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Barrind’s Wonderful Island

January 21, 2011 in Articles

Barrind’s Wonderful Island

Fergus Ryan

One of the most delightful of the early Irish Christian texts tells of the wonderful voyage of Barrind. The journey begins at an island monastery in Co. Donegal, and passes through a strange fog to another island, a magical place of shadowless light that is like the heavenly New Jerusalem. 

The island monastery in Donegal is called the Island of Delights, where Barrind’s disciple, Mernóc, is its abbot. This is the model Christian community after which all others in Ireland might profitably pattern themselves. From here Barrind sails westward into a fog or cloud where time and space seem to change. Beyond the fog he approaches an island that is unlike any familiar to the readers of this tale. The light that surrounds the island is unlike any earthly light, nor does it leave any shadows, for it seems to be all around. On landing Barrind discovers that the flowers are always in bloom and the trees in fruit. The stones of the island are precious stones, and a river runs through the centre from east to west. Here there are no unmet needs, no hunger or thirst, no need for clothing.

Barrind’s wonderful island is nothing less than the biblical New Jerusalem, a metaphor of the destiny of every true disciple of Jesus. The cloud is symbolic of the presence of God whereby each believer has access to the realm of the Spirit. Like the New Jerusalem this island ‘does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it. The glory of God is its light’ (Revelation 21:23). Here, it seems, the Tree of Life produces fruit twelve times a year, and here too a River, the water of life, flows through the middle from the throne of God (Rev 22:1,2). Beneath Barrind’s feet are precious stones, like the twelve jewels which form the foundations of the heavenly ‘city’, each bearing the name of one of Jesus’ disciples (Rev 21:14). In this place of true human destiny, nothing unclean enters, and there is no want.

As Barrind surveys this magical and glowing place in wonder, he is approached by a man of great splendour, an angel who knows his name, and who introduces him to the extensive island; it takes fifteen days to walk around its perimeter. John the Apostle, too, was approached by an angel who carried him away in the Spirit and showed him the New Jerusalem, which is the ‘Bride of Christ’ (Rev 21:9,10).

For Barrind, as for every true follower of Jesus, the Kingdom of God and its ‘treasures’, are not merely at the end of life’s journey, but accessible at our fingertips and at every moment in the ‘cloud’ of God’s presence, the Holy Spirit. And they may be experienced too in thousands of ‘Islands of Delight’, Christian communities where Jesus’ followers live them out before a world of lost travellers looking for their true destiny.

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This story of Barrind forms part of the Navigatio, an early Irish Christian document which tells of the great and eventful voyage of Brendan. Some years ago Tim Severin set out from Ireland in a small leather boat, the Brendan, and reached North America, demonstrating that Irish monks may well have been the first Europeans to reach the continent. Tim now lives in Cork and has kindly given us permission to use the boat as Trinity’s logo.

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