About Names: Dr. Evans on “Brendan”

Brendan Fraser (Photo by Montclair Film, CC-BY-2.0)

Dr. Cleveland Evans writes about names for the Omaha World-Herald. In his March 12th column, he discusses the name “Brendan”.

Will Brendan win an Oscar tonight?

Brendan Fraser (born 1968) is nominated for Best Actor for portraying a morbidly obese man in “The Whale.” He’s already won top prizes from the Screen Actors Guild and Critics’ Choice Awards.

Irish actor Brendan Gleeson (born 1955) is nominated for Best Supporting Actor for “The Banshees of Inisherin,” where his character cuts off the fingers of his left hand to spite his former best friend.

The Welsh word breenhin, meaning “prince,” was turned into the name Brénainn in ancient Ireland. Monks writing in Latin made this “Brendanus.” That led to the modern Irish Gaelic Breandán and English Brendan.

Seventeen medieval Irish saints were called Brénainn. The most famous, St. Brendan of Clonfert (484-577), is called “Brendan the Navigator.” Three centuries after his death, “The Voyage of St. Brendan the Abbot” appeared, claiming Brendan and 16 monks discovered a blessed forested island full of songbirds where the sun never set.

If St. Brendan’s Isle wasn’t completely imaginary, it was probably based on sightings of Atlantic islands like Madeira. However, since 1900, the theory that Brendan reached the Americas centuries before Columbus has been popular. Many songs, poems and novels are based on that speculation.

Despite that, Brendan vanished as a given name when Ireland’s British overlords prohibited most Gaelic names in official records. It was revived by Irish nationalists in the late 19th century.

The first Brendan in the United States census was an Irish-born monk at Indiana’s University of Notre Dame in 1870. He probably adopted the name after taking vows.

The oldest Brendan in the 1880 census, 36-year-old Canadian-born Brendan Letourneau of West Waterville, Maine, was probably an example of the 19th-century French Canadian fashion of searching the saints’ calendar for obscure baby names.

The first American-born example, 9-year-old Brendan Merrigan, lived with Irish immigrant parents Patrick and Mary in New York City in 1880.