The legendary island of Hy Brasil has been referenced down through the centuries, but it has never been established if it did actually exist, writes Maolsheachlann Ó Ceallaigh.
The imagination of the world has always been captured by islands. Think about the island of Robinson Crusoe, or Treasure Island, or the legendary island of Atlantis. In literature, we have the island of Prospero in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. There’s the island where a group of schoolboys are stranded in Lord of the Flies, and the Aran Islands as seen through the imagination of John Millington Synge, Martin MacDonagh, and many other writers.
In Ireland, there is no island more fabled or mysterious than the island of Hy Brasil.
Hy Brasil cannot be found on any map today, although it appeared on maps for many hundreds of years, right down to the nineteenth century. Its exact location is a matter of dispute: some put it off the coast of Kerry, some among the Azores Islands in the north Atlantic, others locate it as far as Iceland or even America. Even today some people insist that it once existed but has now sunk beneath the ocean.
The nature of Hy Brasil has also been much disputed. To some, it is a paradise, perhaps one of the Islands of the Blessed that St. Brendan the Navigator discovered in his travels. To others, life in Hy Brasil is much the same as life anywhere else … except that it all occurs underwater. In many accounts, even the sight of Hy Brasil is a thing to be dreaded, as anyone who sees it is doomed to die. Perhaps the most common story regarding Hy Brasil is that it can be seen only once every seven years.
Even the name Hy Brasil is a subject for endless debate. Some claim that it comes from an Irish word meaning “noble” or “fortunate”.
Others say it refers to a red dye that could be found on the island.
The country Brazil also takes its name from red dye, although claims that Brazil was named after Hy Brasil (a claim made by the Irish patriot Roger Casement, among others) probably take the connection too far. The “Hy” in Hy Brasil, or O’Brasil, simply means “island”.
“Brasil Island” first appears on a Genoese map around 1330. Mapping the Atlantic ocean was done mostly by Mediterranean cartographers at this time.
On this initial map Hy Brasil appears off the south coast of Ireland, but cartographers put it in such varying locations that in 1890, one Walter Scaife could write: “On various maps it could be seen designating a great Antarctic continent, extending to the South Pole, or a small island near the arctic circle: or it may be as far west as the Southern part of South America or as far east as the vicinity of the coast of Ireland”.
Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own