The ancient and elusive fairisle of Hy Brasil

Hy Brasil is a mysterious phantom island that was thought to exist off the west coast of Ireland in the Atlantic Ocean for hundreds of years. The area being nautically challenging for seafarers, it was an elusive and mysterious place, hailed in pre-Christian times as being the Celtic Elysium or land of promise. During Christian times, St Brendan set sail for it followed by many other intrepid explorers.

Hy Brasil appears in Abraham Ortelius - Map of Europe 1595
Hy Brasil appears in Abraham Orteliuss Map of Europe 1565

Over five centuries of seafaring, cartography and exploration of sea and distant lands, Hy Brasil still remained on ancient maps. The first known appearance of the Island of Hy Brasil on a map was in 1325 and the last one was probably in 1870— with 545 years of mystery and imaginative longing in between.

Hy-Brasil on a 1339 nautical chart by Angelino Dulcert (1890 facsimile) (via Norman B. Leventhal Map Center, Boston Public Library)
Hy-Brasil on a 1339 nautical chart by Angelino Dulcert (1890 facsimile) (via Norman B. Leventhal Map Center, Boston Public Library)

The Voyage of Bran, Son of Febal

In this ancient Celtic story that is derived from mythology and written in the 8th century, the protagonist Bran visits a mysterious fairisle where there was a sylvan youthful gleam in people’s eyes and nobody ever gets old or becomes unhappy.

There are thrice fifty distant isles
In the ocean to the west of us
Larger than Erin twice
Is each one of them or thrice

Mapping Hy Brasil

The Island of Hy Brasil was depicted for a long time at the same coordinates. Although it appeared in some nautical charts among the Canary Islands, Azores, Madeira and even on the coast of Canada, the island was mostly faithful to its position to the west of Ireland. Seafarers were still looking for the Celtic Elysium for many centuries, even if it sent them bankrupt or worse in the process. After all, it could be a perfect resting stop between the old world and new world of America across the sea, and a potentially an important port the country that discovered it.

Hy-Brasil in Petrus Plancius’s ‘Orbis Terrarum Typus de Integro Multis in Locis Emendatus’ (Amsterdam, 1594)
Hy-Brasil in Petrus Plancius’s ‘Orbis Terrarum Typus de Integro Multis in Locis Emendatus’ (Amsterdam, 1594)

Hy Brasil symbolised a land of eternal youth, an earthly paradise, an idealised world full of pleasure, eternal life and peace in the comfort of gods. It was a world that everyone would wish to live in now, or possibly to go to after this life.

The legend of Hy Brasil had such a strong presence in the oral tradition and folklore of Ireland, its legend lived on in the imagination of people, for its vision of utopian beauty and happiness.

Hy-Brasail: The Isle of the Blest by Gerald Griffin (1803–1840)

“From the Isles of Aran and the west continent often appears visible that inchanted island called O’Brasil, and in Irish Beg-ara, or the Lesser Aran, set down in cards of navigation. Whether it be reall and firm land kept hidden by speciall ordinance of God, as the terrestriall paradise, or else some illusion of airy clouds appearing on the surface of the sea, or the craft of evill spirits, is more than our judgments can sound out.

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!

Travel: Exploring Ancient Kidwelly Castle in Wales
Up on the ramparts. Copyright Content Catnip 2010

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;
O, far on the verge of the ocean it lay,
Yet the isle of the blest was away, far away!

11 Archaic Words That Deserve A Full Revival
Lighthouse in the clouds

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 labor 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!

Among the Irish Faeries and Norse Gods
Among the Irish Faeries and the Norse Gods. Copyright Content Catnip 2008

‘On the ocean that hollows the rocks where ye dwell,
A shadowy land has appear’d, as they tell;
Men thought it a region of sunshine and rest,
And they call’d it “O Brazil—the Isle of the Blest”.
From year unto year, on the ocean’s blue rim,
The beautiful spectre show’d lovely and dim;
The golden clouds curtain’d the deep where it lay,
And look’d like an Eden, away, far away.’

Ancient words of the day: Glamour and grammar

The Book of the Island of O’Brasil

Written in the 15th Century, it resides now amongst the rare documents of the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin. Written in Irish and Latin, the book is apparently a translation of old medical treatises and lists the cure and treatment for several diseases.

The Book of O’Lees [‘Book of Hy-Brasil’]: Medical treatise
The Book of O’Lees [‘Book of Hy-Brasil’]: Medical treatise https://www.ria.ie/library/catalogues/special-collections/medieval-and-early-modern-manuscripts/book-olees-book-hy

Most fantastical of all was that its owner came upon the book in the most mysterious of circumstances. Morogh O’Ley was allegedly whisked away to the fairisle of Hy Brasil where he was sworn to secrecy for 7 years about the books contents. After this time passd he was able to open the book and discover its contents. It was a treasure trove of medical treatments. O’Ley sold his story and the book for presumably a lot of money. For some historians, Morogh O’Ley probably inherited the book from his family and after some financial misfortunes, banked on the mystical story that he concocted to start making money.

Hy Brasil lives on in Ireland

The legend of Hy Brasil lives on in the ancient place names and family names in Ireland, particularly in Co. Kerry. Although these names sound as though they make reference to the country of Brazil – they are infact far more ancient than that.

Brassil, Brassill, Brazier, Brazil, Brazill, Brazzill, Brassil or Brazil, or Ó Breasail are all relics of collective memory about this ancient mystical island.

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Listen to a BBC podcast on Hy Brasil

4 thoughts on “The ancient and elusive fairisle of Hy Brasil

  1. Fascinating! I grew up wondering if there were more islands to discover. The days when there was still room for geographical mystery. Nice read over a morning coffee in downtown Belgrade.

    1. So glad you enjoyed it Mike. I’m lifting my morning coffee right now in Wellington to you, cheers 🙂 I wish that there was more room in our world for these mystical islands to persist as legends. Along with sea monsters and ancient legends. I guess that’s why shows/books like Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings are fascinating, they are a mash-up of all of these ancient legends.

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