Or so the story goes, as told in countless Irish tales and songs, and in The Navigatio, a book that was the equivalent of a best seller in ninth-century Europe. Nearly 30 years ago, an English adventurer, Timothy Severin, and his crew successfully re-created the treacherous voyage in a handmade Irish curragh, proving that it could have happened.
Nowadays, St. Brendan is getting some 21st-century attention from an unlikely source, a Sierra Vista sculptor who once fashioned bronze roadrunners and other favorites of Southwestern art. Brian Donahue, Irish-American by way of Tucson, is working on a monumental statue of the seafaring saint.
"It's about his dedication to the voyage and the spirituality of his journey," says Donahue, a self-taught student of Irish monasticism and culture.
Donahue's Brendan so far is just a 3-foot tall maquette that weighs a mere 50 pounds, though it's heavy enough when he lugs it out of the back of his van to get its picture taken on a publicity jaunt to Tucson. But his plans for the final piece are ambitious, as he explains during lunch in a downtown café. Assuming he can raise the money, his bronze "Voyage of St. Brendan" will tower 16 feet high, and it won't be marooned in Arizona's landlocked deserts.
The monumental Brendan will be erected in the rainy, rocky West of Ireland, on the saint's departure point from the Dingle Peninsula, the last parish before America. The project has the endorsement of the Dingle Peninsula Heritage Office, Donahue says, and its director, Gearoid O'Brosnachain, has pinpointed a spot along Dingle's Brandon Creek.
"Gearoid has selected the location, the site believed to be the departure point," Donahue says.
The artist, who for years played bagpipes in a Tucson Irish band, has also won the support of his confrères in the Ancient Order of Hibernians. They're helping him raise money for the $300,000 project; on St. Patrick's Day, after their traditional Fourth Avenue march carrying the mock-up coffin of Tucson's first Irishman, Hugo O'Conor, they'll set up a fund-raising booth at O'Malley's on Fourth Avenue.
Once Donahue has about half the cash in hand, he expects to move to Ireland for about a year; there, he'll buy the materials and make the statue on site in Dingle. It will be cast in Dublin.
"I'd live in Ballyferriter," he says, the Dingle village closest to Brandon Creek (and made famous as the backdrop for the movie Ryan's Daughter). "I'll need a big barn." With both his kids in college by that time, he expects he'll be joined by his wife, Mary.
Brendan is hardly Donahue's first Irish subject. Tucson already boasts the artist's life-size O'Conor bronze, which stands in front of downtown's restored Manning House, former location of Hugo O'Conor's restaurant. O'Conor, originally named Hugh O'Conor, was one of the so-called Wild Geese who fled Ireland after it fell to England. As a mercenary in service to the Spanish crown, O'Conor picked the site for the presidio of Tucson, back in 1775. Donahue made a realistic depiction of the Red Captain, complete with reddish hair, but he playfully embellished the soldier's vest with a button bearing the Donahue coat of arms, and gave him a map engraved with his kids' names.
"Things like that make the static arts more interactive," Donahue jokes.
At its base, he included a bronze scorpion and a prickly pear, subjects familiar from his long years of practice in the southwest art trade. The son of Vic Donahue, now 85, a well-known cowboy painter in Tucson, Brian Donahue grew up in Tucson and studied art at the UA. He was always more interested in realism than in contemporary art, and he remembers one UA art professor telling him, "You're missing the point." After some stops and starts, including a stint as a firefighter, Donahue got his art degree and went to work as an illustrator and video producer, for the Air Force and then the Army.
Even before he gave up the day job in 1995 to devote himself to his art, he always kept up his sculptural work on the side. He specialized in animals, made some pieces for the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and, with his dad, had a show at the Wolfe Gallery in Tucson. But he tired of the subject.
"You do a realistic roadrunner, and it looks like everyone else's roadrunner," he says.
He tried out some Maori designs from traditional New Zealand culture, and he began to study Celtic culture more deeply. Taking several trips to Ireland, England and Scotland, he delved into illuminated manuscripts and Celtic bronze and jewelry works. Eventually, he made "Epona," a Celtic horse deity, an elongated form inspired by Celtic design. The idea for St. Brendan started taking shape around 1990.
"It started with a priest, James Coleman. He was given a parish here in Tucson. It was called St. Brendan's then."
At the priest's request, Donahue designed a logo for the church and started a maquette for a statue, but Father Coleman was transferred, and the parish's name was changed.
"The whole thing fell apart," he says. "It sat on a shelf for a couple of years. I'm usually not that happy with the work I do, but I was really pleased with this particular design. I had read the Brendan story, and I was interested in early monasticism. The monks went journeying for the love of God."
Donahue also read Severin's account of his modern-day voyage across the Atlantic and hit on the idea of contacting the Irish Tourist Board to sponsor a Brendan sculpture in Ireland. Though he's been doing some church sculptural work in recent years, the Brendan project "is more meaningful than anything else. It's a culmination of everything I've been working on."
His design has Brendan standing in the prow of his boat, holding a cross up and out as he faces the sea. Celtic swirls at the bottom of his robe stand for "the winds that drove him"; 14 mounds on the boat represent his monastic companions. The curragh rests on three stones carved in Ogham letters, an early Irish alphabet gleaned from archaeological sites.
The text "has to do with faith, courage and peace," Donahue says. "It's about my own personal voyage of discovery." And, he adds, it's "dedicated to everybody who left Ireland on their own personal voyage."