Did the Irish Explore America in 1100 AD?

PHOTO: Morning mist on Steinhagen Reservoir, Martin Dies Jr. State Park, Texas, courtesy of Plazak
PHOTO courtesy of Plazak

In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue… and before that time, no European had ever so much as even imagined there being a world beyond the ocean, let alone stepped foot on the continent of North America. That’s what we were all taught as young and dreamy-eyed school children each October, but what if the long recited narrative is wrong — way wrong?

Enter the field of forbidden history: Part sci-fi, part archeology, part conspiracy theory and 100% fascinating.

Granted, the evidence is shaky and a far cry from being enough to send someone to the gallows, but as time progresses there is an increasing number of individuals who seeing evidences in a totally new light and are questioning everything you’ve ever been taught about the history of America.

The modern theory of ancient Irish missionaries appearing in the New World roughly a millennium ago has its origins with an unusual discovery in the coalfields of Southern West Virginia during the early-1980s.

As the story goes, local residents in the tiny community of Dingess, West Virginia, discovered ancient markings and engravings on large boulders near a strip mines.

The slabs of rock, which were found on property owned by the Marrowbone Development Corporation, immediately became the source of study for scholars from around the world, as the markings were said to resemble ancient Irish letters known as Celtic Ogham.

In October of 1988, representatives from the Irish Embassy, including the nation’s secretary of cultural affairs met with archaeologist Robert Pyle to examine the ancient rock carvings, referred to as petroglyphs.

Speaking to members of the media, Pyle was quoted as having said, “They’re really unique. They have Christian religious symbols that are identifiable, many of them identifiable were recorded very early… The markings appear to be from around as early as the eighth century to the 12th century A.D.”

The veteran archaeologist said that he believed the markings were made by early Irish missionaries who followed major trails through the mountains, stating, “It’s really a tremendous discovery.”

Pyle is not alone in his belief that the Irish were roaming the hills along the Tug Valley centuries prior to Columbus’ voyage.

Dr. Barry Fell, a biologist who has studied numerous archaeological sites and ancient languages, contended that ancient West Virginia Petroglyphs were indeed written in the ancient Irish language known as Ogham.

Translating rock markings found in neighboring Wyoming County, West Virginia, Dr. Fell concluded that the ancient message carved into the rocks read: “At the time of sunrise, a ray grazes the notch on the left side on Christmas Day, the first season of the year, the season of the blessed advent of the savior Lord Christ. Behold he is born of Mary, a woman.”

But not everyone is convinced — in 1989 lawyers Monroe Oppenheimer and Willard Wirtz wrote an article based on opinions of other archaeologists and linguistic experts, disputing the theory that the inscription is written in Ogham script. They further accused Fell of deliberate fraud, a charge Fell denied.

Regardless of what the West Virginia Petroglyphs turn out to be, however, there are still numerous unanswered puzzle pieces that seem to beg the question, “Could there actually be something to all to all of this?”

Most notable, is tale of a Celtic missionary who spent his life attempting to convert pagan Ireland to Christianity.

A century after St. Patrick, another Irish saint embarked on a legendary voyage that some believe took him to North America.

Born in County Kerry in 484 A.D., St. Brendan the Navigator is said to have traveled tirelessly to evangelize and establish monasteries following his ordination to the priesthood at age 28.

“The sixth-century monk frequently sailed the high seas to spread the gospel throughout Ireland as well as to Scotland, Wales and Brittany in the north of France… According to a 1,500-year-old Irish tale, however, St. Brendan embarked on one particularly epic journey in the winter of his 93-year-old life. According to the story, St. Barinthus told St. Brendan that he had just returned from a visit to Paradise, a land that lurked far beyond the horizon. For 40 days St. Brendan fasted and prayed atop a mountain on the rugged Dingle Peninsula, a spindly finger of land on the west of Ireland that points directly at North America..” writes Christopher Klein.

While most considered the narrative of St. Brendan to be nothing more than a religious allegory, there has been considerable discussion as to whether the legends are based at least partly on fact.

Tales through the Middle Ages, long before Columbus’s voyage, detail the early missionary’s travels and even describe his sailing vessel: a currach-like boat of wattle, covered with hides tanned in oak bark and softened with butter. The boat had a mast and a sail, which protected he and a small group of monks as they traveled beyond the ocean’s western horizon.

There have been many interpretations of the possible geographical location of Saint Brendan’s Island, if the account is even true, but numerous pre-Columbian sea charts included an island somewhere  in the far-western Atlantic known simply as St. Brendan’s Island.

British historian, explorer and writer Tim Severin demonstrated that it is possible for a leather-clad boat, such as the one described in the tale of St. Brendan, to reach North America.

The story was known widely in Europe throughout the Middle Ages and some historians argue that Christopher Columbus learned from the account that the currents and winds would favor westbound travel by a southerly route from the Canary Islands, and eastbound on the return trip by a more northerly route, and hence followed this itinerary on all of his voyages.

Other tales state that when the Spanish began exploring the New World in what is now North and South Carolina, they came in contact with a mysterious tribe of natives known as the Duhares.

According to an article penned by Kerry O’Shea last year, “Physically, the people of Duhare appeared to be European according to the Spanish colonists in the area. The people of Duhare had red to brown hair, tan skin and gray eyes, and were noticeably taller than the Spanish. According to Spanish accounts, the people of Duhare were Caucasian, though their houses and pottery were similar to those of American Indians…”

O’Shea writes, that roughly a decade ago a team of researchers attempted to record every single Native American word that was translated by the Spanish. “While many of those words were easily translated by modern Creek, Alabama, Koasati or Choctaw dictionaries, the words associated with the province of Duhare defied translation until 2011… Researchers began to investigate the similarity of Irish rock carvings to those in the state of South Carolina. One member of the [team] came across an ancient Irish lullaby entitled ‘Bainne nam fiadh’ – ‘On milk of deer I was reared. On milk of deer I was nurtured. On milk of deer beneath the ridge of storms on crest of hill and mountain.’ The lullaby has particular significance as the deer were a prominent resource for Duhare people. According to Spanish sources, the Duhare maintained large herds of domesticated deer and made cheese from deer milk. The excess male deer population was fattened with corn for butchering.”

Granted, all of these legends, tall tales and mysteries aren’t quite enough to call for the burning of history textbooks, but they certainly cause one to pause and began wondering, “Could it be that history as we know it may not be accurate?”

Like articles like this? Then you would love Appalachian Magazine’s Mountain Voice: 2017: A Collection of Memories, Histories, and Tall Tales of Appalachia!  Click here to check out the book on Amazon!

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