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A Book of Discovery by  M. B. Synge

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IRISH EXPLORERS

[83] PATRICK had been a pilgrim to Rome from the banks of the Clyde, where he lived, and, having seen the Pope, he had returned to Ireland by sea, landing on the Wicklow coast in the year 482. Hungry and tired after the long voyage, he tried to get some fish from the fishermen, but they replied by throwing stones at him, and he put out to sea again and headed north, Past Bray Head, past the Bay of Malahide he sailed, but he could get neither fish nor food till he reached a spot between the Liffey and the Boyne, where he built, his first Christian church.

Now in the fifth century, when light first breaks over Ireland, it breaks over, a land torn by perpetual tribal strife, a land in the chaos of wild heathendom. It was reserved for St. Patrick to save her from increasing gloom.

Patrick and his companions now sailed on past Louth, by the low-lying shore with long stretches of sandy flats, on under the shadow of great peaks frowning over the sea. He landed near Downpatrick, founded another church, and spent the winter in these parts, for the autumn was far advanced. Spring found him sailing back to the Boyne and attacking the fierce heathen king at Tara, the capital of Ireland. From Tara five great roads led to different parts of the island. St. Patrick now made his way through Meath to the very heart of [84] the country, building churches as he went. Thence he crossed the Shannon, entered the great plain of Roscommon, passed by Mayo, and at length reached the western sea. He had now been eight years in Ireland, eight laborious years, climbing hills, wading through waters, camping out by night, building, organising, preaching. He loved the land on the western sea, little known as yet.

"I would choose

To remain here on a little land,

After faring around churches and waters.

Since I am weary, I wish not to go further."

St. Patrick climbed the great peak, afterwards called Croaghpatrick, and on the summit, exposed to wind and rain, he spent the forty days of Lent. From here he could look down on to one of the most beautiful bays in Ireland, down on to the hundred little islands in the glancing waters below, while away to the north and south stretched the rugged coast-line. And he tells us how the great white birds came and sang to him there. It would take too long to tell how he returned to Tara and started again with a train of thirteen chariots by the great north-western road to the spot afterwards known as Downpatrick Head; he passed along the broken coast to the extreme north where the great ocean surf breaks on the rugged shore, returning again to the Irish capital. He travelled over a great part of Ireland, founded three hundred and fifty churches, converted heathen tribes to Christianity and civilisation, and finally died at Armagh in 493. His work was carried on by St. Columba, a native of Ireland, who, "deciding to go abroad for Christ," sailed away with twelve disciples to a low rocky island off the west coast of Scotland, where he founded the famous monastery of Iona, about 563. Thence he journeyed away to the Highlands, [85] making his way through rugged and mountainous country that had stayed the warlike Romans long years before. He even sailed across the stormy northern sea to the Orkney Islands.

Let us picture the Scotland of the sixth century in order to realise those long lonely tramps of St. Columba and his disciples across the rough mountains, through the dense forests, across bleak moors and wet bogs, till after dreary wanderings they reached the coast, and in frail ships boldly faced the wild seas that raged round the northern islands.


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IRELAND AND BRANDON'S ISLE.

"We can see Columba and his disciples journeying on foot, as poor and as barely provided as were Christ and His disciples, with neither silver nor gold nor brass in their purses, and over a wilder country and among a wilder people."

These pilgrims tramped to and fro clad in simple tunics over a monkish dress of undyed wool, bound round the waist by a strong cord, all their worldly goods on their backs and a staff in their hands. The hermit instinct was growing, and men were sailing away to lonely islands where God might be better served apart from the haunts of men. Perhaps it was this instinct that inspired St. Brandon to sail away across the trackless ocean in search of the Island of Saints reported in the western seas. His voyage suggests the old expedition of Ulysses. A good deal of it is mythical, some is added at a later date, but it is interesting as being an attempt to cross the wide Atlantic Ocean across which no man had yet sailed. For seven years St. Brandon sailed on the unknown sea, discovering unknown islands, until he reached the Island of Saints—the goal of his desires. [86] And the fact remains that for ten centuries after this an island, known as Brandon's Isle, was marked on maps somewhere to the west of Ireland, though to the end it remained as mysterious as the island of Thule.

Here is the old story. Brandon, abbot of a large Irish monastery containing one thousand monks, sailed off in an "osier boat covered with tanned hides and carefully greased," provisioned for seven years. After forty days at sea they reached an island with steep sides, where they took in fresh supplies. Thence the winds carried the ship to another island, where they found sheep—"every sheep was as great as an ox."

"This is the island of sheep, and here it is ever summer," they were informed by an old islander.

This may have been Madeira. They found other islands in the neighbourhood, one of which was full of singing-birds, and the passing years found them still tossing to and fro on the unknown sea, until at last the end came. "And St. Brandon sailed forty days south in full great tempest," and another forty days brought the ship right into a bank of fog. But when the fog lifted "they saw the fairest country eastward that any man might see, it was so clear and bright that it was a heavenly sight to behold; and all the trees were charged with ripe fruit." And they walked about the island for forty days and could not find the end. And there was no night there, and the climate was neither hot nor cold.


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THE MYSTERIOUS ISLE OF ST. BRANDON IN MARTIN BEHAIM'S MAP, 1492.

"Be ye joyful now," said a voice, "for this is the land ye have sought, and our Lord wills that you laden your ship with the fruit of this land and hie you hence, for ye may no longer abide here, but thou shalt sail again into thine own country."

So the monks took all the fruit they could carry, and, weeping that they might stay no longer in this happy land, they sailed back to Ireland. Hazy, indeed, was the [87] geography of the Atlantic in the sixth century. Nor can we leave St. Brandon's story without quoting a modern poet, who believed that the voyage was to the Arctic regions and not in the Atlantic.

"Saint Brandon sails the Northern Main,

The brotherhood of saints are glad.

He greets them once, he sails again:

So late! Such storms! The saint is mad.

He heard across the howling seas

Chime convent bells on wintry nights;

He saw, on spray-swept Hebrides,

Twinkle the monastery lights:

But north, still north, Saint Brandon steered,

And now no bells, no convents more,

The hurtling Polar lights are reached,

The sea without a human shore."


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