Hy-Brasil | Mysterious Lost Island of Irish Mythology

Could this be the elusive island of Hy-Brasil?
Could this be the elusive island of Hy-Brasil?

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.

Maps

Ancient map of Europe dated 1595, showing the island of Hy-Brasil. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Ancient map of Europe dated 1595, showing the island of Hy-Brasil. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

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.

Sightings

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.

Porcupine Bank. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Porcupine Bank. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

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.

Irish Mythology

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 Denann, 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.

Ancient Aliens

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!


Want more mythology? Sign up to my mailing list!

Or get one of these!

Advertisements

64 thoughts on “Hy-Brasil | Mysterious Lost Island of Irish Mythology

    1. Perhaps it is… Irish mythology is not reliable, and nothing is set in stone. If it doesn’t show up in 2019, we’ll keep our eyes open the following year! You just never know…

      Like

  1. As there’s 1/3 Irish blood in my veins reading this excites me beyond measure!!! Thank you for writing such an informative blog I look forward to reading more Irish mythology and remembering stories of my childhood. Told to me by my Gram and my Irish born great aunts. A time when life was simple and stories were appreciated. 🙂

    Like

    1. Glad you stopped by! I love all mythology but Irish mythology just has a special quality about it which captivated me right from the start, and completely stole my heart. I bet your Gram and great aunts had some fabulous stories to tell!

      Liked by 1 person

        1. I started with Greek as a child. I lived on a Gredk island and would go to visit the sites with my Dad. Its hard not to get hooked on that stuff when you’re standing slap bang in the middle of those legendary places!

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Oooh lucky you. I leave near Bath, which retains, of course, the old Roman bath houses. Britain is stuffed with archaeology and history, not to mention lore and myth. Next year I’m starting some guest posts on mythology and fantasy in our culture, if you’re interested.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Absolutely! I lived in Bristol for a while, one of my fave cities ever. I had afternoon tea in the Pump Rooms at Bath! Lovely part of the world. At the time I was into Arthurian myth. Now I live in Ireland, and it feels like home. We’ll have to do guest blogs for each other!

              Liked by 1 person

            2. I lived just off Whiteladies Road in Clifton. I was the store manager of Habitat. Then I moved to London and all the smaller regional stores were closed down… such a shame. I have very fond memories of Bristol.

              Liked by 1 person

  2. Brilliant. My favourite myth hy-Brasil. You should translate the book of medicines and see if any of the remedies work. If the remedies work and you author the translations of it in a book could be very profitable and intriguing to say the least.

    Like

  3. Excellent post, Ali! I love tales about mysterious islands. I think part of me hopes they’re actually out there, even if now underwater, though I also greatly appreciate the mystery of frontiers in the world we have not yet discovered. Humans have gone so many places, all over the world. Making a discovery of place I think is quite a longing, but might not be a possibility except for through our stories. I haven’t yet gotten any pictures about the island’s actual existence.. will let you know if I am ever informed. 🙂 How is Carys fairing? Myself and quite a few people are sending love her way. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I knew of the Glandore witch but thought there were three,? imagin my delight to find I had sailed there in 1976 all around the coast, and that is where my memory of them comes from .the most beautiful place in the world except that I live in the Isles of Scilly it too has many old storys and ledgens , so it comes a close second,but then I do have the Irish in me .

      Like

      1. Hi Sandre. I’m not sure of the 3 witches… the ancient Irish and Celts believed in the sacred 3, many of the Godesses were thought to have 3 aspects, that of the maiden, the mother and the crone, even Aine and Cliodhna who was supposed to have drowned there. Ireland is very beautiful indeed, and full of history and mythology just waiting to be discovered. I’m afraid to say I have never been to the Isles of Scilly, but I have seen pictures, and it loks amazing!

        Like

  4. This is an intriguing story, Ali – a vanishing island that is only seen every seven years. And it used to be on the maps and now it’s not…. It reminded me of the story of Brigadoon – which I love. Nice work!

    Like

    1. Great plan Grace, I’ll be there! In the meantime, keep looking just in case someone got the datez wrong… and let me know if you see anything! And dont go across in a boat w/o telling anyone, just so we know where to look if Manannán decides to keep you there lol!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re trending! 😀

        If memory serves, some Greeks were supposed to have been among the first inhabitants of Ireland, according to the Circle of Ulster. They reached the Isles right after the Giants and the Witches, and built a village. They all perished during a banquet to celebrate their 400 years on the island, from a mysterious disease.

        Then again, my memory is sieve-like, so I may have all the facts wrong… 😀

        Liked by 1 person

        1. You’re maybe thinking of the Fir Bolg? They were supposed to have come from Greece, where they had been enslaved and forced to carry dirt around in bags… sounds like some kind of excavation or building/ mining project maybe? I dont know about the desease or the banquet, but they were defeated by the invasion of the Tuatha de Denann at the Battle of Moytura. The Denann gave them the province of Connacht to rule, which is Galway area. This was the Mythological Cycle, before the Ulster Cycle… is it ringing any bells? A lot of Irish people today have dark hair and eyes and tan well, but that could also be credited to the first Gaels, the Milesians. We are a very mixed bunch!

          Liked by 1 person

  5. Did you uncover anything about the Isle of Women? I remembered that as being where Oisin ended up. Maybe it was somebody else. Not to seem picky, but if the seven year cycle was up in 2013 shouldn’t the next time come around in 2020? Maths isn’t my strong point so I might be missing something subtle here 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Always a fascinating subject and a wonderful source for storytellers. Another one that could be put in the pot is nearer home, Skellig Michael, which would not seem so near to home in a fog. Dingle and other parts of Kerry seem to be full of stories of Brés, King Of The World and some of them tell of his ruling from Skellig, which is amusing, but I suppose that kept him out of the way.

    Then there is the mystery of the half fort of Dún Aengus on Inís Mór, where is is said the other half and and extended land fell into the sea, Beagh Óra, a low fertile plain, though some say it was part of the mainland back then.

    Always a mystery, always will be, this one.

    Like

Please feel free to join in the conversation...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s