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

The legend of Hy Brasil: the 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 miles) off the coast, can be seen on maps that span from 1325 AD right up 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

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

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 are all commonly seen in usage when referencing the enchanted island off Ireland’s coast.

The name of the island is derived from the Irish word Breasal, meaning High King of the World.

The legend

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

As the story goes, Hy Brasil is a mysterious island that exists off the West coast of Ireland. According to legend, the island is forever blanketed in thick fog and invisible to the naked eye from the mainland or high seas.

One day every seven years, the fog is said to subside and present 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 Europe and has been a topic of discussion for centuries. And 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 utopian advanced civilization run by monks and priests who possess ancient knowledge and live in paradise.

The search

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

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 from Bristol but again returned without having accomplished their mission.

Some, however, claim to have been more successful in their pursuit. In 1497, there is a record that a Spanish diplomat, Pedro de Ayala, claims 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. It is said 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: the mythical island off the coast of Ireland

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

Claims by Nisbet that large black rabbits and a mysterious magician inhabited the island were confirmed by Johnson, and the authenticity of Hy Brasil was cemented. As time moved on, 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 not only reached the island but also 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 to the stuff of legend.

Cartography

The legend of Hy Brasil: the mythical island off the coast of Ireland
347 x 469 mm; ¤ 1300

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 separated 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 is in 1865, and it is referred to as “Brazil rock.” By this time, after so many failed attempts to reach the island, most cartographers had chosen to stop featuring it.

The island is consistently seen as a round-shaped landmass with a waterway or river channel running through it from East to West.

Today

While there is a possibility that this island did exist some centuries ago, when the sea levels were much lower, others dispute it ever existed, allocating its origins to that of a 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.

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Paris Donnatella is an avid writer and traveller. From a young age, nomadic parents placed a strong emphasis on education in real experience and the outdoors - a trait which has carried through her life and into her career. She has travelled Europe, Africa, America, Asia and Australia and still claims that wanderlust tempts her daily. Saying that she believes Ireland - her homeland - is the most enchanting place she has ever been and is passionate about documenting the Emerald Isle. Chances are, you can find her drinking coffee in some hidden gem cafe in Dublin, planning her next big trip.