An Unintentional Irish Pilgrimage

Sep 7, 2022

By Steve Beard

Of the more than 5,000 artifacts displayed floor-to-ceiling at The Little Museum of Dublin, few are more intriguing than a broken stained glass panel of Saint Brendan (484-577) hanging in a window. The scene portrays the beloved Irish holy man in a boat with three other monks. The poster-sized damaged window looks as though a golf ball or a mop handle knocked out a couple of sections of the illuminated glass – eliminating what once was Brendan’s face. 

Thankfully, the unique piece was rescued by an architectural historian after it was thrown out of a public building in Dublin. This was not merely an overly-pious salvage operation. The stained glass panel was the treasured work of the late Harry Clarke, one of Ireland’s most spectacular visual artists. He created more than 150 stained glass windows in Catholic churches, Protestant sanctuaries, and secular venues. Clarke’s depiction of Brendan – even fractured – was a triple-barrel celebration of Irish adventurism, faith, and artistry. 

Saint Brendan the Voyager (also known as the Navigator or the Bold) is one of the most celebrated ancient Irish heroes. His sea-faring nomadic spirit led him to set sail in the Atlantic to share the gospel message on distant shores 1,400 years ago. For some early Irish monks, there was a noteworthy phenomenon called peregrinatio pro Christa or “wandering for Christ.” Counterintuitively, it was a heartfelt notion that “leaving home” would free one’s soul to have a greater sense of home or intimacy with God. This is most dramatically illustrated with an incident recorded in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles in the ninth century. Three Irish monks were discovered off the coast of Cornwall, England, in a boat with no oars or rudder. “[We] stole away because we wanted for the love of God to be on pilgrimage, we cared not where,” the monks confessed.

Today, we don’t know the names of those wandering monks but Brendan’s journey lives on. Centuries after his passing, a Middle Ages blockbuster was published entitled The Voyage of Brendan (Navigatio) that chronicled his seven-year epic Atlantic journey – complete with run-ins with sea monsters and witnessing a volcano (“lumps of fiery slag from an island with rivers of gold fire”). Written by a narrator with literary embellishments and remarkable detail, the description of islands along his route have led some modern readers to believe he could possibly have reached North America hundreds of years before Columbus, Vespuci, or the Vikings. 

As unlikely as that may seem to modern sensibilities, so powerful was Brendan’s tale that adventurer Tim Severin recreated a trans-Atlantic voyage in 1977 in the exact type of open vessel that carried Brendan on his oceanic quest. Severin created a 36-foot, two-masted boat with an Irish oak and ash framework wrapped with tanned and wool-greased ox hides – exactly as Brendan’s boat was described. Following the original route, Severin and his small crew sailed more than 13 months, traveled 4,500 miles, arriving on Peckford Island, Newfoundland. Severin wrote about the expedition in The Brendan Voyage. Without proving the maritime saint actually reached North America, he demonstrated that it was undeniably possible. 

We will never know if Brendan the Navigator ever found the shores of North America, but we can, when faced with our own journeys and wanderings, take comfort in a simple prayer attributed to him: “Help me to journey beyond the familiar and into the unknown. Give me the faith to leave old ways and break fresh ground with you. Christ of the mysteries, I trust you to be stronger than each storm within me. I will trust in the darkness and know that my times, even now, are in your hand. Tune my spirit to the music of heaven, and somehow, make my obedience count for you.”

Unintended pilgrimage. Unlike Brendan and other ancient Irish monks, my sister, brother-in-law, and I were simply on vacation. We were wandering, alright – but it was largely the kind that produced white-knuckle exhilaration and moments of panic while driving 600 miles on the wrong side of the road through the Irish countryside. My sister and I were especially interested in travelling to the Emerald Isle because our maternal and paternal family lines emigrated to the United States from Ireland hundreds of years ago.

Although this was not a pre-packaged spiritual pilgrimage, it was almost impossible to overlook the structural remnants, artistic expressions, and long shadows of 1,500 years of Christianity in Ireland. Blossoming under the seismic spiritual and cultural upheaval introduced by the bold mission of St. Patrick in 422 – all without the use of violence and the sword – Christianity saturated Irish culture. During its heyday between the fifth and the seventh centuries, there were a captivating and colorful cast of saints that included Aiden of Lindisfarne, Brigit of Kildare, and Columba (also known as Colmcille).

Like the stained glass artwork in Dublin, there are missing pieces, broken bits, incomplete details, and yet undeniable beauty in Irish Christian history. Three particular touchpoints made an impression on me.

