The Legend of “Great Ireland” and of Saint Brandan

From A History of the Irish Settlers in North America by Thomas D'Arcy McGee

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Chapter I.

The Legend of “Great Ireland” and of Saint BrandanNorwegian AccountIrish AccountItalian and Spanish Accounts

IT is uncertain whether Christopher Columbus was the first European who saw America. A general tradition of its existence was widely received before his birth, and we cannot reject, as entirely incredible, the repeated allusions to this tradition, contained in the early chronicles of the northern nations of the old world. To the Genoese belongs the glory of disenchanting the Ocean,—of bringing two hemispheres into contact separated from the beginning,—of leaving a land of refuge accessible to humanity, and of opening the history of its population, by one of the most glorious examples of patience, fortitude, and courage, ever exhibited by man. Who could wish his glory greater or less?

The Scandinavians count three several precursors of Columbus—Ari Marson, whose voyage took place in 983; Biorn, a later adventurer, and Gudlief, son of Gudlang, who, towards the middle of the 11th century, followed the track of, and conversed with, Biorn, in Huitramannaland, or Irland it Mikla, beyond the Atlantic. The account of Ari in the Landnamabock is short, but perfectly intelligible. It says:—

“Ulf the Squinter, son of Hogni the White, occupied the whole of Reykianess, (south-west promontory of Iceland,) between Thorskafiord and Hafrafell. He had a wife named Biorg, the daughter of Eyvind the East-countryman. They had a son named Atili the Red, who married Thorkotu, daughter of Hergil. They had a son named Ari, who was driven by a tempest to Huitramannaland, (white man’s land,) which some call Irland it Mikla, (Great Ireland,) which lies in the western ocean, near to Vinland the Good, west from Ireland,”—by a number of days’ sail, which is uncertain, some error having crept into the original in these figures. “Ari was not permitted to depart, but was baptized there.”

Of the second and third voyages, the same Landnamabock (compiled in the 13th century) relates:—

“So Rafn, the Limerick merchant, first stated, who lived for a long time in Limerick, in Ireland.” Rafn was kinsman to Ari Marson, and lived at the beginning or middle of the eleventh century. “So also Thorkel, the son of Geller, (grandson of Ari Marson,) says that certain Icelanders stated, who heard Thorfinn, Jarl of the Orkneys,”—also kinsman to Ari Marson, and born 1008, died 1064,—"relate that Ari had been seen and known in Huitramannaland, and that, although not suffered to depart thence, he was there held in great honor.

“Ari had a wife named Thorgerd, daughter of Alf of Dolum. Their sons were Thorgils, Gudlief, and IIlugi; which is the family of Reykianess.” Then follows a passage which shows that Eirck the Red was connected with the family of this Ari Marson, and which it may not be amiss to repeat, as all these historical allusions afford corroboration of the authenticity of different narratives. “Jorund was the son of Ulf the Squinter. He married Thobiorg Knarrarbring. They had a daughter, Thjodhild, whom Eirck the Red married. They had a son, Leif the Lucky, of Greenland.” It is worthy of remark, that the writer of this account was Ari the Learned, born 1067, who flourished at the end of the eleventh century, and who therefore lived within a century after Ari Marson’s departure from Ireland. He was immediately descended from Ari Marson, and would, of course, be anxious and careful to obtain the most accurate accounts of his ancestors. It is to be observed the situation of Huitramannaland is here stated, “In the western ocean near Vinland, and west of Ireland.” It points, of necessity, to that portion of the country now known as the midland or southern States of the Union.[1]

The Irland it Mikla, or Great Ireland, is frequently alluded to in the Northern Sagas. They describe the route towards it, from the North of Europe, thus:—

“To the South of habitable Greenland there are uninhabited and wild tracts, and enormous icebergs. The country of the Skraelings lies beyond these; Markland beyond this, and Vinland the Good beyond the last. Next to this, and something beyond it, lies Albania, that is, Huitramannaland, whither, formerly, vessels came from Ireland. There, several Irishmen and Icelanders saw and recognized Ari, the son of Mar and Kotlu, of Reykianess, concerning whom nothing had been heard for a long time, and who had been made their chief by the inhabitants of the land.”

