‘The first white man to visit America’—St Brendan in the nineteenth century

Published in Features, Issue 5 (September/October 2021), Volume 29

By William Ward

In considering its historical effects, the original nature of a text is at times immaterial. That the Navigatio sancti Brendani abbatis, the early medieval tale of St Brendan’s voyage, ‘is not an AAA triptik to the New World’, as the Connecticut schoolteacher and scholar John D. Anderson put it in 1988, has proved no impediment to historical fantasia. Long before the British explorer Tim Severin sought to prove the oceangoing bona fides of the ancient coracle or currach, the notion that St Brendan had crossed the Atlantic, and even ‘discovered’ America, enjoyed something of a vogue. In particular, nineteenth-century Irish nationalists and Irish-Americans, often in a spirit of national self-aggrandisement, were happy to argue and proclaim that St Brendan had preceded Columbus.

Many contenders to Columbus

Theories of pre-Columbian contact between the Old World and the New were common during the nineteenth century. In an age of rising nationalist sentiment, various contenders to Columbus’s position as America’s putative ‘discoverer’ saw their hats thrown into the historiographical ring. Racist approaches to American prehistory often attributed the archaeological and architectural legacies of the indigenous peoples of the Americas to, typically, ‘white’ foreigners of one sort or another. Irish people, both at home and abroad, paid attention to and contributed to these discourses. St Brendan, for some, was a better man than the famous Genoese.

The founder of the Home Government Association, Isaac Butt, in a footnote in his Irish federalism: its meaning, its objects, and its hopes, wrote that it ‘seems almost certain that the adventurous Irish Abbot performed the voyage over the Atlantic many centuries before Columbus’, and repeated this claim before a meeting of the Catholic University Literary and Historical Society in Dublin in 1872. Among Butt’s audience, which was largely composed of members of the Catholic upper and middle classes, was the physician and littérateur George Sigerson. Sigerson, whether or not he took any inspiration from Butt, was also minded to publicly consider the possibility that St Brendan had beaten Columbus to the punch. ‘If the tale of his voyage to the West, and his arrival in a land of fair birds and great rivers be true,’ Sigerson noted in a lecture entitled ‘Irish Literature: Its Origin, Environment, & Influence’, ‘he discovered America a thousand years before Columbus.’ Similarly, albeit in somewhat less genteel circumstances, the famously eccentric American Fenian sympathiser George Francis Train, enduring the drunken interruptions of a man named John Dalton and one Thomas ‘Tommy Tom’ Flynn, ‘proved that the discovery of America is due, not to Columbus, but to Saint Brendan, a native of the Emerald Isle’, in Dungarvan, Co. Waterford, in 1868.

The Irishman’s place in America

The bare belief, undoubtedly fuelled by some degree of national pride and parti pris, that St Brendan had ‘discovered’ America appears to have been widespread in late nineteenth-century Ireland. Certain arguments relating to his suppositious transatlantic journey, however, involved much more than a mere acknowledgement of his alleged priority vis-à-vis Columbus. The Louisville-based Irish-American newspaper the Kentucky Irish American, which, from time to time, engaged in sectarian squabbles with its editorially Baptist competitors and neighbours, pointedly invoked St Brendan as a counter to anti-Irish nativist sentiment. In 1901, in a column that recommended the perusal of the Danish antiquarian Carl Christian Rafn’s Antiquitates Americanæ, the Kentucky Irish American affirmed, in a manner that took for granted one of the most hackneyed justifications of European colonialism, that

‘It is a fact well known to archaeologists that to this day Keltic [sic] crosses frequently are found in Indian mounds from Kentucky to the Gulf. They are found also in the prehistoric ruins of Mexico and Yucatan, incontestably indicating that the St Brendan account is not a myth. Those who assert, as is done almost daily, that “the Irish ought to go”, if they understand Latin ought themselves go to the Public Library and learn that the Irish have a place in the country by right of discovery.’

