Home » Horizons » Invisible Irish isles: Hy Brasil and company


Medieval cartography, sandbars and shallow seas, and ancient tales, some taller than others, all leave their imprints in a rich Irish lore of lost islands.


The magical island of Hy Brasil is a staple of the lore beloved of mystery-seekers the world over. Probably beginning its tale in a rather prosaic manner, as an indicator of a source of Rocella or Orchella, "a genus of lichen which yields a particularly rich purple tincture," the island - in particular the iteration located somewhere west of Ireland - would remain a staple of cartography well into relatively recent times. Its persistent presence on late medieval and early modern maps led to a number of voyages of exploration, some of which bore (no pun intended) fruit. The island also lent itself to various elaborations in the rich lore of Ireland, which include the odd bizarre send-up of the many too-good-to-be-true travelogues circulating during the period - and even stretches its tendrils out far into space!

But first, back down to earth, and to the studios of those talented and highly-influential mapmakers of the 14th and 15th century.


Barara Freitag literally wrote the book on Hy Brasil. In it, she traces its origins to the mapmaking traditions of the Mediterranean world, as noted above. Within the maps which survive to the present, Freitag notes three locations which commonly feature an island with a name similar to Brasil. These are: -

  • west of Ireland, the "classic" location for Brasil which survived almost to the present;
  • south or southwest of Ireland, west of Brittany; and
  • a location suggestive of Terceira in the Azores.

Of these, the second will be dealt with below, while the identification with Terceira perhaps derives from early Genoese exploits in the region of the Azores: R.H. Major, noting their presence on 14th century maps, proposes that they were initially charted by Portuguese vessels under Genoese captains in the early part of that century. The location west of Ireland - though perhaps initially being a slightly-misplaced Rockall (Freitag suspects that the name of this place may be derived from Rocella/Orchella) - was the most persistent. I follow Freitag by listing a few of the earlier maps which place the island in that location below: -

Angelino Dulcert/Dalorto1330Insula de moutonis sive da brazile
Angelino Dulcert1339Insula de Brazil
Angelino Dulcert[?]1339-1350Insula de brazil
Domenico and Francesco Pizzigano1367Bracir
Catalan Atlas1375Insula de Brazil
Gullermo Solerc.1385Insula de brazir
Gullermo Soler1385Insola de Bracir
Franciscus Becharius1403Isola de brazir
Mecia de Villadestes1413Insola de brazil
Mecia de Villadestes1423Insola de brasilli
Zuane Pizzigano1424Braxil
Battista Beccario1426Insulla de brazil
Johanes Viladestes1428Brazil
Cholla di Briaticho1430Insula de brazilli/braxyilli
Juan da Napolic.1430Illa da Brazil
Battista Beccario1435I. de brazil
Andrea Bianco1436Ya de brasil
Gabriel de Vallseca1439Brasil
Gabriel de Vallseca[?]c.1440Illa de brazill
Andrea Bianco1448Y de Brazil de binar
Bartolomeo Pareto1455Insulla de Brazil
Fra Mauroc.1459Brazil
Petrus Roselli1462Brasil
Petrus Roselli1465Illa de brezill
Grazioso Benincasa1467Isola de braçill
Petrus Roselli1468Lilla de bresill
Grazioso Benincasa1473Isola de braçil
Andrea Benincasa1476Isola de Bracill
Jaime Bertran1482Lilla de brasill
Pedro Reinelc.1485Brasill
Arnaldo Domenechc.1486Fila da brazil
Albino de Canepa1489Insula Brazil
Martin Behaim1492Ins. de Prazil
Jorge de Aguiar1492Ja do brazill
Antonio Ortiz1496Brasil

That covers the 14th and 15th centuries, though Brasil continues to appear on maps throughout early modern times too, as noted above, eventually withering to a mere "Brasil Rock" before vanishing entirely. And for more than the legendary seven years as it happened.


