Was an Irish monk the first European to reach America?

Explorer Tim Severin and his wife Dorothy beside a model of the kind of boat that a 6th century Irish monk could have used to sail to America.
Explorer Tim Severin and his wife Dorothy beside a model of the kind of boat that a 6th century Irish monk could have used to sail to America.
Courtesy Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Christopher Columbus gets the lion’s share of the credit for discovering America in 1492, but the evidence weighs heavily against him being the first on­e to find the New World. If Columbus had actually discovered America, he'd have found an unpopulated terrain, and of course, he didn’t. Anthropologists and archaeologists estimate that between 40 and 100 million Native Americans lived in the Americas when Columbus arrived, accounting for as much as one-fifth of the global population at the time [source: Mann]. Besides, some believe the Chinese beat Columbus by 80 years.

While Columbus may have been the first European to reach Central America, it is Giovanni Caboto who is the first to have arrived in North America, landing in Labrador, off the east coast of Canada, in 1497. So now we know, ­then: It was Caboto who was the first European to land in North America, right? Wrong again.

Caboto was beaten to North America by 500 years by the Vikings. Definitive proof of Norse habitation of Newfoundland, near Labrador, can be found at L’Anse aux Meadows, a Viking settlement dating to around 1000 C.E. The Vikings are the earliest group to leave behind tangible evidence of their presence. So were the Vikings the first? Not quite. Another group may have been the first Europeans to arrive in the New World: the Irish.

In the sixth century, St. Brendan, an Irish monk who was widely reputed as a skilled seafarer, is said to have undertaken an ambitious voyage. Brendan, along with a crew of fellow monks, sailed looking for Paradise, the Land of Promise of the Saints. After seven years exploring mysterious lands, he came upon what he believed to be the fabled paradise. It was an island so vast that he and his crew failed to reach the far shore after 40 days of walking. It contained a river that was too wide to be crossed. It was a wooded land, filled with lush fruits. He and his men filled their boats with gems they found there and returned home to tell of the news.

­It wasn’t until the ninth century that an account of Brendan's voyage surfaced, the Navigatio Sancti Brendani (“Travels of St. Brendan” in Latin). It was an instant hit, translated into several languages. The account talks of Brendan’s experiences, including his being pelted with rock from an island of fire, seeing a pillar of crystal and encountering a moving island before finally coming upon the Promised Land, which came to be referred to as the Fortunate Islands.

But as time wore on, the Navigatio -- along with St. Brendan himself -- passed into the realm of legend. If Brendan had lived -- as most scholars assume -- surely he couldn’t have traveled across the treacherous North Atlantic with the technology available at the time. Certainly, he couldn’t have beaten the Vikings to North America.

Ironically, it is Viking lore that lends support to the idea that Brendan was the first European in North America. Read the next page to find out about evidence for and against this idea.

St. Brendan -- or Somebody

These petroglyphs in West Viriginia were thought to be carved in Ogam, an Irish script used from the 6th to 8th centuries.
These petroglyphs in West Viriginia were thought to be carved in Ogam, an Irish script used from the 6th to 8th centuries.
Courtesy Roger Wise

One of the biggest problems with the idea that St. Brendan and his crew were the first Europeans to arrive in North America is the dearth of physical evidence to support this claim. Unlike the Vikings, there is no settlement that proves the Irish were here prior to other Europeans. At one time, however, tantalizing physical evidence did emerge.

Barry Fell, a Harvard marine biologist, discovered some petroglyphs -- writings carved into rock -- in West Virginia in 1983. Fell concluded that the writing was Ogam script, an Irish alphabet used between the sixth and eighth centuries. Even more startlingly, Fell found that the message in the rock described the Christian nativity. But shortly after Fell released his findings, many in the academic community attacked his interpretation of the petroglyphs. Many scholars question his methods and refuse to accept his findings as fact. Although the petroglyphs could be Ogam script, their true origins and meaning remain unproven [source: Oppenheimer and Wirtz].

All that's left, then, is the written accounts of Brendan's voyages. The Navigatio reads like a fantastic account, laden with Biblical references -- one passage recounts how Brendan held Communion on the back of a whale. In the mind of most historians, this story puts the document in the realm of folklore. Even for those researchers who put stock into the Navigatio's underlying historical accuracy, many of the directions don't point to North America as the destination where Brendan ultimately landed. But there are documents that suggest an Irish presence in North America prior to the Vikings', including the accounts of the Vikings themselves.

The Irish were known to the Norse (Vikings) as a seafaring group that had traveled far further than the Vikings had. In their sagas -- accounts of their people's exploits -- the Vikings speak of finding Irish missions when they arrived in Iceland in the 10th century. Another saga tells of meeting Native Americans who were already familiar with white men. These indigenous peoples had already encountered explorers who dressed in white and came from a land "across from their own" [source: Lathe]. A third saga relates that the Norse encountered a tribe of indigenous Americans who spoke a language that sounded like Irish, with which the Norse were familiar.

St. Brendan was reputed as a skilled voyager, establishing missions wherever he landed. Historians generally accept that he was able to sail to Europe and islands near Ireland. But, say the skeptics, this is a far cry from crossing the North Atlantic in a curragh. This small, open vessel, made of a wooden frame covered by ox hide and waterproofed with tar, was the only seafaring technology available to the Irish during Brendan's lifetime. It was long doubted that such a boat could make the trip from Ireland to America.

But this was proven incorrect in 1976 by author and adventurer Tim Severin, who built a curragh and set out from Ireland -- just as Brendan would have. He retraced the route that Brendan is thought to have taken, from Ireland to Iceland, Greenland and eventually Newfoundland. After a year-long voyage, Severin made it, proving that the trip was at least possible in such a craft.

Severin himself admits that his experiment is a long way from definitive proof that Brendan actually made the trip. As he wrote in "The Brendan Voyage" -- his account of the experiment -- "the only conclusive proof that it had been done would be if an authentic relic from an early Irish is found one day on North American soil" [source: Wiley].

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  • Lathe, Richard. "Who Discovered America Anyway?" Pieta Research. September 2003. http://www.pieta-research.org/ClipPDF/America.pdf
  • Mann, Charles C. "1491." The Atlantic Monthly. March 2002.http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200203/mann
  • Oppenheimer, Monroe, and Wirtz, Willard. "A Linguistic Analysis of Some West Virginia Petroglyphs." The West Virginia Archeologist, Volume 41, Number 1, Spring 1989.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Breadfruit
  • Wise, L. Douglas. "Who Discovered America?" New York Times. April 16, 1922.http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?_r=1&res=9B02E4DE1339E133A25755C1A9629C946395D6CF&oref=slogin
  • "Did St. Brendan Discover America?" Wiley.http://media.wiley.com/product_data/excerpt/58/04712670/0471267058.pdf
  • "St. Brendan." New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia.http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02758c.htm
  • "St. Brendan's Search for Paradise." University of Virginia.http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/hns/garden/brendan.html
  • "The Voyage of St. Brendan." Reformation.org. http://www.reformation.org/saint-brendan.html