Could St. Brendan have beaten Columbus to America? Forty years ago, Tim Severin found out if it was possible, writes Jim Rees.
Tim Severin has been an ‘epic’ historian or archaeologist for over forty years. He takes historical stories, often little more than vague folklore, and recreates the equipment needed to put the truth of these tales to the test. Could they have really happened, using only the skills, knowledge and materials available to the mythical protagonists?
Since the 1960s, Severin has relived the voyages of Sinbad the Sailor, Jason of the Argo, Ulysses and Marco Polo, turning established theory on its head. But the adventure which concerns us here is his ‘Brendan Voyage’.
Discussions over who was the first European to set foot on the American continent invariably brings forth the names of Christopher Columbus and the Viking Leif Ericson. While written records show that Columbus did arrive in South America in 1492, it is now generally agreed that Eric beat him to it by 500 years, as evidenced by Viking remains in Newfoundland and even further west.
But even if Eric got there before Columbus, he was still quite a way behind the 6th century Irish monk St. Brendan – at least according to Irish folklore and an account of his voyages, Navigatio Brendanii, written a couple of centuries later.
When Severin learned of the Brendan story, he was determined to see if a boat made from cowhide lashed to a wooden frame – in fact, a large currach – really could have crossed the Atlantic a thousand years before Columbus.