horizon, on a quest for the Blessed Isles.
Legend has it that he eventually reached the ‘Promised Land of the Saints’, which may or may not have been the American continent, long before Columbus set sail to the west. The latter obviously knew the book The Voyage of Saint Brendan (Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis, c.800 AD), since he personally referred to the legend before he departed. By that time (1492), the story of St. Brendan was translated into many European languages and was highly popular. By this means the Celtic Christian monk had been inspirational to many hundreds of thousands, adventurers, missionaries and pilgrims alike.
Legends tend to be very elusive, overtly romanticized and merely seem to deal with the distant past. Nevertheless, a visit to the Dingle peninsula of Co. Kerry, Ireland, brings it all back to life. The Brandon area is not only magnificently mountainous, but also steeped in legend and folklore. With some knowledge of Celtic mythology and pre-Christian traditions, one can discern an amazing cultural continuity, starting in the Bronze age and continuing until the present day.
Very tangible proof for a truthful core of the legends surrounding St. Brendan is to be found on top of the mountain which seems to be called after him: Cnoc Bréanainn or Mount Brandon. Hidden by clouds for a good deal of the year, at a height of about 3,000 ft. there still are the remnants of an oratory and a beehive-like hut close to a well, dating from the 6th century AD. Brendan (c.489-c.570) is said to have built them here himself. During his long life, he is said to have founded many more churches and monastic sites, the most famous and influential being that of Clonfert in Ireland. Brendan’s name recurs in several place names along the west coasts of Britain, where he is also said to have travelled.
Yet he owed his widespread fame throughout Europe in later centuries to that high point of Mount Brandon, from where he must have ‘seen’ the magical place that he was to venture to.
TIR NA NOG
'And magical it was. Brendan and his companions encountered many wonderful things during their seven year quest'. But then, underneath this superficial story-line, there is so much more to discover. The roots of this legend go much deeper.
In Celtic mythology there is a persistent tradition about the location of Tir na nOg (the Land of Youth) or Tir Tairngiré (the Land of Promise), far away in (or underneath) the western ocean. It was said to be a place of magic, residence of the gods, and ultimate location of the Otherworld where the ancestors dwell. The story about St. Brendan’s travels directly taps into this rich vein of mythology and ancient folk-legend. By the time the Navigatio was committed to paper, belief in the existence of Tir na nOg may have been suppressed by the rapidly growing influence of the Church, but undoubtedly it was still very much alive, especially in the more remote rural areas. Otherwise the narrator of St. Brendan’s voyage would probably not have bothered to ‘Christianize’ the name of this magical place in the western seas by calling it the ‘Promised Land of the Saints’.
Essentially, the tale of St. Brendan’s wanderings bears very strong resemblance to a much older type of story, called ‘immrama’ in Irish. These wonder-tales relate encounters upon a series of Otherworldly islands. In The Voyage of Maelduin, for example, the hero visits thirty-three islands that provide a coherent map of the Otherworld. Thirty-two of them fall into four categories of encounter. There are physical challenges of existence, purification of emotions, purification of the soul, and realization of Otherworldly wisdom. The thirty-third island marks the path of assimilation and return. The characteristics of the immram story are reminiscent of even older shamanic practices. Examination of St. Brendan’s wanderings before his eventual return to Ireland shows a similar pattern. Hence one could conclude that the Celtic Church adopted the immram tradition with regard to illumination of the soul’s quest. No wonder St. Brendan became the shining example for tens of thousands of pilgrims every year, who were looking for purification of their souls on top of ‘his’ mountain.
