A tale of two statues: Brendan, Columbus and the Age of Exploration

Posted on: 5th October, 2015

Category: The History Corner

Contributor: Patrick J. Mahoney

Patrick J. Mahoney studied cultural history at NUI Galway's Centre for Irish Studies, and now teaches in the department of history at Sacred Heart University, Connecticut. He is interested in the study of emigrant narratives, and the Irish historical experience as it relates to those in the United States and Britain. This column will highlight the stories of significant people and places with West Cork connections, throughout the world.

Above: St. Brendan Statue Bantry

Have you ever heard about the time that Christopher Columbus, on his way to the ‘New World’, majestically sailed into Bantry Bay under the folds of the Castilla and León flag of the Spanish government? Okay, such a claim might be a bit fanciful even for a historical period during which the lines between myth and reality were often blurred. Although, it has been said that the famous Genoese sailor stopped off in Galway in 1477 to say a quick prayer in St. Nick’s Church and take in the sights and sounds of the popular medieval port city, so although he never made his way to West Cork, the thought of such a trip isn’t altogether outlandish. That being said, there is a connection between the well-known navigator and the region’s storied shores, which has its origins in the 1969 erection of a statue depicting St. Brendan in Bantry’s Wolfe Tone Square.

While teaching a recent lesson on colonialism and the Age of Exploration to a group of university freshmen, a discussion ensued about the popular genre of medieval travel literature and its longstanding influences on the European mind and desire for expansion. Amongst the most popular works read by Columbus and his contemporaries were Sir John Mandeville’s Travels, Marco Polo’s Book of the Marvels of the World, and the earlier Voyage of Saint Brendan, which had maintained a steady readership due to its translation into all of the major European languages.

Although minor details of the latter tale changed in its various retellings across Europe, the main elements of the narrative remained the same. Following in the general outline of the Irish iomramh tales, which relayed stories of adventurous voyages during which a hero set out to explore foreign, often mythical lands that lie to the far west of Ireland, Brendan and his monks set out to find the Island of Paradise after learning of its existence from a recently returned acquaintance. As the story goes, the crew first endured a forty-day fast before heading out in a westerly direction from the Kerry coast in the hope of reaching the island. In the course of their harrowing journey in the Atlantic, the monks encounter unusual creatures, land and briefly settle on a whale’s back after mistakenly identifying it for an island, briefly encounter the biblical Judas marooned on a rock, and eventually reach Paradise, before returning home. Despite the many mythic elements surrounding its existence, the Island of Paradise or St. Brendan’s Island as it became known, was treated as a legitimate geographic vantage point, and appeared on most maps and globes, including Martin Behaim’s 1492 globe. According to Columbus’s son, Ferdinand, his father wholeheartedly believed in the existence of Brendan’s Island and the “many marvels” that had been associated with it, and even expected to pass its shores as he set sail on his first voyage in the same year that the island appeared on Behaim’s globe. Until the late 18th-century, sightings of Brendan’s mythical island were reported, although some modern theorists have speculated that rather than the elusive isle sought by Columbus and other subsequent transatlantic travelers, Brendan and his crew had actually ventured as far as the Americas. This theory was given further credence in the spring of 1976 when British explorer and writer, Tim Severin, accompanied by a small crew of four, successfully sailed 4,500 miles from Ireland to Newfoundland in a handcrafted currach built using the 6th-century standards as Brendan’s.

While the exact geographic location of Brendan’s paradise is still a matter of speculation, leaving one unable to say with any certainty that he had any physical influence on the New World, one cannot overlook the impact that he had on the central figures in the age of exploration, who looked with wonder upon both his storied voyage and the Christian fervor of he and his companions.

Unfortunately for the indigenous population of the Americas, the desire of Columbus and other European explorers to spread Christian ideals and principles to the perceived godless lands that they had discovered lacked the innocence and religious zeal of the Munster monk whose exploits they had read of and admired. Driven by greed and contempt rather than religious longing, the direct result of Columbus and his successors’ voyages was the systemic extinction of the Native population, through acts of brutality, forced labour, and disease. Such was the rapid pace of destruction that of the estimated one million native inhabitants of the Island of Hispaniola, (modern day Haiti and the Dominican Republic) where Columbus had first landed in 1492, only 14,000 remained by 1508, and a total of less than 500 by 1538. Such startling numbers, coupled with increasing public dismay at details of the colonial system that allowed for such exploitation and destruction, has led to widespread criticism of the various national celebrations that mark the occasion of Columbus’s arrival to Hispaniola in October of 1492. In recent years, a number of US states and organisations have rechristened the day as ‘Native American Day’ or ‘Indigenous Peoples’ Day’. However, the most striking and symbolic condemnation of Columbus’s legacy occurred in the Venezuelan capital city of Caracas on October 12, 2004, under the presidency of the controversial Hugo Chavez. Having already officially changed the name of their day of national observance to ‘Día de la Resistencia Indígena’ (Day of Indigenous Resistance), a group of protestors sought to further “undo the symbols of their oppressors”. In what was described as “an act of symbolic justice”, a statue of the 15th-century explorer was put on trial for crimes of invasion and genocide, some 498 years after his death. Amidst shouts of ‘Justice for the people!’ the then-100-year-old statue, which had stood upon a 30-foot high pedestal, was pulled down and dragged through the streets.

Taking into account the trial and subsequent destruction of Columbus’s statue in South America as a condemnation of the long-dead sailor, who has become a symbolic embodiment of the legacy of colonization in the New World, it is worth looking back across the Atlantic at Bantry’s likeness of Brendan. Standing atop his West Cork post for six years prior to the time Severin and his crew set out to recreate his nautical journey, bringing Brendan’s name back to the forefront of popular debate about the origins of European discovery of the Americas, he appears prayerful and reverent, with his arms outstretched and a longing gaze fixed upon the water ahead. However one has to wonder if, given the large-scale destruction of the indigenous population following the ‘New World’ discoveries of his successors some 1,000 years after his mythic journey, and the affects that colonialism had upon his own native land, Brendan’s arms aren’t instead thrown up in an expression of frustration, horror, and dismay?

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