Hy Brasil – The True Story of a Mythical Island

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Hy Brasil Appears (AI image © Bing Image Creator)
Hy Brasil Appears (AI image © Bing Image Creator)

Hy Brasil was an island off the coast of Ireland – seen by many people over a thousand years, visited by a few, and recorded on navigation maps for five centuries. Curiously, the island didn’t remain in one location. Instead it was seen over a vast stretch of coastline – from County Cork to County Antrim. Then it disappeared from maps completely. What was the story behind this “enchanted island“?

The Name of the Island

Tales of the island of Hy Brasil were told over centuries, possibly from the pre-Christian Era.

In The Adventure of Bran Son of Febal first recorded in the seventh century, Bran travels to Hy-Brasil (from Gaelic, “Isle of the Blessed”) a paradise supported on golden pillars. No one is ever sad or ill there; they are always happy, continually playing games to musical accompaniment.

Exploration in the World of the Middle Ages 500 – 1500, Pamela White 2005

A variety of names were used over the centuries for the strange wandering island – Bracile, Insula de Brasil, Brasil, Do Brasil, Brasil Rock, O’Brasil and even Tír na nÓg on occasions.

The Journal of the Cork Historical & Archeological Society (1892AD) tells of a pagan legend of a mystical island off the western coast of Ireland known as Tir-fa-Tonn (“the land beneath the waves”). Parallels have therefore been drawn to the story of Atlantis, an island similarly submerged beneath the Atlantic ocean.

Cork Historical & Archeological Society
Cork Historical & Archeological Society

Sightings of the Enchanted Island

“On the afternoon of Sunday , July 7 , 1878 , the inhabitants of Ballycotton , County Cork , were greatly excited by the sudden appearance, far out at sea, of an island where none was known to exist. The men of the town and island of Ballycotton were fishermen and knew the sea as well as they knew the land. The day before, they had been out in their boats and sailed over the spot where the strange island now appeared.”

D.R. McAnally Jr, Irish Wonders, 1888

As the day was clear, the island could be seen clearly – rocky in places, densely wooded in others with shrubs and green meadows visible to the astounded villagers. A hundred boats immediately set sail to investigate the unknown island but as they approached the spot the island became less vivid, growing dim and then gradually fading from view entirely. The villagers returned to land “convinced for the first time in their lives that they had seen the Enchanted Island” of legend.

“… this (island) is said to be constantly shrouded in mist and cloud, but every seven years the clouds part and the island becomes visible”.

Exploration in the World of the Middle Ages 500 – 1500, Pamela White 2005

Reports of the island sighting spread widely. Repeated word of mouth tellings eventually described a very different island than that seen near Cork as it became ever larger with cities and castles, palaces and cathedrals, towers and steeples, mountain ranges and vast plains.

However, one element of the enchanted island story was common to all accounts – the island was not limited to one location.

“It (the island) disdains any such commonplace course as other islands are content to follow, but is peripatetic, or, more properly, seafaring in its habits, and as fond of travelling as a sailor .

D.R. McAnally Jr, Irish Wonders, 1888
Ireland - Public Domain Image by Future Perfect at Sunrise
Ireland – Public Domain Image by Future Perfect at Sunrise

Sightings of the island were reported in Cork, Kerry, Galway, Mayo, Sligo, Donegal and off the coast of County Antrim near Rathlin Island.

St Brendan the Navigator

St Brendan of Clonfert (c. AD 484 – c.577) was recorded as an early visitor to the Isle of the Blessed. The tale of his voyage resulted in Brendan being lauded under a number of different titles – Brendan the Navigator, Brendan the Voyager and Brendan the Bold.

Brendan’s tale is recounted in the Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis (Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot) and has been retold many times over the centuries. The earliest existing version of the Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis dates to c. AD 900 and tells of a voyage undertaken by Brendan around AD 512–530 in search of the Land of Promise. Accompanied by a number of monks he set sail in a currach (an Irish boat with a wooden frame, over which tanned animal skins or hides were stretched).

Saint Brendan and his monks set sail - Punlic Domain Image Wikimedia
Saint Brendan and his monks set sail – Public Domain Image Wikimedia

St Brendan’s voyage lasted 7 years with numerous adventures along the way e.g. On one occasion St Brendan and the Monks sheltered on a seemingly deserted island. However, on lighting a fire, the island began to move and they realised they had unknowingly camped on the back of a huge sea creature! Not all of his companions survived the journey.

Eventually they did discover the “Promised Land for Saints” and were made welcome and allowed to enter briefly. St Brendan and his crew returned to Ireland celebrating their awe-inspiring discovery. The island is said to have disappeared as the visitors left.

There has been much discussion on the Voyage of St Brendan. Most interpret the various adventures as a form of religious allegory, others suggest it is purely a folk-tale while others believe that there may be some truth in the story of the mysterious island.