In this vague sketch, modern antiquarians have labored hard, and not unsuccessfully, to identify the country of the Skraelings as the Esquimaux coast, Markland as Labrador, Vinland as New England, and Huitramannaland as the country “further southward, beyond the Chesapeake Bay.”[2]

“The Skraelinger,” says Humboldt, “related to the Northmen settled in Vinland, that further southward, beyond the Chesapeake Bay, there dwelt ‘white men, who clothed themselves in long, white garments, carried before them poles to which clothes were attached, and called with a loud voice.’ This account was interpreted, by the Christian Northmen, to indicate processions in which banners were borne accompanied by singing. In the oldest Sagas, the historical narrations of Thorfinn Karlsefne, and the Icelandic Landnammabock, these southern coasts, lying between Virginia and Florida, are designated under the name of the Land of the White Men. They are expressly called Great Ireland, (Irland it Mikla,) and it is maintained that they were peopled by the Irish. According to testimonies which extend to 1064, before Lief discovered Vinland, and probably about the year 982, Ari Marson, of the powerful Icelandic race of Ulf the Squint-eyed, was driven in a voyage from Iceland to the South, by storms, on the coast of the Land of the White Men, and there baptized in the Christian faith; and, not being allowed to depart, was recognized by men from the Orkney Islands and Iceland.”[3]

The volumes in which these corroborative accounts are recorded were compiled in the North, three centuries before the birth of Columbus, and, evidently, represent the then prevailing belief in a “Great Ireland” beyond the western sea.

The Irish Annals themselves make special mention of the same fact. They credit the first voyage westward to Saint Brandan, patron of Clonfert and Ardfert on the south-west coast. It is recorded that he flourished from the year A. D. 550 till the beginning of the following century, and that his voyages in search of the promised land, were two; after which he returned no more. The precise point of departure,—“the foot of Brandon Mountain,” now Tralee Bay,—is stated; his sea store consisted of live swine, his companions of monks, and his first voyage, of course, abounded in adventures. The dates in these legends are well fixed, whatever else may be dubious; and we do not feel at liberty to reject facts which an Usher and a Humboldt long pondered over, and, at last, set down with reverence.[4]

The voyages of Saint Brandan were received traditions in France, the Netherlands, Spain, and Italy, soon after the Northern Chroniclers had written their memoranda concerning Irland it Mikla. Old metrical romances, in the French, and Dutch languages, give a world of details about them,—some credible, and some absurd enough.[5] But, what is more to our purpose, Jacobus Voraginius, Provincial of the Dominicans and Bishop of Genoa, (the native city of Columbus,) gave St. Brandan’s land special prominence in the 13th century, in his “Golden Legend,”[6] and the Italian geographers set it down, on their conjectural charts, opposite “Europe and Africa, from the south of Ireland to the end of Guinea.” In the map made for Columbus previous to setting out on his first voyage, by Paulo Toscannelli, of Florence, the customary space was occupied by “Saint Borondon’s, or Saint Brandan’s land.”

In the letters of Columbus to his sovereigns, it is notable that the “singing of the birds,” and “the greenness of the vegetation,” so much dwelt on in “the Golden Legend,” are frequently mentioned. The phrase “Promised Land” also occurs, in the mystical sense in which it is employed by Bishop Jacobus.

Even after the voyage of Columbus, so strong was the belief in St. Brandan’s, that various expeditions, were sent to explore it, as appears from depositions taken before the Grand Inquisitor of the Canaries, Pedro Ortez de Funez, and from other Portuguese and Spanish accounts. The last of these voyages was undertaken as late as 1721, by “Don Gaspar Dominguez, a man of probity and talent. As this was an expedition of solemn and mysterious import, he had two holy friars as apostolical chaplains. They made sail from the island of Teneriffe, toward the end of October, leaving the populace in an indescribable state of anxious curiosity. The ship, however, returned from its cruise as unsuccessful as all its predecessors.”[7]

Although these reports were not justified by the facts, yet it would be unwise to confound the early belief with the modern illusion, since the latter did not and could not beget the former, though they have obscured and almost hidden it from our sight.

There is quite sufficient reason to infer that the ancients believed in the existence of a Great Ireland in the West, before Columbus’ discovery; and assuredly, if they were mistaken, we are in a fair way to see the doubtful vision of their days become a reality. The dates and details we must leave to the antiquarians, while we endeavor to show what modern emigration has done to accomplish the legend of Irland it Mikla.

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[1] Smith’s “Northmen in New England.” Boston: Hilliard & Grey, 1839

[2] Humboldt’s “Cosmos.”

[3] Humboldt’s “Cosmos,” vol. i.

[4] Usher’s Antiq. of British Churches; Usher’s Epistles of the Irish Saints.

[5] See Notices of some of these old Poems in Appendix No. I.

[6] Voraignus died A. D. 1298.

[7] Nunez, Conquist de la Gran Canaria; Viera Hist. Isl. Can.; Irving’s Life of Columbus, vol. i.