The legend of Hy Brasil: a mythical island off the coast of Ireland

Hy Brasil, the mythical island to the west of Ireland, has been part of Irish legend for centuries. We explore the story of this strange island.

The legend of Hy Brasil: a mythical island off the coast of Ireland.

Hy Brasil is a mythical island that is said to exist off the west coast of the Emerald Isle. As legend would have it, Hy Brasil is Ireland’s answer to Atlantis, the lost city immortalised in Ancient Greek text.

While no traces of the island exist today, the landmass, which supposedly sits in the North Atlantic Ocean about 321 km (200 mi) off the coast, appears on maps from 1325 to the 19th century.

Indeed the myth still lives, yet the question of whether this island ever really existed or whether it is a product of ancient lore and tall tales is what we wish to explore here.

Here is the legend of Hy Brasil: the mythical island off the coast of Ireland.

The name — from the Irish word ’Breasal’

The name comes from the Irish word 'Breasal'.
Credits: commons.wikimedia.org; Pixabay/ Jill

Although this island is most commonly referred to as Hy Brasil, it is known by many names. Hy-Breasal, Hy-Brazil, Hy-Breasil, Brazir, and Brasil also appear in reference to the enchanted island off Ireland’s coast.

The island’s name derives from from the Irish word ’Breasal’, meaning ’High King of the World’.

The legend — Hy Brasil in Irish mythology

The legend of Hy Brasil: a mythical island off the coast of Ireland.
Credit: Pixabay/ Pexels

As the story goes, Hy Brasil is a mysterious island that exists off the west coast of Ireland. According to legend, a thick fog blankets the island rendering it invisible from the mainland or high seas to the naked eye.

One day every seven years, the fog supposedly subsides and reveals this Eden that exists in the North Atlantic Ocean. Even then, however, legend tells that the island is impossible to reach.

Although this is an inherently Irish legend, the legend of Hy Brasil has circulated in Europe and has been a topic of discussion for centuries.

In comparison to Ancient Greece’s lost Atlantis, Hy Brasil is, in fact, far more documented, with more first-person accounts on record.

There are many myths shrouding this fantasy island. Some say Hy Brasil is the home of the gods of Irish folklore; others say it is some advanced utopian civilisation run by monks and priests who possess ancient knowledge and live in paradise.

The search — many have tried to find it

Many have tried to find the island.
Credit: Pixabay/ Youssef Jheir

Over the centuries, explorers and adventurers have set sail in search of Hy Brasil. In 1480, John Jay Jr. left land in pursuit of the island. After two months, he returned, having failed to find or touch its shores.

Again in 1481, more ships departed. This time the Trinity and the George left Bristol but returned again without accomplishing their mission.

Some, however, claim to have been more successful in their pursuit. In 1497, Spanish diplomat Pedro de Ayala claimed that John Cabot—an Italian navigator—had “discovered in the past by the men from Bristol who found Brasil.”

This suggests there had been men from the Bristol boats who set foot on Hy Brasil.

Again in 1674, it appears that the mythical landmass was reached. Legend has it that on passing the Atlantic from France to Ireland, Scottish sea captain John Nisbet spotted Hy Brasil and sent men ashore to bask in the glory of its golden shores.

The legend of Hy Brasil: a mythical island off the coast of Ireland.
Credit: Pexels/ Johannes Plenio

Nisbet’s success inspired more explorers to reach Hy Brasil. Captain Alexander Johnson was the next to return successfully from the mysterious landmass.

Johnson confirmed Nisbet’s claim that large black rabbits and a mysterious magician inhabited the island. This cemented the authenticity of Hy Brasil. As time went by, however, reputable reports of sightings dwindled.

The last report of the island was in 1872 by Robert O’Flaherty and T.J. Westropp. As an accomplished antiquarian, folklorist, and archaeologist, Westropp claims he reached the island and brought his entire family in tow.

Claims that Westropp saw the mythical island appear and vanish before his very eyes are still disputed.

As time marched on, increased failed attempts to reach the island overshone previous successful pursuits and the legend of Hy Brasil slowly started to fade back into the mist.

Soon, maps began to exclude its presence in the Atlantic Ocean, and the island would be left to become the stuff of legend.

Cartography — the island has appeared on maps since the 1300s

The island has appeared in maps since the 1300s.
Credit: commons.wikimedia.org

A record of this island first appeared on an early map in 1325 by the Genoese cartographer Angelino Dulcert.

In 1375 it was seen in the Catalan Atlas but as two separate islands, existing as one under the name of ’Illa de Brasil’.

It was named ’Sola De Brasil’ in 1436 on a Venetian map curated by the cartographer Andrea Bianco, and in 1595 it appeared again in the Ortelius Map of Europe and Europa Mercator Map.

The final time we see Hy Brasil on a map was in 1865, and it is referred to as ’Brazil rock’. After so many failed attempts to reach the island by this time, most cartographers had chosen to stop featuring it.

Maps depict the island as a round-shaped landmass with a river running through it from east to west.

Today — a topic of contention

The legend of Hy Brasil: a mythical island off the coast of Ireland.
Credit: Pixabay/ Howard Walsh

While there is a possibility that this island did exist some centuries ago, when the sea levels were much lower, others dispute its existence entirely, allocating its origins to mere tall tale.

And then there is the legend, which argues this fantasy island does still exist today, only to reveal itself to the naked eye once every seven years.

What do you think? Optical illusion? Mirage? Cartographic error? Or real island?

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