Sebastian Sobecki to appear on BBC Radio 3

The Essay

Saint Brendan's Isle
Erland Cooper's Phantom Islands


Join Orcadian composer Erland Cooper on a late-night voyage around the Atlantic in search of Phantom Islands...

Saint Brendan was an Irish abbot born in the 5th century, known for travelling long distances to found monasteries- he reputedly visited Orkney, Shetland and the Faroes. Several centuries after his death, a Latin text - Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis - appeared which told the story of his extraordinary seven-year voyage across the seas, which culminated in his arrival on the Land of Promise. It was a self-tilling, fruitarian paradise where the weather was always just right, and visitors could find precious stones in abundance.

Painting the picture of this heavenly island is Sebastian Sobecki, Professor of Later Medieval English Literature at the University of Toronto. As a phantom island, St Brendan's Isle or the Fortunate Isles began appearing from the 13th century. One version of the text references the Atlas mountains and they sometimes appeared near the Canary Islands, Madeira and the Azores. Another text mentions that Brendan travelled West from Ireland and so the phantom island began appearing in the North Atlantic near Canada.

Cartographers at the time took Brendan's voyage seriously and it was also used by Dr John Dee to justify Elizabeth I's colonial ambitions in North America - which highlights how phantom islands can also serve a political purpose.

Score by Erland Cooper
Recorded at Studio Orphir
Violin, Freya Goldmark
Cello, Klara Shumann
Soprano, Lottie Greenhow and Josephine Stephenson

Readings by Keeley Forsyth from Denis O’Donoghue's translation of the Navigatio sancti Brendani abbatis and a 12th-century poem by a Norman-English trouvère.

Producer: Victoria Ferran
Exec producer: Susan Marling
A Just Radio production for BBC Radio 3