St Brendan’s voyage bears many similarities with other ‘voyage’ stories of that era including The Voyage of Bran, son of Febail (written in the late 7th or early 8th century) and The Voyage of Máel Dúin (written in early to mid-900).

Further Hy Brasil Sightings over the Centuries

Hy Brasil was represented on navigational maps between 1325 and 1865 (though seldom in the same place twice). Commonly the island was portrayed as roughly circular with a river or divide running through the middle of it. The earliest surviving navigational reference to ”Bracile” appears on a 1325 map by Angelino Dulcert who described the island as a strikingly round form.

Dulcert, Angelino 1325 Map - Wikimedia Commons Public Domain
Dulcert, Angelino 1325 Map – Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

In the 11th century a monk, Borino, claimed to have visited the island. As he departed, the island was obscured by clouds before sinking into the waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

After several purported sightings of the mysterious island the Spanish & Portuguese embarked on a series of expeditions to find the island. In 1452 the Portuguese prince Henry sent Diogo de Tieve to locate the island. His best efforts failed and he returned in defeat. Several unsuccessful expeditions followed.

Piri Reis' map of Europe and the Mediterranean Sea from 1513 - Public Domain
Piri Reis’ map of Europe and the Mediterranean Sea from 1513 – Public Domain

In 1480 the merchants of Bristol sponsored John Lloyd to search for the Island in the hope of claiming the island and and, more importantly, the potentially lucrative fishing rights for the area around the island . Lloyd explored the area for 9 weeks before giving up. The Bristol merchants sponsored several more expeditions, all ending in failure, before admitting defeat in their endeavours.

Map of Europe from 1570 - Public Domain
Map of Europe from 1570 – Public Domain
Map of Europe from 1570 - Detail Public Domain
Map of Europe from 1570 – Public Domain Detail (See Brasil in the centre of image)

In the 16th and 17th centuries both the Spanish and the Portuguese remained so certain of the existence of San Brandon’s island that, when the Portuguese ceded the Canary Islands to Spain in June 1595, they included the Inconstant or Mysterious island of San Brendon. Spanish representatives of the Canaries immediately sought the island using the maps of the day but the island continued to elude them.

Gerardus Mercator's map from 1595
Gerardus Mercator’s map from 1595
Gerardus Mercator's 1595 Map Brasil detail
Gerardus Mercator’s 1595 Map Brasil detail

In 1674 a Captain Nesbitt discovered Hy Brasil by chance. Nesbitt dropped anchor and came ashore with some of his crew. In the midst of thick, almost impenetrable woodlands they discovered an extremely ancient castle. On entering they found it furnished but everything lay under a thick layer of dust. Three very old men appeared leaning on staffs. Nesbitt’s attempt to converse was met with one of the old men speaking in an archaic language with a palpable sense of menace. Nesbitt and his crew fled the island, seeing it sink beneath the waves as they departed. (In other versions of the tale he returned with gold and silver gifts from the old men).

In 1753 British Cartographer Thomas Jefferys produced a map challenging the Hy Brasil story with the island shown west of Ireland but labeled the “imaginary Isle O’Brazil

Quiet Afternoon in Rathlin
Rathlin Island Today

Appearance at Rathlin Island

The island, however, continued its unpredictable journey…

In the late 19th Century, it disappears from the charts specifically relating to the Galway coast, but can still be found lying slightly to the south of Rathlin island in County Antrim (between Church Bay and Ballycastle) where it is marked as “Green Island”

Bob Curran, Lost lands, Forgotten Realms: Sunken Continents, Vanished Cities & the Kingdoms That History Misplaced, 2006
Bob Curran, Lost lands, Forgotten Realms
Bob Curran, Lost lands, Forgotten Realms

The author, Bob Curran, notes that a famous Rathlin story teller, Rose McCrudy, of the 1950s and 1960s told of the fairies from the “Green Island” visiting Hiring Fairs in Ballycastle to hire humans to work the land on the Green Island for 7 years. The ‘contract’ was renewable every 7 years when the island reappeared.

“There are also those who have seen a great island , with beautiful woods and lawns, and waterfalls, with high purple mountains appearing in the setting sun over Rathlin, similar to the visions of Tir-na-noge of the ancients”

Rev Alfred Richardson, A Guide to Ballycastle Neighbourhood, 1905

What is the Explanation for Hy Brasil?

One True Hy Brasil

Some researchers suggest, quite sensibly, that the story of a ‘moving’ island is simply not true – the peripatetic theory and associated stories represent an amalgamation of a variety of mysterious island sightings around the coastline. This is not unlikely as the old stories of the past were often contradictory, borrowed bits from each other or merged into a single all-encompassing tale. This would certainly explain some of the name variations unique to one setting (e.g Green Island near Rathlin). It is a fact that a number of mysterious islands were noted with their own stories.

