The Sea Horse and the Whale Rider

Happy St Brendan’s Day!

While Brendan has been happily resting on the Isle of Birds during Eastertide (which ended last Sunday with Pentecost), I found an interesting little story of Brendan in, of all places, Rhygyfarch’s Life of St David. This little story seems like just the thing to get us in the mood for some of Brendan’s Pentecost adventures.

“One day he [Bairre] asked for a horse which the holy father, David, had been accustomed to ride on church business. He obtained permission, and having received the father’s blessing, he reached the harbour and entered the sea. Trusting in the father’s blessing, he used the horse instead of a ship as support. The horse ploughed its way through the swelling crests of the waves as if through a level field. When he had traveled further out to sea, he came to where Saint Brendan was leading a wonderful life on the back of a whale. Seeing the man riding a horse on the sea, Saint Brendan was astonished and said, “God is wonderful in his saints.” The man on horseback was approaching the place where he was, so that they would be able to greet each other. Having exchanged mutual greeting, Brendan asked from what place he might be, from whom he might have come, and how he rode a horse on the sea. Having related his journey, Bairre told him, “Since my ship’s delay was keeping me away from from my brethren, the holy father David gave me the horse on which he was accustomed to ride, so that I might have use of it in my need; and so fortified by his blessing, I have travelled on such a route as this.” Brendan said to him, “Go in peace. I shall come and see him.” So Bairre reached his country, his journey unimpaired, and told the brethren what had happened to him. They kept the horse in the service until its death. After its death, they fashioned a likeness of the horse in memory of the miracle. To this day, covered with gold, it is preserved on the island of Ireland, and is famous for the great number of miracles.” (Sharpe and Davies, Ch. 39-40)

So the moral to the story is that if you happen to meet a saint riding a fantastic beast upon the sea, send them on their way as they obviously have important work to do!

The editors note that Gerald of Wales refers to a cast metal horse with a man sitting on it, all decorated in gold, but small enough to be portable. Gerald claimed the horse was kept in a church at Cork, which fits with Bairre being St Finbarr of Cork. The Life of David appears to be the only source that mentions that this object was credited with miracles. The editors note that the O-text of the Life of St Bairre mentions David’s sea riding horse.

Brendan’s only role here appears to be to challenge Bairre and make him tell his story. For what is worth, St David and St Brendan were roughly contemporary. Brendan is believed to have died in c. 577 and David in c. 589. Brendan bridges the time of the great early saints, trained by St Erc of Slane, one of the founders of Irish Christianity (an early convert of Patrick), and colleague of Columba and contemporary of David.


So back to our pilgrimage to follow Brendan in his voyage through the church year. Brendan and company have moved into the long Pentecost season, but as this is his second year at sea and the pattern is established, Pentecost becomes the adventurous season. Perils await…its a long time to the safety of the Isle of St Ailbe.



Richard Sharpe and John Reuben Davies, Ed. and trans. “Rhygyfarch’s Life of St David” in St David of Wales: Cult, Church and Nation. J.W. Evans and J.M. Wooding. Boydell Press, 2007.


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