• Fraser du Toit

Hy Brasil - Ireland's Disappearing Island

Legends of lost lands are abundant. You can hardly kick a rock down the road without uncovering some myth from times past about a magical place beyond the horizon. The British have Avalon. Plato had the paradise of Atlantis. Ultima Thule filled Roman minds with wonder. The list goes on.

Not to be outdone by anyone, the people of Ireland have their own mystery island. Hy Brasil is said to appear once every seven years off the western coast of Ireland. Many have attempted to find the legendary locale. More have speculated on what might be found there.



If it's on a Map, it Has to be Real



The Island of Hy Brasil has been a part of Irish folklore for hundreds of years. It appears on maps as early as 1325. Genoese cartographer, Angelino Dalorto, added the island to his maps. He placed its location to the west of Ireland.

Despite the fact that nearly no one has been able to find it, the island appears on islands up to the 15th century. These later maps place it somewhere to the southwest of Galway Bay.



Its placement on the map is informed by the myth, and the myth itself is reinforced by its inclusion on maps. Interestingly, some claim that the name of the South American country comes from the myth of the island. Others believe the name comes from the Brazil wood tree, which was so named after its red color. Brasa, meaning 'embers' in Latin.

The name, Hy Brasil, comes from roots in old to middle Irish. Hy is likely a derivative of the word for Island. Brasil is related to bres, which means great beauty/worth/might. Another thought is that the word Brasil comes from Uí Breasail which means descendants of the Bresail clan.

The island is often depicted as perfectly round on older maps. It has a semicircular river bisecting it. The image in the center of the Brazilian flag used to be a representation of Hy Brasil.


Who Cares About some Island?


The island of Hy Brasil is shrouded in impenetrable mist. Once every seven years, the mist clears and the mythical country within is revealed. Rolling plains of green grass, majestic mountains and a glimmering city are just some wonders on display here.

Wizards are said to inhabit the gold-capped towers in the city. Any traveler that touches the island becomes immortal. They have advanced technology and happy cattle. That last bit must have been the real shock. Cows gallivanting merrily through the greenest fields while their herdsmen run after them.

Hy Brasil is also said to be the home of giant black rabbits.



We Have to Find the Long-Life Island!


Over the centuries, many have attempted to locate the island of Hy Brasil. It has been 'found' several times. Notably, it was found by two Christian saints, Barrind and Brendan, who might be the same person. I checked, it's Brendan all the way down.

'Both' of these saints were known for their adventures at sea. They both found the island, allegedly, and described it as the 'promised land'. That's a wonderful description that tells us absolutely nothing. Thanks, guys.

Captain Nisbet famously spent a day on Hy Brasil in 1674. While sailing from France to Ireland, he chose to dawdle in the water to the west of the Emerald Isle. His ship was beset by the appearance of a sudden fog. Such was their surprise that they were nearly dashed upon the rocks, which had sprung magically from beneath the sea.

The sailors of Captain Nisbet's crew were salty dogs, and they managed to secure their vessel before the sea could claim them. Nisbet went ashore with a group of his most loyal crewmates. While exploring the green fields of the island, they were dumbfounded by the creatures they witnessed. Horse-sized rabbits paraded about the fields. There stood a tower, from the top of which an old man called to them. He was the wizard who dwelt on the island, and he was a bit lonely.

After providing the old wizard with some company, the sailors were rewarded with sacks of gold. What a deal!

Unfortunately for giant rabbit, and/or old man enthusiasts, the story was made up by the author, Richard Head. Sometimes a writer writes fiction so good that it is accepted as fact.

In 1872, another author, T. J. Westropp, took several friends and family members out onto the ocean. The appearance of a second author so soon after we were tricked by one makes for suspicious circumstances. Either way, Westropp had seen the island of Hy Brasil twice before, and he required validation. This time he took everyone along, including his mother.

Hy Brasil appeared momentarily to Westropp and his passengers before vanishing again. No evidence of an old man's laughter accompanying the vanishing exists.


Mundane Explanations – Drag This Myth into the Light and Club it to Death



Scientists, as they often do, have come up with an explanation. Their explanation includes not a single giant rabbit, but a porcupine. More precisely, it is a shoal named Porcupine Bank. While not an institution of money-keeping for spiked rodents, Porcupine Bank is a shoal located to the northwest of Ireland.

Evidence has been found of shallow water shells on this shoal and other locations littered to the northwest and southwest of Ireland. What that implies is that there may once have been an island, or islands, throughout the area.

While not a giant black rabbit or lonely old man, the theory does suggest something interesting about myths. They serve as a kind of cultural record of the past. Nuggets of truth dwell in some of our old stories.


Inspiring Legend



Despite likely being unfindable, the myth has led many to find something within themselves. The Irish poet, Gerald Griffin, wrote the following poem about Hy Brasil.


On the ocean that hollows the rocks where ye dwell, A shadowy land has appeared, as they tell; Men thought it a region of sunshine and rest, And they called it Hy-Brasail, the isle of the blest. From year unto year on the ocean's blue rim, The beautiful spectre showed lovely and dim; The golden clouds curtained the deep where it lay, And it looked like an Eden, away, far away!
A peasant who heard of the wonderful tale, In the breeze of the Orient loosened his sail; From Ara, the holy, he turned to the west, For though Ara was holy, Hy-Brasail was blest. He heard not the voices that called from the shore-- He heard not the rising wind's menacing roar; Home, kindred, and safety, he left on that day, And he sped to Hy-Brasail, away, far away!
Morn rose on the deep, and that shadowy isle, O'er the faint rim of distance, reflected its smile; Noon burned on the wave, and that shadowy shore Seemed lovelily distant, and faint as before; Lone evening came down on the wanderer's track, And to Ara again he looked timidly back; Oh! far on the verge of the ocean it lay, Yet the isle of the blest was away, far away!
Rash dreamer, return! O, ye winds of the main, Bear him back to his own peaceful Ara again. Rash fool! for a vision of fanciful bliss, To barter thy calm life of labour and peace. The warning of reason was spoken in vain; He never revisited Ara again! Night fell on the deep, amidst tempest and spray, And he died on the waters, away, far away!