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Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Phantom Island of Hy-Brasil: History or Myth?

Posted by R. Ann Siracusa


Ireland is a favorite setting for contemporary, historical, and fantasy novels and for legends, faeries, and leprechauns. No place is more magical and mysterious. What could be a better venue for a novel than a phantom island off the west coast of Ireland? A mass of land in the Atlantic that is hidden by mists, unreachable from the shore, and only appears once every seven years?


Is the mysterious island of Hy-Brasil history or myth? Let's see.

The Legend/Myth
The name of this island – Hy-Brasil – is believed to derive from Uί Breasail, which means "descendants of Breasal", an ancient clan of northeast Ireland.

Most of the ancient Irish legends describe Hy-Brasil as divided into two realms. One was ruled by the Sidhe (a mythological people of the Otherworld who lived under mounds). The lands of the Sidhe were characterized as being subject to the same emotions (love, hate, jealousy, power, death, etc.) as the mortal world and filled with strife. The other realm, ruled by Manannán, God of the Sea, was a land of peace and beauty, the land of the ever-living, ever-young. Therefore Hy-Brasil was not accessible to anyone unless invited by the king Manannán or his daughters.

When the Sidhe were defeated by invading Milesians (the final race to settle in Ireland), and forced the live in a different dimension, Manannán aided them and shrouded their underground mounds with fog to hide them from unwanted attention.

Other legends, perhaps later ones, described Hy-Basil as inhabited by priests [or Druids] who knew the secrets of the universe and could call on ancient powers. The Celts believed it to be a place of plenty and happiness. The tale placed the island "where the sun touched the horizon or immediately on its other side".

Definitely myths, but what about reality?

Written History
The island was first identified on the nautical charts in 1325 prepared by cartographer Angelino Dalorto (Dulcert) and, unlike the more-famous island of Atlantis, between 1325 and 1872 its existence and location of Hy-Brasil were documented in detail by many firsthand accounts. [Atlantis is mentioned only in a work by Plato.]

The Venetian Andrea Bianco, Italian sailor and cartographer, included the island on nautical charts produced in 1436, renamed as Insula de Brasil. In 1480, a Catalan chart show it as two islands, one to the southwest of Galway Bay where the mythical island is supposedly located and one south of Greenland.


It appeared on maps and charts up through 1865 and, by then, was called Brasil Rock. On all the charts and maps the island was depicted as roughly circular with a river or strait of water running east-west.


In both 1480 and 1481, expeditions departed Bristol in search of the island. A letter from Pedro Ayala, apparently a member of John Cabot's expedition in 1497, reports that the land discovered by Cabot was the same as that found by expeditions from Bristol. Below is a book published in 1635.

In 1674 the island was sighted by Captain John Nisbit on his way from France to Ireland. He and some of his men rowed ashore and returned with gold and silver given to them by the inhabitants. He reported the island was inhabited by large black rabbits and a wizard who lived in a stone castle who gave them the precious metals. This prompted another expedition headed by Captain Alexander Johnson who also found the island So where is it and why doesn't it show on maps today?

The last sighting of the island was in 1872 by Robert O'Flaherty and author T.J. Westropp, who had visited the island twice before. On this trip he brought members of his family to see the new land. Logs and accounts from that trip indicate that shortly after they sighted the island, it disappeared before their eyes. It has not been seen since, in spite of the legend that it appears every seven years.


So, were all these people who claimed to have seen or visited Hy-Brasil liars or delusional? Intentionally deceitful in order to claim credit for some discovery?

Perhaps in some cases these explorers were inventing the stories, even if they believed them to be true. However, there are too many reliable sources to write it off completely. In most myths and legends, there is a grain of truth behind the story. The challenge is to find it.

It's a fact that the island of Hy-Brasil no longer exists, so the previous sightings can be explained by three theories.
1. The island was mistaken for another still-existing island.
2. The island existed but actually disappeared as a result of natural phenomenon.
3. The sightings were an optical illusion.
A fourth would be that you believe in faeries, leprechauns, and magic, but I'm writing this off for now.

A Case of Mistaken Identity
Some Hy-Brasil experts believe that when explorers sighted the island, they were observing an area of the Atlantic called the Porcupine Bank. This is a portion of the Irish shelf, around 200 km west of Ireland where the seabed is raised between two deep-water troughs. The northern and western slopes of Porcupine Bank host cold-water corals. It was suggested as early as 1870 that during times of extreme tides the surface of the banks were exposed, appearing to be an island.

Others believe this island is actually Baffin Island. The theory is that through the years the round, bifurcated island in the North Atlantic shifted to the west as maps became more sophisticated. Baffin Island is one of ninety major islands in the Arctic Archipelago between mainland Canada and the Arctic Circle and west of Greenland. This is one theory which supports the reports of explorers actually landing on Hy-Brasil.

I could find no verification that Baffin Island was ever inhabited by large black rabbits and a wizard. Below is a photo of Baffin Island.

Geologic Shifts
Twenty thousand years ago, during the last Ice Age, sea levels were as much as four hundred feet lower and could have exposed both the Porcupine Bank as well as the now-sunken ridge under the Aran Islands. Today that location is a raised seabed about 200 km west of Ireland which might have been above sea level during the times it Hy-Brasil was sighted.

Optical Illusion
The island may have never existed at all, and its sightings were mere tricks that nature plays on us when light and climatic conditions are right. Mirages are produced when layers of hot and cold air refract (bend light rays). The light bounces off the surface of clouds, water, or ice and creates these illusions.


Using Hy-Brasil as a setting for a novel wouldn't be unique. It's already been used as the location in several books, films, and video games, but it is no cliché either. References I could confirm are Margaret Elphinstone's novel Hy-Brasil and Mary Burke's short story Hy-Brasil in The Faber Book of Best New Irish Short Stories.

The few descriptive features and the legends associated with the phantom island are enough to spark ideas for a great story.


Resources  (YouTube history)  (YouTube history)



Judy Baker said...

Ah, would love to go to Ireland one day. Loved reading about the island.

Melissa Keir said...

What an informative post. I'm certainly leaning toward the island being one of the ones that we know about or the plate. Could this be the place that is mentioned in Brigadoon?

I would love to visit Ireland someday!

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