Significantly, this was not the only occasion on which the sainted sailor’s supposed achievement received attention in the Kentucky Irish American’s pages. In 1906, under the title of ‘Patriotism’, and subtitled ‘Irish History is Dovetailed into the Story of the United States’ and ‘Men Can Love the Emerald Isle and Be Loyal Citizens’, the Irish American related the details of a rather wide-ranging disquisition given by Fr Patrick Walsh during a ‘social session’ hosted by the Ancient Order of Hibernians. In his talk, Walsh, who was the pastor of Louisville’s Sacred Heart Church, eulogised Douglas Hyde, ‘spoke of the necessity for teaching Irish history in schools and colleges’ and, quite improbably claiming Benjamin Franklin for Ireland in the process, ‘told of the name Irishmen have made for themselves in American history’. ‘St Brendan, one of St Patrick’s successors,’ he noted, ‘visited the shores of America and planted a colony there seven centuries before America was discovered by Columbus.’ ‘History, tradition and the researches of archaeologists,’ Walsh reportedly continued, ‘have proven that the first white men to visit America were St Brendan and his followers.’ As the late great historian of the American South C. Vann Woodward recognised, filiopietistic fables of martial courage and discovery were a means by which various immigrant communities could contest the ‘WASP myths of the schoolbooks’ and defend their place within American society.

Another occasion on which St Brendan was invoked against American anti-Irishness (in this case likely less real than perceived) was during a ‘meeting to protest against the custom of giving the animals at the Central Park Zoological Gardens Irish names’ in New York in 1893. Although the zookeepers responsible for the practice were themselves probably Irish, a talkative Kerryman named Daniel O’Shea, according to the Drogheda Conservative, was moved to proclaim in response to this ‘[n]ew [i]nsult’ that ‘Irishmen had the best right to the American Continent, because St Brendan discovered it in the sixteenth century [sic]’. As recorded by the Oregonian Daily Morning Astorian, O’Shea gave voice to an unintendedly ironic Irish-American nativism: ‘We have rights here which must be respected. Who discovered this country? An Irishman named Brandon [sic], 400 years before Columbus was born! We have a better right to live here than men from foreign parts.’

Canon Robert McLarney

Above: Canon Robert McLarney—deployed the idea of St Brendan’s discovery of America in order to solicit funds for the refurbishment of the cathedral church of St Brendan in Clonfert. (Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 29 January 1905)

St Brendan’s pretended oceanic achievement was also put to pecuniary ends. A Church of Ireland clergyman, Canon Robert McLarney, as part of a transatlantic media campaign that started early in 1898, deployed the idea of St Brendan’s discovery of America in order to solicit funds and elicit support for the refurbishment of the cathedral church of St Brendan in Clonfert. Though his mission met with some success—the great critic John Ruskin made a contribution of three guineas to the fund, and by 1900 ‘£1,621 7s. 4d.’ had been collected and the restoration of the chancel and sacristy completed—not everyone looked kindly upon McLarney’s endeavour. In response to a letter written by McLarney to the New York Sun, in which he described the cathedral church of St Brendan as ‘my church’, and thus part of ‘what is designated in America the Protestant Episcopal Church’, New York’s The Irish World and American Industrial Liberator assumed a bitterly sarcastic and sectarian tone. On the World’s account, it was only by way of rapine and plunder that the ‘ancient cathedral of Clonfert came into the possession of the body which has the impudence to style itself the Church of Ireland’. That body, said the World, had just as much right, which was no right at all, to style itself the ‘church of China’. Given that he was a custodian of ‘stolen property’, the Irish World did not in the least bit anticipate that McLarney’s plea for financial succour would be much heeded by Americans. The Minneapolitan Irish Standard surely concurred. ‘Canon McLarney,’ it wrote, ‘ought to keep quiet about St Brendan.’

In items that appeared in several newspapers, including the Belfast News-Letter, the New York Herald and the Philadelphia Times, McLarney cited various authorities in support of the contention that St Brendan had visited the Americas. One of them, Trinity College Dublin’s Samuel Haughton, enjoyed, as the historian of science Peter Bowler has recorded, the ‘dubious honour of being the first person to comment’—and negatively comment, too—‘on Darwin’s theory’. Another, James Dominick Daly, is a much less well-known figure, but one whose ideas about St Brendan deserve further attention.

St Brendan and the Aztecs

Above: Contemporary icon of St Brendan the Voyager by Aidan Hart.

The Birmingham-based Irish nationalist, ‘whilom journalist’ and lawyer Dominick Daly is best remembered, when he is remembered at all, for his unsuccessful courtroom defence of the alleged dynamitard James Francis Egan at the Warwick summer assizes of 1884. In his day, however, Daly was not unfailingly obscure and was heavily involved in local politics. He was a member of the Market Hall ward committee of the Birmingham Liberal Association, the Birmingham Land Restoration League and the Birmingham Irish National Club and Literary Institute. He was also, in his own way, a literary figure. He lectured on a variety of Irish and other subjects, and, amongst other things, wrote a few legal texts, an abridgement of Don Quixote and a pretendedly historical tale, with a preface by Henry Morton Stanley, entitled Adventures of Roger L’Estrange.

