Was an Irish monk the first European to reach America?

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
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