Brendan Finnloag was a sixth century monk from Ireland who followed in the footsteps of St. Patrick. He was known as a great evangelist, but perhaps is best known today as the monk who sailed from Ireland to Nova Scotia (and beyond). In the tradition of ‘The Odyssey’ Brendan and his friend and companion for the voyage, Bart, contend with a variety of beasts and men with both humor and spiritual fervor, but the real struggle is between the two travelers themselves, their disparate backgrounds and their shared secrets.
The two actors who play these roles are alternately story tellers and characters as we see in the opening sequence when Brit, as story teller begins the tale:
“This be the story of… (Sighs. Looks back at the bulge that is wrapped in the sail. Takes a drink out of the earthen cup.Opens scroll but doesn’t read it.) The story of Brendan, born in the year of our Lord 483, in the district north of Tralee east of Dingle in Eire, green Ireland, jewel of the sea, mother lode to high breasted red haired women, Tommy boy tenors, and every use of the potato that one can know where the sun shines but rarely on the thyme and the tansy, and where poor lads like me were breech birthed in wattle huts across the river, always across, on the other side. .(The “bulge” stirs.)In the year of our Lord, 483. St. Patrick himself, standing atop a hill in Limerick, his hand stretched across the sea, foretold it.”
BIRT then become St Patrick putting on a long white beard to the sound effect of wind and surf.
“Shine you Shannon, for across your waves soon to be,
A wee laddie born will conquer thee,
And sail far out on the foam flecked sea,
God torn, Christ driven, Spirit blown he’ll be.”
BIRT then off-handedly gestures to have sound cut off. He has obviously done this before and resumes his own identity. Takes off beard. Checks bulge, speaks confidentially.
“Birt here. (Gestures towards bulge.) He calls me “Birt dog when he’s in a mood. “Dung heap”, when he’s not. You see, he was born a top the hill, I was born below. He had the fresh air, I had the bog and the smell of root and rot. He was held at the soft breast of his mother Cara, I split me Mum in two on my way out and was laid next to the black black dog by the hearth. Me father Fenn carried their buckets, you see, carried their slops, down the hill for a penny. Heap a dung. I knew Brendan first by his smell. (More demonstrative move from bulge.) Be that as it may…it was the year 483… (He unrolls BRENDAN downstage, out of the sail. BRENDAN is in monks robes, a little blinded by the light. Music accompanies this unveiling.) Brendan, son of Cara and Finnloag, one of the chosen of God, born atop a hill in Eire, swaddled in a windinq sail they say the forest about was afire with light. . .”
And Brendan appears as himself to declare: “Born in the middle of a miracle. Cara’s breasts shone like snow.”
And Birt greets him as his friend: “It’s true, my father saw.”
During their crossing, these two play themselves, the women in their lives, and even each other as they re-enact crucial, sometimes divisive moments in their friendship and discover some hidden truths.
As always, Gillette Elvgren, one of the most prolific and produced Christian writers of our times, finds the balance between the sacred and the profane.
From the Play
Cast List: 2 men/actors and one stage manager.
Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes.
Place: The Atlantic ocean. Ireland. The Coast of America.
BRENDAN: I’ll stand still if you’ll tell me the story of the storm becalmed by the hand of God’s son.
BIRT/ERC: Alright. Now sit.
(BRANDON sits at his feet.)
It was out of Sligo, off Donegal Bay that Jesus said to the twelve: ‘We sail lads, for Downpatrick’s Head,’ and as the curragh set out for sea, our Lord rested his head on rope and creel and went fast asleep. It wasn’t long, however, ’till Peter pointed aft and said, ‘Look mates, storm a gatherin’.’ Now what was the first thinq he did wrong?
BRENDAN: You don’t point when you’re at sea it’s bad luck.
BIRT/ERC: Bad luck it was, and so, as soon as it were done he should of what?
BRENDAN: Held up his thumb and crossed his fingers thus.
BIRT/ERC: Ay, but in the panic of the moment he forgot. It was Tip Tod’s day.
BRENDAN: Friday, the devil’s day.
BIRT/ERC: And the wind was out of the East, and we all know…
BRENDAN: ‘When the wind is in the East, it’s good for neither man nor beast.’
BIRT/ERC: Andrew was counting the waves.
BRENDAN: ‘Watch out for number seven.’
BIRT/ERC: And James, he called for a caul.
BIRT/ERC: At birth, it’s the membrane what covers some baby’s head. You peel it off and you dry it out. It be the most precious of charms. I’ve known winter fisherman out of Omagh to pay a gold coin for one.
BRENDAN: You never whistle at sea.
BIRT/ERC: Aye. And as the waves crashed and the wind howled ditties from hell, and there was much quaking and gnashing of teeth, the men turned to the only help that was left.
BRENDAN: ‘Master, Master, we are sinking. Wake up!’
BIRT/ERC: And he did just that. Looked around. Scratched himself here. Rubbed his left eye thus, and spoke in the most gentlest of voices:
BRENDAN: Quiet down, storm.
BIRT/ERC: And it did just that.
BOTH: ‘ Oh ye of little faith.’
BIRT/ERC: And they turned to each other, knowing now that the waves and wind and sky and stars and rocky crags themselves had ears and listened to His voice. ‘Who is this man?’
BRENDAN: I know.
BIRT/ERC: You’re movin’.
BRENDAN: I don’t want to grow roots. I want to sail out of Donegal Bay and ride the sea as Jesus strode the hills of Galilee. I want my order to sit astride the waves, not rot away in some kells or caves. Look, I wash between my toes twice a day to keep the dirt and dust away. I want to chase the sun, west, over the sea, for that will be my promised land.
(ERC cuffs him, he falls, head pulled up to knees.)
BIRT/ERC: (Gently) ‘And when the wind is in the west Then ’tis at its very best.’
(BRENDAN rises, brings up another slide. In it BRENDAN is seen praying while in the background Nuns are dancing, the tree of the garden is there with a serpent in the branches.)
BRENDAN: If I was drawn to the sea I was also drawn to them.
(Points to dancing nuns.)
Torn from my mother’s breasts, too young, Oh, they dressed from head to toe but the movement, underneath, caught the eye, then the mind. God made them with such curves, curves to be mindful of… Oh, the curse of all the in between moments, bending over wash, scratching the neck, hand at the hair like this, standing thus, stretching for apples, stretching, murmurs and laughter and hints and promises… And the way they danced.
It was the Abbess Ita who taught me to sail.
(Laughter from BIRT off.)
They call her the suckling Abbess taking in strays and orphans. Twenty three years and she’s never run dry. Other’s say that she is the hind herself who watches in the forest glen for abandoned children. And still others say that she’s a Gypsy and worships the Divine Mother of all existence until, like Paul on the road to Damascus, she met the living God on Wicklow Mount.