Already by the late 15th century, the Hy Brasil off the Irish coast had already attracted the attention of the mythmakers, and from well beyond the North Atlantic islands too: the Basque chronicler Lope García de Salazar (d. 1476), writing during the last five years of his life, heads one of his chapters in the startling fashion: "How Morgain took King Arthur on the boat to the Island of Brasil and enchanted it so that it cannot be found." Thus, we have the beginnings of the folklore of the vanishing island so familiar nowadays, only with an Arthurian slant, Hy Brasil here replacing the more typical Avalon as Arthur's final resting place.

Within a decade, Englishmen, especially those of the bustling, burgeoniong port of Bristol, were launching expeditions in search of the island. Their reasons were almost certainly a quest for new fishing grounds: the English traffic was barred from fishing in Icelandic waters by about 1475. William Worcestre, a Bristolian chronicler, records the following events under the year 1480: -

1480, on July 15, a ship [...] and of John Jay, the younger, of the burden of 80 tons, began a voyage from the Kingroad at Bristol to the Island of Brasylle in the western part of Ireland, to traverse the seas for [...] and Thloyde is the most expert shipmaster of all England; and news came to Bristol on Monday, September 18, that in the said ship they sailed the seas for about 9 months [weeks], but were driven back by storms to a port [...] in Ireland for the preservation of the ship and the sailors.

All, then, did not go as planned, though Jay and his companions tried again the following year, sending two vessels - the Trinity and the George - in an attempt to find the elusive isle. The Trinity was left by another John Jay to his son upon his death in 1468. The esteemed "Thloyde" of Worcestre's text is probably John Lloyd, who was active in Bristol between 1461 and 1480. John Jay Jr. served as bailiff of Bristol in 1486-7 and sheriff in 1498-9, so likely knew the intrepid Genoese-Venetian Zuane Chaboto, better known as John Cabot, whose 1497 expedition out of Bristol aboard the Matthew famously reached Newfoundland. The Newfoundland Banks, rich in the cod previously denied to the English by the Danish and Hansa, were very likely already familiar to the mariners of Bristol: Pedro de Ayala, writing in the wake of Cabot's expedition, stated that Newfoundland had formerly been discovered by Bristol men "who found Brasil." John Day, writing to no less a luminary than Christopher Columbus, was more explicit still: -

It is considered certain that the cape of the said land was found and discovered in the past by the men of Bristol who found 'Brasil' as as your Lordship knows. It was called the Island of Brasil, and it is assumed and believed to be the mainland that the Bristol men found.

Ayala added further details about yearly expeditions during the 1490s to Ferdinand and Isabella in a letter dating to July 1498, alluding to the scope of exploration under Cabot's aegis: -

For the last seven years the people of Bristol have equipped two, three, four caravels to go in search of the island of Brazil and the Seven Cities according to the fancy of this Genoese.

By 1490, the English were again free to negotiate with regards to Icelandic trade, but did not, and fish from Newfoundland appears in English records from 1502, and Sir Walter Raleigh starkly admitted that this activity was "the mainstay and support of the western counties" of England. By Raleigh's time, however, the connection with Brasil was long forgotten: Sebastian Cabot, son of John, did not name any island in the vicinity of Newfoundland Brasil on his 1544 world map.

Hy Brasil re-emerges in the 17th century. A manuscript of 1636 states that a Captain Rich of Dublin and several members of his crew spied an island with a harbour and headlands west of Ireland which vanished in mist by virtue of its supposed inhabitants, who were adept in the magical arts. Boullaye Le Gouz also witness a phantom island in 1644, with cattle and woodlands, while, in 1663, W. Hamilton of Derry was informed by a Quaker that he ws to win the magical island aboard a new vessel. Hamilton reported in 1675 that, during the reign of the ill-fated Charles I (1625-1649), many Irish folk had seen "O Brazile, or the enchanted island" off the coast of Ulster.

