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By William H. Babcock, LL.B.

The beginning of Irish navigation, like the beginning of everything else, is hidden in the mist of antiquity. Vessels of some kind obviously must have borne the successive waves of immigrants or invaders to the island. Naturally they would remain in use afterwards for trade, travel, exploration, and war. Irish ships may have been among those of the Breton fleet that Cæsar dispersed at Vannes after an obstinate struggle. Two or three centuries later we find Niall of the Nine Hostages making nautical descents on the neighboring shores, especially Britain: and there is every probability that ships of the island conveyed some at least of the “Scots” (Irish) whom Gildas in the sixth century describes as joining the Picts in furiously storming the Roman wall.

The equally adventurous but more pacific work of exploration went on also, if we may judge by that extraordinary series of Irish sea-sagas, the Imrama, comprising the Voyages of Bran, Maelduin, the Hui Corra, and St. Brendan the last-mentioned deservedly the most famous. These vary in their literary merits and in the merits of their several parts, for they have been successively rewritten at different periods, receiving always something of the color, belief, and adornment which belonged to the writer’s time; but under all may be dimly traced, as in a palimpsest, the remote pagan original. At their best they embody a lofty and touching poetry very subtle and significant, as when we read of Bran’s summoning by a visitant of supernatural beauty to the isles of undying delight, where a thousand years are but as a day; his return with a companion who had been overcome by longing for Ireland and home; the man’s falling to ashes at the first touch of the native soil, as though he had been long dead; and the flight of Bran and his crew from the real living world to the islands of the blessed. At least equally fine and stirring is St. Brendan’s interview with the exiled spirit of Heaven, whose “sin was but little”, so that he and his fellows were given only the pleasing penance of singing delightfully, in the guise of beautiful birds, the praises of the God who showed them mercy and grace, amid the charms of an earthly paradise. “Then all the birds sang evensong, so that it was an heavenly noise to hear.”

It is not very surprising that St. Brendan’s legend, with such qualities in prose and verse, made itself at home in many lands and languages, and became for centuries a widespread popular favorite and matter of general belief, also influencing the most permanent literature of a high contemplative cast, which we might suppose to be out of touch with it altogether. Certain of its more unusual incidents are found even in Arab writings of romance founded on fact, as in Edrisi’s narrative of the Magrurin explorers of Lisbon and the adventures of Sinbad related in the Arabian Nights; but perhaps here we have a case of reciprocal borrowing such as may well occur when ships’ companies of different nations meet.

The most conspicuous, insistent, and repeated feature of all these Imrama is a belief in Atlantic islands fair enough or wonderful enough to tempt the shore dwellers of Ireland far away and hold them spell-bound for years. It is easy to ascribe these pictures to sunset on the ocean, or the wonders of mirage; but all the time, within long sailing distance, there actually were islands of delightful climate and exceeding beauty. These had been occasionally reached from the Mediterranean ever since early Carthaginian times, as classical authors seem to tell us; why not also from Ireland, perhaps not quite so distant? It is undoubted that the Canary Islands were never really altogether forgotten, and the same is probably true of the Madeiras and all three groups of Azores, though the knowledge that lingered in Ireland was a distorted glimmering tradition of old voyages, occasionally inciting to new ventures in the same field.

Some have supposed, though without sufficient evidence, that Saint Brendan even made his way to America, and parts of that shore line in several different latitudes have been selected as the scene of the exploit. His first entry into serious geography is in the fine maps of Dulcert, 1339, and the Pizigani, 1367, both of which plainly label Madeira, Porto Santo, and Las Desertas “The Fortunate Islands of St. Brandan.” That there may be no possibility of misunderstanding, the Pizigani brothers present a full-length portrait of the holy navigator himself bending over these islands with hands of benediction. The inscription, though not the picture, was common, thus applied, on the maps of the next century or two, and no other interpretation of his voyage found any place until a later time.

