Before I wander off on the rabbit trail of the day, just wanted to thank those of you who've taken the time lately to leave comments. It's so nice to hear what you think!
A bright icy blue sky. The dogs come in puffing, with beards of ice around their muzzles, tails wagging for a snack. Still COLD, but at least it's not snowing right now. (It will again, soon.)
I just finished The Brendan Voyage by Tim Severin. (You can read more about Tim here.) Severin and his mates set out in a curragh (an Irish traveling vessel, made by stretching oak-cured oxhides on a wooden frame, then greasing it to waterproof) to prove that Irish monks could have traveled the Atlantic, even to setting foot in the New World hundreds of years before the Norse did.
Their inspiration: the travels of St. Brendan, one of Ireland's early monastic saints, who was instrumental in setting up a string of monasteries. His travels, primarily by curragh, were documented in the Navagatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis, or 'The Voyages of St. Brendan.' More than 120 different manuscripts have been documented of this story, the earliest c.800 A.D., and all show a remarkably similar pattern. They end with Brendan's arrival, after seven years of voyaging off and on, at the Promised Land of the Saints. There Brendan & co. are met by a strange young man who knows their names, and suggests they load themselves down with fruit before returning by the 'direct route' to Ireland.
To this point, modern-day historians were quick to torpedo the idea of Brendan traveling anywhere. An old-style curragh couldn't make it across a bay, let alone the Atlantic, without sinking, they said. How could water-soaked leather and a light wooden frame hold up? (Interestingly enough, Severin tried a number of different alternatives without success before finding that the materials mentioned in the Navagatio were correct -- oak-curing for the oxhides, oak and ash for the boat, and sheep's wool grease for the lubricant. Even the old-style woolen clothing and dried fruit, nuts and smoked meats for provisions proved more efficient than modern alternatives.)
Severin's curragh, the Brendan, successfully navigated to several of the islands mentioned in Brendan's travels, and visited others that fit the descriptions of mystery locations. It put in successfully to Iceland. The boat even was hit and 'holed' in the Greenland ice pack, but was repaired by stitching a leather patch on the boat's side -- not long before, a modern steel icebreaker sank under the same conditions.
And finally, on June 26, 1977, the Brendan, carrying Severin and his three shipmates, landed at the New World: Peckford Island in Newfoundland.
This brings the reader to some interesting conclusions. We've been told (and shown, thanks to archaeological expeditions) that the Norse did establish at least one short-lived outpost on Canadian soil. L'Anse aux Meadows proves that -- suggesting that the sagas of Leif Ericson and 'Vinland' are indeed true.
Could St. Brendan and his monkish companions, who lived hundreds of years earlier, have beaten the Norse to the New World?
The Norse did document finding evidence of Irish-style buildings in Greenland and Iceland, when they arrived to colonize those farflung places. And they mentioned speaking to 'Skraeling' (natives) in Vinland who said that men with similar pale skins lived nearby. (According to the natives, they wore white and marched holding long strips of cloth on poles while shouting -- the Norse concluded they were talking about Irish religious processions.) There are a few other mentions of Gaelic being overheard, etc. But those references are sparse.
Until an Irish outpost is found and excavated, the proof, like the Nordic sagas, is just in written accounts that can be pooh-poohed as fanciful or figurative. But the implications the Navagatio -- and the evidence that an Irish curragh can indeed make it across the ocean -- are intriguing.
Severin has written several other books of exploration, including In Search of Robinson Crusoe and In Search of Genghis Khan. Those are on my reading list now, with anticipation.
(Another person's analysis of the 'Irish in America' question is here. A more detailed look here. And a general summary of the subject by Russell Freedman, including Columbus, Leif Ericson and St. Brendan, is here. His book for teens, Who Was First?, sounds interesting.)