The next account concerns an actual landing, told in a most bizarre fashion: a missive by Richard Head presents an account of its discovery by one John Nisbet in 1674, with lurid and folkloric details about an ancient necromancer and huge black rabbits. While this can perhaps be put down to too much poitín, there is another reference to the island of a similar vintage: Ruaidhrí Ó Flaithbheartaigh, writing in 1684, in his A Chorographical Description of West or H-Iar Connaught, discusses the peculiar case of a certain Murrough Ó Laoí, a descendant of the O'Flaherty family of medics, first mentioned in such a capacity c.1000: -

There is now living, Morogh O'Ley, who immagines he was himself personally in O'Brazil for two days and saw out of it the iles of Aran, Golamhead, Irrosbeghill and other places of the west continent he was acquainted with. The manner of it he relates, that being in Irrosainhagh, in the month of April, Anno Domini 1668, going alone from one village to another, in a melancholy humour, upon some discontent of his wife, he was encountered by two or three strangers, and forcibly carried out by boat into O'Brazil, as such as were within it told him, and they could speak both English and Irish. He was ferried out hoodwink'd, in a boat, as he immagins, till he was left on the sea point by Galway; where he lay in a friend's house for some dayes after, being very desperately ill, and knowes not how he came to Galway then. But, byt that means, about seven or eight years after, he began to practise both chirugery and phisick, and so continues ever since to practise, tho' he never stdyed not practised either in his life before, as all we that knew him since he was a boy can averr.

The Book of Hy-Brazil is, in fact, a 15th century document listing diseases and their cures. James Hardiman suspects that Ó Laoí invented the tale above as a means to establish himself in his trade using a family treatise in combination with a story which was very much then in vogue.

Hy Brasil eventually vanished from the map as late as 1873, with the continued confusion over its existence, combined with his discovery of its absence in up-to-date charts, led the Rev. Everett Hale to note that his voyage aboard the SS Siberia in April 1873 caused him to be "in at the death" of Brasil as a cartographic entity. The previous summer, though, as sober a scholar as T.J. Westropp bore witness to it. The last word in this section is thus his: -

I myself have seen the illusion some three times in my boyhood, and even made a rough coloured sketch after the last event, in the summer of 1872. It was a clear evening, with a fine golden sunset, when, just as the sun went down, a dark island suddenly appeared far out to sea, but not on the horizon. It had two hills, one wooded; between these, from a low plain, rose towers and curls of smoke. My mother, brother, Ralph Hugh Westropp, and several friends saw it at the same time; one person cried that he could "see New York"!

It is this same Westropp that we must employ as our guide to the other magical, invisible Irish isles.

But the final disappearance alluded to above is not the last we hear of Hy Brasil: it gained new life in a most astonishing fashion, as a result of alleged contact between an American airman stationed in the east of England and a craft from the far future, the year AD 8100 to be exact! Over the nights after Christmas, being the 26th, 27th and 28th December 1980, US Air Force personnel at the Woodbridge airbase in Suffolk experienced a troubling series of apparitions of lights in the skies above Rendlesham Forest, a wide expanse of woodland and marsh between there and RAF Bentwaters to the north. One of their number, Sgt. Jim Penistone, reached out and touched a triangular-shaped contraption with a band covered with strange, hieroglyphic symbols, as a result of which a sequence of binary code was "downloaded" into his consciousness. Many years later, having sought aid in decyphering this, a message was revealed: -

52.0942532N 13.131269W
ORIGIN 52.0942532N 13.131269W

52.0942532N 13.131269W is a decimal sequence of coordinates for a place in the sea somewhere on the Porcupine Bank - a place which appears uncannily like the cartographic location of Hy Brasil!