Kilmacduagh. One of our most memorable brushes with Irish antiquity was discovered accidentally on our way to a tourist-magnet. About an hour away from the Cliffs of Moher – stunning 700 foot sea cliffs on the west coast – we stumbled upon the ruins of Kilmacduagh Monastery near the town of Gort in County Galway. There were no tourists or guides and there was a ghost town silence as we walked around on the loose gravel pathways from one structure to the next and in-between the grave markers of the departed saints buried underfoot. 

Among the ancient stone slabs was the final resting place of Saint Colman Mac Duagh (560-632). After spending years in seclusion as a hermit in prayer and fasting, Colman transitioned in his spiritual journey to launch the monastery on this site in 610. In an interesting twist of history for a man who once lived a cloistered existence in a cave, Colman’s gold crozier (a pastoral staff with a curved top carried by a bishop or abbot symbolizing the Good Shepherd) is now displayed in the National Museum in Dublin.

One week after having walked through the ruins of Kilmacduagh, I was more than surprised to find myself face-to-face with Saint Colman in the Dublin City Gallery – one of the few artistic portrayals of the ancient saint. On display was a three-paneled stained glass depiction of Colman’s life from the late Wilhelmina Geddes, another world-class artist. Her illuminated glass work depicted an austere and brooding Colman on his journey from hermit to bishop and monastery abbot.

At the monastery, the skeletal stone remains – a cathedral, three small chapels, a two-story home for the abbot and monks – were built between the 11th and 14th centuries.The ancient slightly-leaning round tower – the tallest remaining in Ireland – is estimated to be from the 12th century. Previous structures had been destroyed. There is an otherworldly rush when you trace the mortar between the stones with your fingertips. I closed my eyes and imagined Irish monks 1,400 years ago walking from morning prayers to milking the cows or off to fix the roof of the chapel or transcribing ancient texts by candlelight. 

In 1995, historian Thomas Cahill wrote an international best-seller entitled How the Irish Saved Civilization about the vital importance of monasteries in Ireland that methodically transcribed literature – both sacred and secular – while barbarians were burning irreplaceable manuscripts and poetry in bonfires on the European continent. “Without the Mission of the Irish Monks, who single-handedly refounded European civilization throughout the continent in the bays and valleys of their exile,” wrote Cahill, “the world that came after them would have been an entirely different one – a world without books. And our own world would never have come to be.” 

In the last several decades, there has been an eager enthusiasm to learn more about the unique contributions of Celtic Christianity. Many of these books are in my library. But with each step on the gravel pathways, I was simply at peace with a rudimentary affirmation: God moved. God moves. Thanks be to God. Acknowledgment. Expectation. Gratitude.  

Belfast, Northern Ireland. Two hundred miles northwest of Kilmacduagh is Belfast, capital of Northern Ireland. Most tourists arrive in search of the world-class Titanic Belfast museum or to explore the natural phenomenon of polygonal rock columns called the Giant’s Causeway on the northern coast. 

For the visitor, it is unavoidable to drive through Belfast and not see the graffiti murals that reflect deeply held beliefs about past political and sectarian strife, “the Troubles,” and the underpinnings of reconciliation – or at least a lasting truce to end violence with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. 

Although usually identified with his teaching posts at Oxford and Cambridge, C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) was a son of Belfast. To those who grew up in church, Lewis’s work is most well-known through Mere Christianity and the Screwtape Letters. To those outside the faith (and within), Lewis is the celebrated author of The Chronicles of Narnia, a fantasy allegory filled with deep meaning and higher truth for children. Readers of the tale discover that the entrance for four young siblings into an enchanted and mystical world is through a seemingly ordinary wardrobe.

More than 20 years ago, the Belfast City Council commissioned visual artist Maurice Harron to sculpt characters from the seven-story Narnia series for placement in a square to celebrate Lewis’s story-telling gift. The striking figures portray both the valiant and villainous from the series: Aslan (the lion), Maugrim (the wolf), Mr. Tumnus (the faun), The White Witch, as well as Mr. and Mrs. Beaver. 

As I cast an eye upon the majestic Aslan, Lewis’s Christ-figure, my mind replayed the dialogue from the story as the children learn about Aslan. Mr. Beaver tells them, “He is King of the wood and the son of the Great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea. Aslan is a lion – the Lion, the great lion.”

