Brendan (Brénainn) of Clonfert (d. 577/83), saint in the Irish tradition, monastic founder, and reputed voyager, is believed to have been born in the district around what is now Tralee, Co. Kerry, into a south-western branch of the Ciarraige: the Ciarraige Luachra, of whom he is the patron saint. His patronymic, ‘Moccu Alti’, indicates that he belonged to the Alltraige, a subdivision of the Ciarraige Luachra. Brendan figures several times in the genealogies of the Irish saints, where his father's name is given as Findlug son of Olchon (Elchú). His mother's name, strangely, is not given in the sources, which relate that he received his early education under a bishop Erc, by whom he was baptised – it is most unlikely that the man in question was Erc (qv) (d. 513/5), bishop of Slane. They also state that he was advised by Íte (qv), ‘foster-mother of the saints of Ireland’, to go to Brittany where he founded a monastery, and that he was finally ordained a priest by Erc. His earliest monastic foundations were at Annaghdown, Ardfert, and Shankeel (now Brandon Hill). After his return to Ireland from journeys in Scotland, Wales, and Brittany, he founded (558/64) Cluain Ferta Brénaind (Brendan's meadow of the burial mound; Clonfert, east Co. Galway). In his native Kerry his most important foundation is Ard Ferta (the height of the burial mound; Ardfert).
Brendan's fame as a monastic founder and voyager spread throughout Ireland and Britain, into Brittany, and in the later middle ages into many other parts of western and northern Europe. It is said that he sailed to the islands of Scotland, and Adomnán (qv), in his ‘Vita Columbae’ (iii, 17), refers to a visit he made to Colum Cille (qv) on Iona in the company of Comgall (qv) of Bangor, Cainnech (qv) of Achad Bó, and Cormac (qv) the pilgrim monk. Adomnán recalls that at a mass celebrated by Colum Cille he beheld a beam of light shining from Brendan's forehead during the offertory. Legends of the voyages undertaken by Brendan form part of the several versions of his Life and are the subject of ‘Navigatio Sancti Brendani abbatis’, which was written in Ireland towards the end of the eighth century, or by an Irishman on the Continent. The ‘Navigatio’ purports to recall an epic voyage by Brendan to ‘the promised land of the saints’. It may preserve some folk record of Irish voyages to northern Europe, Greenland, and possibly further afield. It is written in the mode of the immrama or voyage tales of Irish literature, intending no doubt both to edify and to delight. Translated into several vernaculars, it was widely circulated in manuscript copies in the following centuries.
The details of Brendan's life are frequently confused in hagiographical literature with those of his namesake, Brendan (qv) of Birr. The Annals place his death variously in 577 or 583. His feast-day is 16 May. His familia is commemorated in the Martyrology of Tallaght under 22 April (‘Egressio familia Brendini’), with a following litany of sixty monks.