This would lead to an investigation into the correlation between the "UFO" phenomenon and pre-existing faerie lore, though, fortunately for our purposes, Jacques Vallée has already done the legwork for us (albeit his conclusions, to my mind, which tend towards the view that aliens can explain all, are far-fetched). Is the "Rendlesham Incident" somehow connected to other strange Suffolk legends, such as the demonic Black Shuck which terrorised churchgoers in Blythburgh and Bungay during the lammas season of 1577? Perhaps also the "Green Children of Woolpit," alleged visitors from another dimension, unperceived to all but the keenest? One notes that these anti-Pythgoreans would eat nothing other than raw beans - the food of the dead! Compare them with the strange homunculi encountered by one of the Rendlesham witnesses, as recounted by the good burgesses behind the excellent Bedtime Stories YouTube channel (6.08-7.28): -

One of the airmen was apparently summoned to attend an interview that was being conducted at a property close to the air base. The individual found this odd as it did not meet the usual security protocols but attended anyway. He arrived at a remote farmhouse and was greeted by two gentlemen who were dressed incognito. As he sat and chatted to them for around half an hour, he couldn't help feeling that the whole situation was terribly wrong. There was something incredibly eerie about these two men, who he said had strange doll-like eyes and exhibited bizarre mannerisms. He had a distinct sense that they were not who they claimed to be and made his excuses to leave. His superior had no knowledge of this summons when the airmen mentioned it to him and demanded to know where this meeting had taken place. They arrived at the farmhouse a few hours later only to find it dilapidated and run down. It looked as though it hadn't been lived in for many years, despite the fact it had been fully decorated and furnished when the airman had been there just a few hours before. This whole episode apparently affected the young recruit to such an extent that he had to seek therapy in the months afterwards.

And now for a (highly-facetious) suggestion of my own: perhaps the unknown craft seen by those American airmen at Rendlesham *WAS* Hy-Brasil. This may not be as crazy as it sounds: look at the traditional depiction of the island, as a circular land mass divided by a channel through the centre. Could this not be a mapmaker's convention for something originally akin to a saucer-shaped craft? No? You're probably right. Forget I said anything.


A legend from County Kerry relates to the ancient Cantillon family, who dwelt in the area from the 13th century. Either they or the MacElligot clan were associated with a series of hazardous rocks off the coast. An early member of the Cantillon line won the hand of the mermaid Durfulla, though, as is often the case in these matters, the mermaid did not thrive ashore. She soon died and was buried and was buried on an island which stood where the rocks remain, and her father ordered the destruction of the isle. From henceforth, the Cantillons would carry their dead to the low water mark, whereupon the merrows would see to the further arrangements. This came to an end during the latter part of the 18th century, when a man from County Clare hid himself to observe the merfolk's rites, only to be discovered and harried by the funeral party. Westropp notes that there is a Church Bank lying off the coast.


On to the aforementioned County Clare now. In 1816, the Rev. John Graham of Kilrush wrote of an ancient city to the south of Loop Head, which was inundated, though its flooded buildings were occasionally observed by mariners.


Once upon a time, three chieftains - Stuithin among their number, along with Ceannur of Liscannor and Ruidhin of Moher - executed a cattle raid as far as Loop Head, but were unsuccessful. Stuithin, overtaken at Bohercrochaun near Lehinch, held a magical golden key which maintained the island bearing his name above the waves. In the confusion, two conflicting accounts emerge: either the key was lost, else he fled to the island and sank it by sorcery. A corollary of the first alternative declares that the key is to be found beneath an Ogham stone commemorating Cuneen Miul on Mount Callan. If it were ever to be discovered, the island will once more rise above sea level. Elsewhere, the island was sunk in an earthquake, which also caused the mountain at Dugort in Achill to collapse and Dunbriste in Mayo to be rent asunder.

As to the island itself, it was quite the wondrous place, with golden roofs and fields of thyme, which can occasionally be glimpsed beneath the waves. Another account suggests that it rises once every seven years, only for those who catch a glimpse of it to perish before the island rises again.


In Galway Bay, there is said to lie the island of Aran Beg or Little Aran, located at Skerde. It was occasionally glimpsed as a vast city, an armada or a conflagration, with phantoms running to and fro.