The older sister, Susan, responds, “Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.” Mrs. Beaver responds, “If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”

“Then he isn’t safe?” asked her younger sister, Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

Sculptor Ross Wilson created a life-sized Narnian Wardrobe art piece called “The Searcher” for the square. “C.S. Lewis did not just hang clothes in a wardrobe, he hung ideas – great ideas of sacrifice, redemption, victory and freedom for The Sons of Adam and the Daughters of Eve. Set within the commonplace, revelation within something that looks ordinary on the outside – revelation through investigation,” wrote Wilson for the sculpture. “We should not stop looking, some of the greatest things can be found in the most ordinary of places, like a wardrobe.”

For his part, Lewis concluded the final chapter (“Farewell to Shadowlands”) of the Narnia series with an eye on the everlasting. “And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story,” he wrote. “All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

Dublin. Two hundred years before the Narnia tale was created, Jonathan Swift wrote Gulliver’s Travels – the satirical adventure of Lemuel Gulliver. The tale of faraway kingdoms, giants, scientists, talking horses, and Yahoos captured the vivid imagination of readers in 1726. 

Interestingly enough, Swift was also the dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral (Church of Ireland) in Dublin. The gothic sanctuary is built near a well that is believed to have been used by Patrick to baptize new converts to Christianity. Having grown up in low church Methodism, I still have an awe and fanboy enthusiasm for gothic cathedrals. St. Patrick’s didn’t disappoint. 

In the self-guided audio tour, it was mentioned that Swift once preached a four-and-a-half hour sermon. I laughed to myself and was reminded of a story Bono once told about his first visit to St. Patrick’s. Of course, Bono is the Dublin-born singer of the rock band U2, perhaps the most recognizable Irishman on the planet. He also grew up in Ireland looking through the unique prism of having a Catholic father and a Protestant mother.

“How come you’re always quoting the Bible?” asked journalist Michka Assayas in a remarkable set of published interviews with the singer several years ago. “Was it because it was taught at school? Or because your father or mother wanted you to read it?” In response, Bono tells the story of attending a Christmas Eve service at St. Patrick’s and the moment when the incarnation really made sense to him.

During the service, he was jetlagged and sitting behind a huge pillar. “But I was falling asleep, being up for a few days, travelling, because it was a bit boring, the service, and I just started nodding off, I couldn’t see a thing.” But then there was a spark of epiphany. “It had dawned on me before, but it really sank in: the Christmas story. The idea that God, if there is a force of Love and Logic in the universe, that it would seek to explain itself is amazing enough,” said Bono. “That it would seek to explain itself and describe itself by becoming a child born in straw poverty … I just thought: ‘Wow!’ Just the poetry … Unknowable love, unknowable power, describes itself as the most vulnerable.” 

The rock star who had become a believer in his teen years described gaining a deeper illumination and insight into an ancient and familiar story. “It’s not that it hadn’t struck me before, but tears came down my face, and I saw the genius of this, utter genius of picking a particular point in time and deciding to turn on this,” he said of the birth of Christ. 

“Love needs to find form, intimacy needs to be whispered. To me, it makes sense,” Bono said. “It’s actually logical. It’s pure logic. Essence has to manifest itself. It’s inevitable. Love has to become an action or something concrete. It would have to happen. There must be an incarnation. Love must be made flesh.”

Wandering through a legacy. Ireland has so much to offer the unintentional spiritual pilgrim, but I was most at peace as I sat amongst the flickering candles and stained glass in the stately sanctuary and thought about St. Patrick’s story of being kidnapped as a teenager in Britain and enslaved in Ireland, only to return as a missionary after a mystical dream helped him escape. He stirred up the Irish sense of righteous and heroic adventure – in his case, returning to the place of captivity and preaching liberation and a new way of living together. 

For its contribution to Western Civilization, Ireland is singled out as the Land of Saints and Scholars. But that designation is incomplete without the sea farers, story tellers, sculptors, stone masons, stained glass artists, and song writers.

In St. Patrick’s, surrounded by tourists like myself snapping photos, a few lines of a U2 song flittered through my mind: “You’re packing a suitcase for a place none of us has been/ A place that has to be believed to be seen.” For me, there was no better place to be reminded of that hope than wandering around Ireland. 

Steve Beard is the editor of Good News. Image: Kilmacduagh Monastery ruins in Gort, County Galway, in the Republic of Ireland. Photo by Steve Beard. 

1 Comment

  1. One of the best articles I have ever read in Good News Magazine.
    Thank you Steve for this terrific account of your inspiring journey.

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