It doesn’t sound typically Irish, does it? Hy-Brasil… it conjures up images of South America if anything, but dig a little deeper, and the meaning becomes clear. What am I saying? This is Irish mythology we’re talking about, a subject clear as mud, where everything is open to debate, and nothing is what it first seems. Never mind, I’ll do my best.
Hy-Brasil was an island which once lay off the west coast of Ireland. Its name is derived from Old Irish hy, a variation of í, meaning ‘island’, and brasil, from the root word bres, meaning ‘beautiful/ great/ mighty’. It has also been explained as coming from Uí Breasal, meaning ‘of the clan of Bresal’, a people who once inhabited the North East of Ireland.
Legend has it that the island lies shrouded in mist most of the time, thus shielded from the eyes of mortals, but that one day in every seven years, the fog rolls back to reveal its distant splendour to anyone who might be looking.
Despite the similarity in names, Hy-Brasil has nothing to do with the South American country, Brazil, which was named for its past most popular export, the brazilwood. In Portuguese, this tree was called ‘pau-brazil’, which means ‘red like an ember’, as a red dye was made from the wood.
Hy-Brasil first appeared on a map made in 1325AD by Angelino Dulcert, an Italian cartographer living in Majorca. It continued to be shown on maps until the 1860s. Depicted as more or less circular in shape, it was bisected by a line through its centre running east to west, which could have been a river.
Explorers through the ages have shared a compulsion to find this mysterious island. In 1480, and again in 1481, expeditions set out from the port of Bristol in England, which were apparently successful. In 1497, John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto, in his native language) was an Italian explorer sent by English King Henry VII to find North America, and was said to have ‘found the land previously visited by the men of Bristol’.
In 1674, a Captain John Nesbitt claimed to have seen the island when sailing between France and Ireland. Lost in a sea fog, he moored at a rocky island inhabited by large black rabbits and a lone magician in a stone castle (methinks he may have been imbibing a bit too much fire-water to help pass the time at sea, or maybe more illegal substances than alcohol!).
Ten years later, an Irish historian named Ruairi O’Flaherty claimed in his publication, Ogygia, to have met a man, Morrough ó Laoí, who said he had been abducted by strangers and ferried across to Hy-Brasil where he was held for two days, during which he became ill. When he recovered, he found himself mysteriously returned to Irish shores.
John O’Donavan, an Irish language scholar elaborated on this story in 1839. He said that Ó Laoí was a sailor on a ship which landed at the island. A strange man came down to the shore to warn them off on account of the island being enchanted. As the sailors prepared to leave, the stranger handed a book to Ó Laoí, but told him not to open it until seven years had passed. Ó Laoí followed this instruction, and afterwards was able to take up a career practising medicine and surgery. It seems the book contained much secret lore for treating illnesses.
The Book of Hy-Brasil
Whether there is any truth in this story cannot now be known, however the Book of Hy-Brasil, also known as the Book of the O’Lees, really does exist. It was written at some time during the C15th AD in Irish and in Latin, and lists many illnesses and diseases, their symptoms, treatments and cures. It is now kept in the library at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin, just click the link to view it.
Truth or Fiction
Does Hy-Brasil really exist, or could it have existed in the past? It’s hard to say. Mythology is full of ancient islands which have disappeared, the most famous of them all being Atlantis, of course. It’s impossible to prove that any of them existed, but I always think there is no smoke without fire. Rumours always stem from at least a grain of truth, even if it gets lost or distorted along the way. Rather than just enjoying the stories for what they are, however, man has to set about proving or disproving them, unable to believe in or accept something he can’t see or touch. But just because something can’t be proven, doesn’t mean it never existed.
There are many wild theories about Hy-Brasil. In 1862, a raised area of the seabed was discovered 200km west of Ireland, with its highest point only 200m below sea level. It is called the Porcupine Bank. Ten or so years later, it was suggested that this could be the site of Hy-Brasil; perhaps it had flooded through natural disaster, and sank beneath the waves, or perhaps sea levels were lower in the past than they are now.
Baffin Island, a remote island lying off the coast of northern Canada has been suggested as a location; so have the Faroe Islands, an archipelago situated between the North Atlantic Ocean and the Norwegian Sea. Interestingly, before the Vikings settled there, ‘hermits from our land of Ireland’ lived on the islands, according to an Irish monk named Dicuil, who wrote in the early C9th.
