According to ancient Irish legend, St. Brendan spent seven years exploring the North Atlantic in a small boat made of animal hide, searching for new lands to spread the Christian faith. He eventually found an island filled with fruit and precious gems, then returned to tell the tale that has survived many generations and about 1,500 years.
The Irish who first settled on this small island in Bonavista Bay likely had this legend in mind when they named their new home. There wasn’t any fruit or precious stones, but there was plenty of fish, lumber and good soil for farming. It would sustain them and future generations, riding out resettlement, a fishing moratorium and outmigration...
(To read the rest of Shawn's story, check out the March issue of Downhome, on stands now!)
Here are some of the stories of those who call St. Brendan's home:
Super Brains on St. Brendan’s
There’s a tradition of academics in the O’Reilly family. Kevin is a retired teacher, his wife still teaches on the island, and his mother was one of the few women from St. Brendan’s to go to college in the 1930s.
Smarts must run in the family because all three of the O’Reilly children went to university with full scholarships, and two won the prestigious Loran Award, given each year to 30 students from across Canada out of a nominee pool of 4,000. The Loran Award is worth up to $75,000, making it the largest undergraduate merit scholarship in Canada.
Part of the reason for such scholastic success could be that classes at St. Gabriel’s All Grade rarely top six students, giving each child a lot more individual attention than they’d get in a larger school. There is also no high-speed Internet on the island, making online gaming nearly impossible. The lack of distraction encourages kids to study, according to Kevin.
“We don’t have a whole lot of other things,” he says. “School and education are still important here.”
Without a lot of recreational activities on the island, kids have to be resourceful if they want to have fun. Kevin’s youngest son, Peter, built a tennis court for himself and the other kids of St. Brendan’s to use.
“You encourage them to get tangled up with a lot of things,” Kevin says.
“Nothing’s going to happen if everyone says, ‘I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to do this.’ Go at it gung ho. Have fun with it.”
Model Schooner Collection
Winters in the outport were long and dull before modern luxuries like satellite TV and the Internet. Kevin O’Reilly’s uncle, Richard Beresford, built model schooners while he waited for the ice to melt and the next fishing season to begin.
Richard passed away a year ago, but about 20 of his models still remain where he left them in his home on St. Brendan’s. Each schooner is based on historic ships and are intricately detailed, from the ship’s wheel to the rigging.
“He had no modern tools, just old hand saws, bench vices and a hand drill,” says Kevin.
Richard hammered the anchor out of lead left over from a local shipbuilding operation, and he followed schematics as if he were building a life-size sailing ship.
Kevin says his uncle used to get a lot of visitors who wanted to see his models, especially older men who had worked on schooners when they were common in the 1930s and ’40s.
“There was a lot of old talk in them about schooners and one thing or another,” says Kevin. “It was a nice experience for people to walk in as he was making it, and to watch him sawing out the little planks.”
Richard lost his hearing at a young age, and Kevin would help him communicate with his visitors. Now that he’s passed on, Kevin looks after his uncle’s collection. But Richard didn’t leave a will, and the future of the house and its collection of models is unclear.
“We feel wherever they go, they should go all together,” says Kevin. “There’s no point hiding it in someone’s house where no one can see them. But where to put them is an issue.”