In 1888 Daly turned his attention to the question of St Brendan. In an article that was originally published in London’s Gentleman’s Magazine, and subsequently reprinted in the American Antiquarian and Oriental Journal and the Popular Science Monthly, Daly attempted to make the case that the Aztec cultural hero and deity Quetzalcoatl may have been the Irish saint. Daly’s argument was greatly informed by the American historian of the Aztecs, William Hickling Prescott. Consequently, he was also influenced, albeit indirectly, by the Christianised accounts of Mexican mythology and religion that were produced by early modern Spanish scholars and ecclesiastics. As told by Prescott, Quetzalcoatl was ‘said to have been tall in stature, with a white skin, long, dark hair, and a flowing beard’, and with this description Daly wholeheartedly agreed. Daly also, very much in line with the nature of his sources, asserted that many similarities existed between pre-conquest Aztec religion—of which Quetzalcoatl was purportedly the godliest evangelist—and historical Christianity. According to Daly, it was ‘certain that the Mexicans held many points of belief in common with the Christians’, as they believed, or at least appeared to believe, ‘in the Trinity, the Incarnation, and, apparently, the Redemption’. It was, therefore, Daly reasoned, ‘hard to understand what it was that Quetzatcoatl [sic] taught if it was not Christianity, and equally hard to conceive what he could have been if he were not a Christian missionary’. Though Daly declared, with some degree of intellectual humility, that it ‘would be presumptuous to claim that the identity of Quetzatcoatl with St Brendan’ had been ‘completely established’ in his essay, he nonetheless concluded that his theory involved no ‘violent inconsistency’ and that his evidence disclosed ‘many remarkable coincidences in favour of the opinion’ that Quetzalcoatl and St Brendan were possibly one and the same.

Above: The Aztec god Quetzalcoatl as he appears in the sixteenth-century Ramírez or Tovar Codex. The Irish nationalist lawyer Dominick Daly argued that he may been St Brendan’s alter ego.

Though to many modern minds Daly’s argument in support of the equation of Quetzalcoatl with St Brendan might, quite rightly, appear to be both tenuous and strange, the nineteenth-century ears upon which it fell were far from uniformly deaf or unreceptive. Though the Journal of American Folklore tersely dismissed his article as ‘one of the many vain attempts made to connect the religion of old Mexico with those of Europe’, other venues and organs were significantly more respectful. Dublin’s The Nation, for example, noted that Daly’s article would be of ‘curious interest to students of the history of Ireland’s missionaries’, and in the Leeds Mercury it was written that Daly had given ‘thoughtful treatment to an important though recondite subject’. Daly’s argument was also referenced by other writers and speakers on the topic of St Brendan. Denis O’Donoghue, who was, appropriately enough, the parish priest of Ardfert in Kerry, where Brendan is sometimes held to have been born, described Daly’s account as ‘able and interesting’ in his Brendaniana: St Brendan the Voyager in story and legend. Relatedly, in an 1896 lecture before the Catholic Literary Association of Waterbury, Connecticut, Thomas F. Devine, the principal of Waterbury’s Bank Street School, remarked, after having mooted Brendan’s besting of Leif Erikson and Madoc, that

‘The name of St Brendan is sometimes spoken in connection with the Mexican Messiah Inetzalcoatl [sic]. The Aztecs asserted that this interesting character was a white man that had visited them centuries before the Spaniards came, and had taught them the arts, and a religion like [C]hristianity. Dr Dominick Daly aroused considerable interest in this question, by his article in the [Gentleman’s Magazine], some years ago.’

In conclusion, over the course of the nineteenth century it would seem that for some St Brendan’s pre-Columbian ‘discovery’ of America attained the status of a well-established historical fact. The past of the past may be riven with fantasy, but it is, for all that, an important aspect of social and intellectual history in Ireland and elsewhere.

William Ward has a Ph.D in Geography from Queen’s University, Belfast.



T.A. Barnhart, American antiquities: revisiting the origins of American archaeology (Lincoln, 2015).

D.H. Farmer (ed.), The age of Bede (Harmondsworth, 1988).

R.H. Fritze, Legend and lore of the Americas before 1492 (Santa Barbara, 1993).

J.S. Mackley, The legend of St Brendan (Leiden, 2008).


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