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Celtic History Newsletter: A Desert in the Ocean

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A Desert in the Ocean

In 891 A.D the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles mentions that three men who left Ireland in a small boat, probably a leather and wood-framed “curragh”. But that they did so without oars, and left to go wherever the mercy of God and the winds should bring them. They actually appear to have been following a known tradition among Irish holy men in boats, the most famous of which include St. Brendan the Navigator and his alleged early finding of lands to the west and possibly the “New World”.

Part of the the inspiration for these voyages is said to be the stories of 4th and 5th century “Desert Fathers” who wandered the deserts of North Africa as hermits in their devotion and search for divinity. As St. Benedict is said to have prescribed centuries before, the silence of the cloister should be a meet substitute for the solitude of the desert. This idea of a desert where a man could meditate in isolation from the rest of the world is said to have so fascinated some of the Irish Christians there is a claim that some attempted to convert sections of bog-lands into improvised deserts. Evidence of the practice is said to be preserved in a few local place names including the term ‘dísert’ or “dysert” meaning “hermitage”. An ancient litany in the Book of Leinster prays for “the seven holy Egyptian monks, who lie in Desert Ulaidh.” “Ulaidh” meaning simply “Ulster” so a cloister or hermitage in Ulster. I guess would be the “Egyptian” monks may have been monks influenced by Egyptian Christian teaching as opposed actual Egyptians.

There’s a book entitled The Egyptian Desert in the Irish Bogs which apparently discusses various “striking similarities between the world of the Desert Fathers and the now lost world of Irish Orthodox Christianity

Of course the other nearest option in Ireland was the vast “desert” of the ocean, and there are a number of holy men who are recorded as having sailed off to “find a desert in the ocean” where they could pray in peace and isolation. The tradition may also be inspired by an old punishment from Ireland which was to chain certain criminals to a boat, row them out to the “ninth wave” and let winds take them where God willed.

Many of these intrepid saints probably only found cold comfort with the watery subjects of Neptune, but the trio I first mentioned seems to have been lucky and found landfall in Cornwall. One nineth-century text recounts tales of Irish holy men who washed up as far away as the shores of Iceland. The Irish monk Cormac, told of in Life of St Columba, went in search of a desert in the ocean three times. Failing at first, he then reached the Orkney Islands on his second try and the author suggests he was lucky to return from those Pagan (at that time) isles with his life. He finally sailed for fourteen days and nights “far beyond the range of human exploration” (possibly in range of Greenland) and only returned thanks to his prayers to St Columba.


Blogger for The Celtic Croft and owner of MacGregor Historic Games

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