Of course the fourteenth century was a long way from the sixth, when the voyage was supposed to have been made, and we cannot take so late a verdict as convincing proof of any fact. But it at least exhibits the current interpretation of the written narrative among geographers and mariners, the people best able to judge; and here the interval was much less. The story itself seems to corroborate them in a general way, if read naturally. One would say that it tells of a voyage to the Canaries, of which one is unmistakably “the island under Mount Atlas”, and that this was undertaken by way of the Azores and Madeira, with inevitable experience of great beauty in some islands and volcanic terrors in others. Madeira may well have been pitched upon by the interpreters as the suitable scene of a particularly long tarrying by the way. Of course magic filled out all gaps of real knowledge, and wonders grew with each new rewriting.

Whatever Brendan did, there is no doubt that Irish mariner-monks, incited by the great awakening which followed St. Patrick’s mission, covered many seas in their frail vessels during the next three or four centuries. They set up a flourishing religious establishment in Orkney, made stepping stones of the intervening islands, and reached Iceland some time in the eighth century, if not earlier. The Norsemen, following in their tracks as always, found them there, and the earliest Icelandic writings record their departure, leaving behind them books, bells, and other souvenirs on an islet off shore which still bears their name.

Did they keep before the Norsemen to America too? At least the Norsemen thought so. For centuries the name Great Ireland or Whitemen’s Land was accepted in Norse geography as meaning a region far west of Ireland, a parallel to Great Sweden (Russia), which lay far east of Sweden. The saga of Thorfinn Karlsefni, first to attempt colonizing America, makes it plain that his followers believed Great Ireland to be somewhere in that region, and it is explicitly located near Wineland by the twelfth century Landnamabok. Also there were specific tales afloat of a distinguished Icelander lost at sea, who was afterward found in a western region by an Irish vessel long driven before the storm. The version most relied on came through one Rafn, who had dwelt in Limerick; also through Thorfinn, earl of the Orkneys.

Brazil, the old Irish Breasail, was another name for land west of Ireland where there is none short of America on very many medieval maps, of which perhaps a dozen are older than the year 1400, the earliest yet found being that of Dalorto, 1325. Usually it appears as a nearly circular disc of land opposite Munster, at first altogether too near the Irish coast, as indeed the perfectly well-known Corvo was drawn much too near the coast of Spain, or as even in the sixteenth century, when Newfoundland had been repeatedly visited, that island was shifted by divers mapmakers eastward towards Ireland, almost to the conventional station of Brazil. Also, not long afterwards, the maps of Nicolay and Zaltieri adopted the reverse treatment of transferring Brazil to Newfoundland waters, as if recognizing past error and restoring its proper place.

The name Brazil appears not to have been adopted by the Norsemen, but there is one fifteenth century map, perhaps of 1480, preserved in Milan, which shows this large disc-form “Brazil” just below Greenland ("Illa Verde"), in such relation that the mapmaker really must have known of Labrador under the former name and believed that it could be readily reached from that Norse colony.

It seems altogether likely that “Brazil” was applied to the entire outjutting region of America surrounding the Gulf of St. Lawrence that part of this continent which is by far the nearest Ireland. Besides the facts above stated, certain coincidences of real geography and of these old maps favor that belief, and they are quite unlikely to have been guessed or invented. Thus certain maps, beginning with 1375, while keeping the circular external outline of Ireland, reduce the land area to a mere ring, enclosing an expanse of water dotted with islands; and certain other maps show it still nearly circular externally, and solid, but divided into two parts by a curved channel nearly from north to south. The former exposition is possible enough to one more concerned with the nearly enclosed Gulf of St. Lawrence and its islands than with its two comparatively narrow outlets; the second was afterward repeated approximately by Gastoldi’s map illustrating Ramusio when he was somehow moved to minimize the width of the Gulf, though well remembering the straits of Belle Isle and Cabot. There are some other coincidences, but it is unnecessary to dwell on them. Land west of Ireland must be either pure fancy or the very region in question, and it is hardly believable that fancy could guess so accurately as to two different interpretations of real though unusual geography and give them right latitude, with such an old Irish name (Brazil) as might naturally have been conferred in the early voyaging times. That an extensive region, chiefly mainland, should be represented as an island is no objection, as anyone will see by examining the maps which break up everything north of South America in the years next following the achievements of Columbus and Cabot. There was a natural tendency to expect nothing but islands short of Asia.

It seems likely, therefore, that America was actually reached by the Irish even before the Norsemen and certainly long before all other Europeans.