Meteorologists claim Hy-Brasil is nothing more than a mirage, produced when layers of hot and cold air over the sea bend light rays which reflect off banks of fog, or ice-bergs, or some such natural phenomenon, thus creating the optical illusion of a misty island on the horizon.
The various legends all claim Hy-Brasil to be an island paradise, populated either by the Gods, or druids. In Irish mythology, the Otherworld was divided into two realms, that of the Sidhe in their hollow hills, and the other being the island lands ruled by Manannán, God of the Sea. Also known as the Blessed Isles, they lay ‘beyond the ninth wave‘, gentle places of peace, beauty, healing and eternal life. The realm of the Sidhe, by contrast, was as full of strife as the mortal world, as any of the myths about them show us; their lives were subject to the same passions, love, hate, desire, joy, power, jealousy, battles and death as are our own.
Manannan was not of the Tuatha de Danann, yet when they were defeated by the invading Milesians and forced to retreat to their lands beneath the surface, he came to their aid, helping them to establish amongst themselves a High King. He then shrouded their Sidhe-mounds with fog, to keep them safe from prying eyes and unwanted attention.
Manannán’s lands were not seen as the land of the dead, as portrayed by Christian belief, but as the land of the ever living, of the ever young. Mortals were only allowed there if invited by either the King himself, or his daughters.
Echtrae – The Hero in the Otherworld
The echtrae is a class of ancient Irish storytelling which details the adventures of the hero in the Otherworld. For example, Niamh of the Golden Hair fell in love with Oisin, son of Fionn mac Cumhall, and took him away with her on the back of her father’s magical steed, Aonbharr, over the sea to live in the Otherworld. After only a year, however, he grew homesick for Ireland and his family, so Niamh reluctantly gave him Aonbhar to ride home, but cautioned him not to let his feet touch Irish soil. Oisin was shocked to find that time had moved on by three hundred years in Ireland during his absence, all his family and friends dead and long since forgotten. A fall from his horse sent him tumbling to the ground, whereupon his age suddenly caught up with him, and he perished an old man.
Another of Manannán’s daughters, Cliodhna of the Fair Hair, fell in love with a mortal named Ciabhan, whom her father had rescued from a sinking boat in a storm. They decided to elope together, and sailed over the sea back to Ireland, alighting on the strand at Glandore Bay in Co Cork. Ciabhan went hunting for food while Cliodhna slept after their long sea voyage. While she slept, a great wave came and carried her out to sea. Some versions say it was sent by Manannán to fetch her home, others say she was drowned. This sudden surge of the tide is still called ‘Cleena’s Wave’ today.
Immram – The Hero’s Sea Voyage to the Otherworld.
The Immram tells the tale of the hero sailing west in search of the Otherworld, and all the adventures he had along the way. Whilst these stories generally date to this side of the C7th, and seem mainly Christian in the telling, it is thought that they may be based on much earlier Celtic myths. The Voyage of Mael Dúin, the Voyage of Bran and the Voyage of Brendan would all be examples of the Immram.
You might know this theory was going to show up at some point! Whilst I don’t discount the existence of alien life, I don’t see why anything which is mysterious and unexplained in our world has to be credited to their superior intellect and technology. However, Ufologists believe that Hy-Brasil was, and perhaps still is, the home of not gods or druids, but an alien outpost. A show on the History channel in which two American airmen involved in the 1980’s Rendlesham Forest incident appears to corroborate this idea. The men claimed to have received telepathic messages from an alien spaceship detailing the exact co-ordinates of the location of the island of Hy-Brasil.
The Seven Year Cycle
The last reported sighting of Hy-Brasil was in 1872, seven years after it was finally officially removed from sea-faring charts. Travelling author Thomas Westropp claimed to have seen the island before, but on this occasion, he took his mother, brother, and a few friends with him as back up to verify its existence. This was to be the very last reported sighting, at least that I know of.
Incidentally, the seven year cycle was up in 2013. If Hy-Brasil reappeared for a day and someone saw it, I never heard about it. It’s not due to re-occur now until 2020, so if you happen to be walking along the beaches of Galway in 2020, make sure you have your camera at the ready!