Brendan’s preparation for his journey provides material for another legend connected to the Brandon area. The Voyage of Saint Brendan is very explicit about what kind of ship he built and how he did it. Today, one can still see the same ‘curragh’ type of boats around the west coast of Ireland. They have a wooden frame, which is covered with tarred animal skin, and a small sail that can be lowered together with the mast. Highly movable, these seaworthy boats are ideal for manoeuvering between the sharp rock peaks that make the Ireland's west coast virtually impenetrable for larger ships. For his own special purpose Brendan needed an even more durable framework than the type used in existing vessels. So he went to the magical grove of Clochán Sidh, near the present day town of Cloghane in the Brandon area, to acquire some oak wood that possessed Otherworldly properties. In order to be able to cut down the trees, firstly he had to banish the guardian wild boar (often a Celtic metaphor for Otherworldly powers) to a nearby lough, where it is still said to appear every seven years... This is not where St. Brendan’s connection with the Otherworld ends. In fact, his name is unmistakeably intertwined with the world of the gods. Because of the existing veneration of this Celtic Saint, one could say with much truth that the old pre-Christian traditions in the Brandon area are as alive as they were in their Celtic heyday.
MIX OF TRADITIONS
It is interesting to walk around the Mount Brandon area, knowing about the St. Brendan legends. But the whole experience deepens when other somewhat confusing aspects are taken into consideration as well.
For instance, the name of the mountain, Brandon, has a slightly different spelling to that of the saint's name. This may prove to be more than just a corruption over many centuries. Like with the well-known St. Brigit, Brendan also has a godlike counterpart from the pagan Celtic past.
Brandon Point is known in Irish as Srón Bhróin - the Nose of Bran. Like most Celtic gods, Bran has many qualities and appearances. He is often associated with the sea and there are many stories about his sea voyages, which predate those which relate to St. Brendan. Many similar themes occur in both stories, suggesting that parts of St. Brendan's Voyage is a retelling of an earlier tale. In fact, the verse that opened Part One of this article (see Celtic Connections issue 23) is from The Voyage of Bran, but could easily be applied to Brendan's adventures as well.
Bran is also known as the Raven God. In Welsh, 'bran' literally means 'raven' or 'crow'. Here we have a very interesting connection between ancient and modern myth. According to a story in the Welsh Mabinogion collection of poetic mythology, Bendigeid Bran (Bran the Blessed) is a god-king who, after being mortally wounded in battle, orders his followers to cut off his head and bury it on White Hill, located in what is now present-day London. After many otherworldly adventures they do this, letting the head face to the east in perpetual protection of Britain against invaders. On the same spot the Tower of London now stands, home to the renowned colony of tame ravens kept in perpetuity by the Crown and guarded by Beefeaters. Modern day popular myth still has it that as long as the ravens are present, Britain will be safe from conquest.
The Srón Bhróin place name originates from a tale that Bran lay along the coast off Brandon Point to protect all living beings in that area. In a topographical way Bran is still present: whereas the coastal point is said to have been his nose, the nearby peak Más na Tiompáin refers to the angle of his hip or rump. The mouth of a river and a creek were considered to be his eyes. Is it coincidence that this same area houses the largest population of Choughs (members of the crow family) in Western Europe?
The local folklore of the Brandon region offers other intruiging mixes of pagan and Christian traditions. The story goes that St. Brendan was instrumental in converting the Celtic god Crom Dubh. Local tales about the confrontation between Christian missionaries and pagan deities often portray Crom Dubh as the representative of the pagan religion. It could well have been the early Christians who gave this name to the Celtic gods, because the literal meaning may be taken as 'dark side' or 'black twist'. According to another explanation, Crom Dubh may have been a genuine Celtic deity, representing the dark or shadow side of all aspects of life.
A carved stone head of Crom Dubh, located within the walls of the now ruined medieval church of Cloghane, is believed to be verification of St. Brendan's triumph. Interestingly, in pagan times, the Celts considered the head as a very sacred and potent object. A beaten enemy was often decapitated by his victor. The head was taken home as a trophy, being placed on a stake or hung above the entrance of the warrior's home. The Celts believed that by this act they were endowed with the power of the enemy's soul and wisdom. Thus the carved head of Crom Dubh in Cloghane's church presents a wonderful mix of pagan and Christian traditions.