Though the idea of a ‘moving’ island is disputed some still believe that Hy Brasil does exist in one place – off the coast of Galway near the Aran Islands is suggested. One gentleman contacted us on the original publication of this story to state that the island does appear in the one location every 7 years and he has seen it.

The Sceptics View of Hy Brasil

The most common explanation for the enchanted island in literature is to say that it never existed.

The famous Hy-Brasil of medieaval folk-lore was an enchanted island occasionally seen on the verge of the Western Sea – the mystic region to the pagan mind where the great Sun God each evening sank to sleep.

Journal of the Cork Historical & Archeological Society, Volume 1. 1892

Hy-Brasil is purely mythical” (Exploration of the World of the Middle Ages, 500 – 1500). Many others agree suggesting it was an old folk-tale that persisted through the ages and was accordingly removed from maps.

The maps showing Hy Brasil are explained by asserting that those drawing the maps were misled by coastal inhabitants claiming to have seen the island and added it to their maps accordingly. Others suggest that untrustworthy map-makers added the fantasy island to their maps to generate interest.

The Mirage of Hy Brasil

Another explanation is that Hy Brasil is simply a mirage when a sweltering sun combines with mist giving the appearance of a land on the horizon. It disappears of course as boats approach.

“A curious feature about the island (Rathlin) is that it’s shores, on the land side are said to present varied optical delusions – sometimes in the form of soldiers being drilled, and on one occasion, a whole fleet was seen off Church Bay.

Rev Alfred Richardson, A Guide to Ballycastle Neighbourhood, 1905

Hy Brasil – The Land of the Gods

Several accounts to Hy Brasil refer to repeated references to the island being inhabited by gods. Some of these claims are common to other tales and are probably ‘borrowed’ from them

“Hy-Brasil is, imagined in Irish lore, to be the place that the Irish gods came from. On the island of Hy-Brasil the gods had a luxurious life. They were able to develop an advanced civilisation”

Jonathan Young from The Ancient Alien Theory, Edited C.R. Hale 2018

A More Fanciful Explanation

More extreme interpretations are not unusual.

“If Hy-Brasil is an actual land, very possibly it could be that at one time on Planet Earth there was superior technology, a civilization that progress that far surpasses even our own today. And these people originated from the stars. They are the people that the human race descended from.

Tim Swartz (Editor: Conspiracy Journal) from The Ancient Alien Theory, Edited C.R. Hale 2018

A More Traditional Folk Tale

A personal favourite is an old traditional tale – a tale of kings, beheadings and retribution.

D.R. McAnally (Irish wonders, 1888) reports that one man, Dennis Moriarty, claimed to know of the island’s origin having heard the tale from “the good people themselves“.

Morriarty tells of the Island of Souls Repose with a large population, palaces and towers covered in gold & silver. Souls Repose was ruled by a king described as one of “Satan’s own“. The king had a ferocious temper and was known to have beheaded several of his wives for displeasing him.

In search of a new wife, the king showered gifts and diamonds on a princess of the Joyces. Tempted by the king’s seeming affability and generosity but also aware of his violent reputation the princess confided in a local Enchanter. He taught her two charms – one to protect her from the kings wrath and another to bring the Enchanter to her side. The princess agreed to become the kings bride.

At first the marriage went well. The king was happy, treated her well and she got on well with his other wives. However one fateful morning the king was in a foul mood and, when wished ‘Good morning’ by his new queen, he yelled that she should hold her tongue.

His queen, initially startled, replied in fury that she would not be bullied as she came from a race that ‘never owned a coward’ and wouldn’t give that (snapping her fingers in front of his nose) for all the big swords he could carry.

King & Queen Confrontation
King & Queen Confrontation

The furious king pulled out his sword and reached for his queens head but she uttered the first charm to freeze the king on the spot. The second charm brought the Enchanter to her side. He arranged for the populace to be made welcome in Connemara and found husbands for all the kings wives.

Bewitched King with Sword (from Irish wonders)
Bewitched King with Sword (from Irish wonders)

The Enchanter then cursed the island. The king was condemned to live alone there for as long as the sun rises and falls. The island would nevermore stand still, but must travel up and down the coast visible only for one day every 7 years. This would serve as a warning “to kings not to cut off the heads of their wives.”

The Finding of Hy Brasil from Glanlua and Other Poems by William Larminie 1889
The Finding of Hy Brasil from Glanlua and Other Poems by William Larminie 1889

Related post

Rathlin Island – An Eventful History

Leaving Rathlin
Rathlin Island, County Antrim is a short ferry journey from Ballycastle and offers a perfect escape from your everyday life.

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