The actual island of Inishbofin in County Galway was once a floating island, until one of a number of fisherman, making landfall in thick fog, caused some species of fire to fall upon its turf, whereupon the fog cleared and they saw a hag driving a white cow. The woman struck the beast, whereupon the pair were immediately transformed into rocks.


The "Yellow Bank" lies forty miles out to sea, and has been renowned for its cod fishing. However, there was, it seems, once land here, now sunken by means of an enchantment. A fishing boat from O'Maille's country, blown out to sea for two days, came upon an unknown land with many sheep visible on its fields. They took it for Hy Brasil, and were unwilling to make landfall.

On another occasion, fishermen from Bofin were caught in a fog some sixty miles off shore. They heard sheep bleating and saw the leaves of apple and oak trees. However, once the fog abated, the enchantment was over: there was nothing but sea.


Of Manister Ladra or Monaster Letteragh off the coast of County Mayo, a "Mickletony" O'Donnell of Termoncarra claims to have seen a marvellous island from the "saddle of Achill," the said island being above water once in seven years outside Iniskea. Manister Ladra is clearly Christian in nature, having several churches and boasting a monastery.

George Crampton, however, states that it was "a druid land," with forest and field and a high castle atop a mountain, occupied by sleeping giants. They wake upon the sounding of a bell every seven years, upon which the island becomes briefly visible. It is ruled by the powerful Muiganoch Faigh Ree, "King of the three kingdoms behind," "each three times larger than Ireland," who is willing to answer questions from intrepid adventurers as to the location of vast quantities of gold, though is wont to vanish in a burst of laughter or thunder if the interrogation goes awry. One fellow who met with Muiganoch was a certain Watty O'Kelly, who was keen to track down a lost calf. All to no avail. Meanwhile, a chap named Barrett from the Mullet set out for forty days with a coal of fire in his boat in order to disenchant the place.

Another sunken land, which Westropp states is oft confused with Manister Ladra, was seen by a woman named Lavelle, who spied "a delightful country of hills and valleys, with sheep browsing on the slopes, cattle in green pastures, and clothes drying on hedges." A Sligo man confirmed this account, having seen it twice, the usual seven years apart. He maintained that, were he to see it a third time, he would be able to disenchant the place. This, sadly, was not to be: the man became obsessed with the island and died immediately before the land was expected to appear again.

Westropp also gives an account, ultimately from a Biddy Took, of a "green, fishy-looking child, quite human in shape," who was caught by some fishermen who were transporting her to an island. The angler who made this singular catch was dead within a year. Owen Gallagher, who transmitted this tale, also stated that he shot a seal, whereupon he became disoriented in fog and found an uncharted island. Therein was an elderly gentleman in some discomfort, blind in one eye, who was none other than Gallagher's prior quarry! Gallagher was warned by the injured party to flee, lest he and his progeny fall victim to the revenge of the selkie folk of that land.

This sunken land is likely one of "the out islands" to which the ancient Fir Bolg fled after their defeat by the Tuatha Dé Danann after the first battle of Magh Tuireadh, which took place near Cong in County Mayo. The Tuatha Dé had previously landed their mysterious flying ships on Sliabh an Iarainn, further to the east. The Fir Bolg may be connected with another group, the fearsome Fomóire, implacable foes to Tuatha Dé and humanity alike, who were also to be found in mysterious lands out to sea.


Tír Hudi, off the north-west of the extremity of County Donegal, contained a city in which were stored all the treasures of the world, to be accessed by whoever is fortunate enough to find the key, which is said to be buried beneath an ancient monument. It is likely identical with the unreachable island off Inistrahull, and may be connected with Dathuli or Daculi, another island which appears on a number of early maps.


