Did the Irish reach North America before the Vikings?

A traditional Irish seafaring craft but without sails

According to the Norse sagas, the region south of Viking territory in medieval Canada was called “Irland it Mikla,” or “Greater Ireland.”

While archeologists have yet to corroborate the sagas’ claim, academic skepticism regarding Viking settlement of the Americas also persisted until 1960 when the remnants of a Viking village were uncovered in Newfoundland.

Those surveying Ireland’s own oral history also point to the tale of St. Brendan the Navigator, a 6th-century Irish monk, though his legendary exploits, which also include encountering the Loch Ness monster, could have been based on blarney as much as fact. In one popular yarn, the monk set sail after hearing another priest, St. Barinthus, speak of discovering the Garden of Eden far off to the west.

Sailing with a currach, a rounded Irish boat built with wood and animal skins, St. Brendan described traveling past giants who hurled fireballs that reeked of rotten eggs as well as columns made of crystal. Eventually, he found a bountiful land brimming with fresh water and lush flora.

While St. Brendan supposedly believed he discovered Paradise, and “St. Brendan’s Island” appeared on many medieval maps until the age of Christopher Columbus, some have proposed that the details of his travelogue correspond to real-life natural features at various points across the north Atlantic, albeit with a generous dose of colorful Irish storytelling. After all, giants hurdling sulfuric fireballs could be swapped out for Icelandic volcanoes while crystal towers could stand in for icebergs.

In 1976 British explorer Tim Severin set out to show St. Brendan’s trip was possible in the 6th century. After building a period-accurate currach, he successfully sailed from Ireland to Newfoundland, proving there could be more to the Irish myth than mere malarky.