Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Island of Hy Brasil

The Island of Hy Brasil


Rónán Gearóid Ó Domhnaill

Ireland lay on the edge of the world until Columbus proved otherwise in 1492. The mysterious Atlantic was explored by sailors such as Saint. Brendan (†577) and one of islands he came across on his voyages was Hy Brasil, the Irish Atlantis, which he referred to as The Promised Land.

It got its name from the Irish Uí, meaning descendant of Bresal, meaning beauty. Bresal was of the Fir Bolg and it was after one of his daughters, Galvia, that Galway got its name. It was suggested that the country of Brazil was named after the island, but it actually got its name after the red coloured Brazil wood. Other names for the island included Tir fo-Thuin (Land Under the Wave), Mag Mell (Land of Truth), Hy na-Beatha(Isle of Life), and Tir na-m-Buadha (Land of Virtue).
There is a description of the island the 9th century biography of Saint Brendan Navigatio Sancti Brendani which was a medieval bestseller. The island was described as being shrouded in mist, visible for one day only every seven years, circular in shape with a river running across its diameter. Though visible it could not always be reached.

Its exact location has never been clarified. In 1325 the Genoese cartographer Dalorto placed it west of Ireland, later it appeared southwest of Galway Bay. Some said it was off the Kerry Coast. On some 15th century maps, islands of the Azores appear as Isola de Brazil, or Insulla de Brazil. A Catalan map from 1480 labels two islands "Illa de brasil", one to the south west of Ireland one south of "Illa verde" or Greenland.
Over the centuries many sought it. Indeed, Christopher Columbus may have gone looking for it when he went to Galway in 1477 to follow up on the stories he had heard of land to the west.In the 15th-century The Book of Hy-Brazil was written in both Irish and Latin giving lists of diseases, their symptoms and cures under various columns.

A considerable amount was written about the island in the 17th century. One of the most famous visits to Hy-Brasil was in 1674 by Captain John Nisbet of Killybegs. He and his crew were familiar with the waters of west.One day a fog came up and when it lifted, the ship found itself perilously close to rocks. While getting their bearings, the ship anchored in three fathoms (one fathom =six feet) 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.
In his work A Chorographical Description of West or H-Iar Connaught (1684) the historian and last chief of the O Flaherty clan of Galway, Ruaidhrí Ó Flaithbheartaigh (1629 – 1718 ) or Roderick O’Flaherty wrote about the island.
He recalls a tale about a man Murrough Ó Laoí from Iross-Ainhagh, in the south side of the Barony of Ballynahinshy, about nine leagues (one league=3.45 miles/5.5 km) from Galway who had visited the island for two days. While out rambling in 1668, Morogh encountered three men, who kidnapped him and brought him to the island, where the people could speak both English and Irish. From the island he could see The Aran Islands as well as Golamhead and Irrosghill (South Connemara). When he came to he found himself at Seapoint, just outside the city of Galway, not knowing how he got there. He began to practice medicine seven years later with great skill although he had never being to any medical school.
John O'Donovan (1806-1861) from Kilkenny was one of Irelands greatest scholars and internationally renowned for his work on folklore and the Irish language. He was recruited to the Topographical Department of the first Ordnance Survey of Ireland under George Petrie in October 1830 and worked diligently for the Survey on place-name researches until 1842. It was inevitable that he would come into contact with the name of the island. In another version of the tale a version given to him in 1839, Ó Laoí was a member of a ship's crew who landed on the island, and was warned off by a man who told them it was enchanted. As they were leaving, the man gave Ó Laoí a book, telling him not to open it for seven years. Ó Laoí obeyed the instructions, and was able to practise surgery and medicine. The book remained in the family after his death but on further enquiry O'Donovan was told that Ó Laoí’s descendants had recently sold the book in Dublin.

The island was still being marked on sea charts in the 19th century. J. Purdy’s chart of 1830 stated that “Brazil Rock” could be found at 51°10' N and 15°50' W.
an still appeared under that name until1865, when as its location could not be verified it was removed from maps.

It was suggested in 1870 that the mysterious island could The Porcupine Bank, a shoal raised area of seabed with cold-water corals in the Atlantic Ocean about 200 km/124m west of Ireland discovered in 1862. The last documented sighting of Hy-Brasil was in 1872, when the historian T. J. Westropp and several friends saw the island appear and then vanish. This was Westropp’s third view of Hy-Brasil, but on this voyage he had brought his mother and some friends to verify the existence of Hy-Brasil.

Scientists today believe sightings of the island believe are the results of a mirage, but this does not take away from the beauty of the legend.
Even today, it still continues to inspire authors, most notably Peter Treymayne who wrote a charming story My Lady of Hy Brasil and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill who wrote a very fine poem as Gaeilge enitled An Bhreasaíl. As the seanchaí Eddie Lenihan once remarked ‘if you have no magic in your life you are living in a sad place’.


  1. Hi Ronan, This is a bit of a coincidence. My name is Ronan McDonnell and I also write cultural and historical articles online. Two years ago I even wrote a piece on this very topic, although not as in-depth or well researched as yours:

  2. Thanks for that Ronan. I have been interested in the topic for a number of years and it was only about three years ago when TG4 showed a documentary on the island did I really get any information.