Now, we return to the studios of those Mediterranean mapmakers, to invesigate their as-yet-unidentified "Brasil," namely that which stands somewhere off the west coast of the Breton peninsula. In truth, the Brasil name is only fleetingly applied to this location, an island which is most often depicted in a semicircular fashion: -

Domenico and Francesco Pizzigano1367Y. de Braçer
Catalan Atlas1375Mam
Pinelli–Walckenaer Atlas1384Jonzele; I. Onzele
Zuane Pizzigano1424Ventura
Andrea Bianco1448Bentusla
Martin Waldseemüller1507Viridis insula
Martin Waldseemüller1511Vladerians
Waldseemüller1513As Maidas
Matteo Prunes1553Isola de Maydi/Mayda
Nicolas de Nicolay1560I man orbolunda/Mayda
Gerhard Mercator1569Vlaenderen
Abraham Ortelius1570Vlaenderen
Abraham Ortelius1570Demar
Willem Blaeu1649As Maydas

FIrstly, there is very little of Irish (or neighbouring) lore on show here. The closest we come is in the Catalan Atlas' "Mam," with its passing resemblance to the Manx Mannin for their own Isle of Man. What is more evident are the possible associations with the Insulae de novo reperte, a.k.a. the "Antillia group": a variant of Tanmar, applied in 1435 by Battista Beccar[i]o to the northernmost isle of that archipelago, is associated with Mayda by Abraham Ortelius during the 1570s. Of the other names, the following correspondences ought to be noted: -

MaydaInsulae de novo reperte
MamYmana; Nam; Jmada
Jonzele; I. OnzeleAnsollj; Cansilla

The name Vlaenderen, first appearing in Waldseemüller's 1511 map, also points to the Azores: some traditions have it that the 1427 rediscovery of the islands was as a result of a Fleming, one Joshua Van der Berg, finding safe harbour there in the midst of a storm and claiming the archipelago for Portugal. The impetus for settlement too was something of a Flemish affair: Joost De Hurtere was the first settler on Faial in about 1466, and he invited Willem van der Haegen, a.k.a. Guilherme da Silveira, to settle at Topo on São Jorge, where he was ensconsed by 1470. By 1490, so numerous were the Flemish on the islands that they came to be known as New Flanders or the Flemish Islands - hence Vlaenderen (Flag of the Netherlands: Vlaanderen; Flag of Flanders: Vloandern).

Meanwhile, the Viridis insula of Waldseemüller's 1507 map can be associated with a free-floating memory of Greenland, as well as a Green Island from Scottish folklore. One of the myths of this place concerns Beira, queen of winter. I quote from Donald Alexander Mackenzie's Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend: -

Beira lived for hundreds and hundreds of years. The reason she did not die of old age was because, at the beginning of every spring, she drank the magic waters of the Well of Youth which bubbles up in the Green Island of the West. This was a floating island where summer was the only season, and the trees were always bright with blossom and laden with fruit. It drifted about on the silver tides of the blue Atlantic, and sometimes appeared off the western coasts of Ireland and sometimes close to the Hebrides. Many bold mariners have steered their galleys up and down the ocean, searching for Green Island in vain. On a calm morning they might sail past its shores and yet never know it was near at hand, for oft-times it lay hidden in a twinkling mist. Men have caught glimpses of it from the shore, but while they gazed on its beauties with eyes of wonder, it vanished suddenly from sight by sinking beneath the waves like the setting sun. Beira, however, always knew where to find Green Island when the time came for her to visit it.


Finally, we consider the related islands of Daculi and Bra, commonly situated off the northern coast of Ireland. Both appear on the Dulcert/Dalorto map of 1325, and on various other charts thereafter. Daculi is given an Italian etymology by William H. Babcock, who derives its name from da cùlla (literally "from [the] cradle," hence "Cradle Island"), a supposition backed up by a legend from Pareto's map of 1455, which seems to suggest that women enduring a difficult labour on Bra were carried to Daculi in order to ease their pangs. Bra would normally be associated with Hebridean Barra, though the locations on the maps present some small difficulties. For my part, I would state that I find the similarity of the name Daculi and that of the erudite Irish scholar Dicuil rather tantalising.

Sir Graham