The carved head was stolen in August 1993 and has not been recovered. Unfortunate as this may be, it does lead us to another interesting example of continuity in pre-Christian and Christian Celtic culture: the August festival of Lughnasadh. If we consider Crom Dubh as being the representative of pagan religion as a whole, seen through Christian eyes is quite likely that St. Brendan's Crom Dubh was the same as the Celtic god Lugh.
Apart from the god-hero Bran, Mount Brandon is strongly associated with Lugh or his Welsh equivalent Llwch or Lleu. He was one of the major Celtic gods, who was widely revered not only in Ireland and Wales, but in all the other Celtic countries too, as well as certain regions in Europe. During the festival of Lughnasadh, at the beginning of August, he was especially honoured. In modern Irish, Lúnasa still is the name for the month of August. According to ancient tradition, Lugh died on the first Sunday of that month. Ancinet festivities and fairs to honour and commemorate him could last for several days or even weeks. In this context, the recent disappearance of the stone-carved Crom Dubh head in that specific month makes up for yet another local mystery with a supernatural ring to it...
Lugh was the master of all skills; at Lughnasadh up to recent times all kinds of sports and games of skill were organized. The horse racing contests in the Irish Tailtean or Teltown in the beginning of August are famous and date back to time immemorable. Lugh is also associated with the first harvest, as consort of the goddess of abundance. The Christian festival of Lammas ('Lugh-mass', also at the beginning of August) still echoes this aspect.
The name Lugh means 'light' or 'shining', which points to his role as the god of divine inspiration and enlightenment - generally speaking he represents the triumph of light over darkness. This explains why the veneration of Lugh was predominantly carried out on mountaintops and other high places, these being the optimal palces to observe sunrise and sunset. Later, the Christian church supplanted the mythology of Lugh by that of the Archangel Michael. If we think of Mount Brandon's Crom Dubh as the 'dark' counterpart of Lugh (who himself represents the light), then the Church ensured that St. Brendan traded places with Lugh to triumph over Crom Dubh himself, thus continuing an ancient and deeply rooted tradition, but now within a Christian framework.
Together with the famous Croagh Patrick in Co. Mayo, Mount Brandon is listed as one of the major places of Lugh veneration. Understandably so, because these two are the highest mainland mountains in the extreme west of the Celtic world to catch the light of the setting sun.
It is not sure when the mountain first became the site of worship, but there is, in a nearby valley, a standing stone deliberately shaped to resemble the mountain, and it appears to be directly in line with the summit. This monument is generally associated with the Bronze Age (2200 - 500 BC), and may indicate that the mountain was of significance during this early period. It was certainly the centre of an important Celtic festival, held on Domhnach Crom Dubh (Crom Dubh's Sunday), which always fell on the last Sunday of July (i.e. more or less coinciding with the Lughnasadh date).
When the festival was later adopted by the early Christians and became associated with the cult of St. Brendan, pilgrimage to Mount Brandon continued. As Brendan's popularity increasingly grew, due to the widespread publication of The Voyage of Saint Brendan, Mount Brandon thus became one of the major Irish sites of pilgrimage with its annual peak of visitors and activities seasonally coinciding with the earlier Lugh associated festival. Yet in the 19th century pilgrimage declined. In a dramatic attempt to revive it, Bishop Moriarty of Kerry organised a large-scale celebration in 1868, which was attended by 20,000 pilgrims. The cathedral choir of Killarney sang high mass, and the Bishop himself was carried to the summit. Though never repeated on this scale, from that moment onwards the date of the event was moved back one month to the last Sunday of June, thus breaking the chronological relationship with the ancient Celtic festivities on the mountain.
Nevertheless, for those who know about the origins of topographical names, mythology, cultural customs and folklore, the Celtic connections with Mount Brandon area will never fade.
- © Paul Kramer