The Mythical Island of Hy-Brasil

Magini map c.1597

Hy-Brasil, also spelled Hy-Breasal, Hy-Brazil, Hy-Breasil, Brazir and related variations, is a phantom island which features in many Irish myths. It was said to be cloaked in mist, except for one day each seven years, when it became visible but could still not be reached. It probably has similar roots to St Brendan’s Island. Another basis may be Helluland (probably Labrador), discovered by the Vikings. The names Brazil and Hy-Brazil are thought to come from the Irish Uí Breasail (meaning “descendants (i.e., clan) of Breasal”), one of the ancient clans of North-Eastern Ireland.

It appears that as the north Atlantic was explored, the name of Hy Brazil may have been attached to a real place. A Catalan map of about 1480 labels two islands “Illa de brasil”, one to the south west of Ireland (where the mythical place was supposed to be) and one south of “Illa verde” or Greenland. Expeditions left Bristol in 1480 and 1481 to search for it, and a letter written shortly after the return of John Cabot from his expedition in 1497

Off Ireland- Canepa, Map 1489
reports that land found by Cabot had been “discovered in the past by the men from Bristol who found Hy Brasil. Some historians claim that the navigator Pedro Álvares Cabral thought that he had reached this island in 1500, thus naming the country of Brazil. However, Cabral didn’t choose the name ‘Brazil’. The country was at first named Ilha de Vera Cruz (Island of the True Cross), later Terra de Santa Cruz (Land of the Holy Cross) and still later ‘Brazil’. The generally accepted theory states that it was renamed for the brazilwood, which has an extreme red color (so “brasil” derivated from “brasa”: ember), a plant very valuable in Portuguese commerce and abundant in the new-found land.

Others claimed to have seen the island, or even landed on it, the last supposed sighting being in 1872. Roderick O’Flaherty in A Chorographical Description of West or H-Iar Connaught (1684) tells us “There is now living, Morogh O’Ley, who immagins he was himself personally on O’Brasil for two days, and saw out of it the iles of Aran, Golamhead, Irrosbeghill, and other places of the west continent he was acquainted with.”

On maps, the island was shown as being circular, soon with a central strait or river running east-west across its diameter. Despite the failure of attempts to find it, it appeared regularly on maps lying south west of Galway Bay from 1325 until 1865, by which time it was called Brazil Rock.

One of the most famous visits to Hy-Brasil was in 1674 by Captain John Nisbet of Killybegs, Co. Donegal, Ireland. He and his crew were in familiar waters west of Ireland, when a fog came up. As the fog lifted, the ship was dangerously close to rocks. While getting their bearings, the ship anchored in three fathoms of water, and four crew members rowed ashore to visit Hy-Brasil. They spent a day on the island, and returned with silver and gold given to them by an old man who lived there. Upon the return of the crew to Ireland, a second ship set out under the command of Alexander Johnson.

Wagenhaer, Map 1583
They, too, found the hospitable island of Hy-Brasil and returned to Ireland to confirm the tales of Captain Nisbet and crew.

The last documented sighting of Hy-Brasil was in 1872, when author T. J. Westropp and several companions saw the island appear and then vanish. This was Mr. Westropp’s third view of Hy-Brasil, but on this voyage he had brought his mother and some friends to verify the Island’s existence.

On my celtic folklore travels through the internet and books, I have come across several mythicial Lands. The fairy islands off the coast of Pembrokeshire Wales, Lyonesse south west of Cornwall and now Hy Brazil West of Galway Bay in Ireland. These lost Islands live in the earliest versions of the Celtic tales and I do wonder, did these islands once exist and have now been lost to earthquakes and other geological events? Or are they a fantasy utopia created to give hope to those living in constantly chaotic societies? or maybe even the vestiges of the Islands Falias, Gorias, Murias and Findias, the homes of the Tuatha De Danaan.? I guess we will never really know the truth but it does give food for thought!!

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