Brasil (mythical island)

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Native name:
Hy-Brasil, Hy Brasil, Hy Breasil, Hy Breasail, Hy Breasal, Hy Brazil, I-Brasil
Brasil (far left) as shown in relation to Ireland on a map by Abraham Ortelius (1572)
EtymologyUí Breasail: in honour of the descendants of Bresail[1]
LocationMythical, Atlantic Ocean

Brasil, also known as Hy-Brasil and several other variants,[2] is a phantom island said to lie in the Atlantic Ocean[3] west of Ireland. Irish myths described it as cloaked in mist except for one day every seven years, when it becomes visible but still cannot be reached.


The etymology of the names Brasil and Hy-Brasil is unknown, but in Irish tradition it is thought to come from the Irish Uí Breasail (meaning "descendants (i.e., clan) of Bresail"), one of the ancient clans of northeastern Ireland. cf. Old Irish: Í: island; bres: beauty, worth, great, mighty.[1]

Despite the similarity, the name of the country Brazil (Portuguese: Brasil) has no connection to the mythical islands (although J. R. R. Tolkien's essay "On Fairy Stories" linked them).[4]

Appearance on maps[edit]

Nautical charts identified an island called "Bracile" west of Ireland in the Atlantic Ocean as far back as 1325, in a portolan chart by Angelino Dulcert. It also appeared on the Catalan Atlas, in 1375.[5]

One of the earliest appearances was on the Rex Tholomeus portolan chart dated to circa 1360.[6] [7]

Later it appeared as Insula de Brasil in the Venetian map of Andrea Bianco (1436), attached to one of the larger islands of a group of islands in the Atlantic.[citation needed] This was identified for a time with the modern island of Terceira in the Azores, where a volcanic mount at the bay of its main town, Angra do Heroismo, is still named Monte Brasil.[citation needed]

A Catalan chart of about 1480 labels two islands "Illa de brasil", one to the south west of Ireland (where the mythical place was supposed to be) and one south of "Illa verde" or Greenland.[citation needed]

On maps the island was shown as being circular, often with a central strait or river running east–west across its diameter.[citation needed] Despite the failure of attempts to find it, this appeared regularly on maps lying south west of Galway Bay until 1865, by which time it was called Brasil Rock.[citation needed]

Map gallery[edit]

Searches for the island[edit]

Expeditions left Bristol in 1480 and 1481 to search for the island; and a letter written by Pedro de Ayala, shortly after the return of John Cabot (from his expedition in 1497), reports that land found by Cabot had been "discovered in the past by the men from Bristol who found Brasil".[8]

In 1674, a Captain John Nisbet claimed to have seen the island when on a journey from France to Ireland, stating that the island was inhabited by large black rabbits and a magician who lived alone in a stone castle, yet the character and the story were a literary invention by Irish author Richard Head.[9] Roderick O'Flaherty in A Chorographical Description of West or H-Iar Connaught (1684) tells us "There is now living, Morogh O'Ley (Murrough Ó Laoí), who imagines he was personally on O'Brasil for two days, and saw out of it the Aran Islands, Golamhead [by Lettermullen], Irrosbeghill, and other places of the west continent he was acquainted with."

Hy-Brasil has also been identified with Porcupine Bank, a shoal in the Atlantic Ocean about 200 kilometres (120 mi) west of Ireland[10] and discovered in 1862. As early as 1870 a paper was read to the Geological Society of Ireland suggesting this identification.[11] The suggestion has since appeared more than once, e.g., in an 1883 edition of Notes and Queries.[12]

In popular culture[edit]

Irish poet Gerald Griffin wrote about Hy-Brasail in the early nineteenth century.[13]

Mary Burke's short story uses the myth as an allegory of the breach caused by the Northern Irish Troubles. Mary Burke, “Hy-Brasil” in The Faber Best New Irish Short Stories, 2004-5 Ed. David Marcus. London: Faber & Faber, 2005, 101–05.[14]

In The Hollow Hills, part of Mary Stewart's Merlin Trilogy, several characters believe (incorrectly) that the wizard Merlin has hidden the young Prince Arthur on Hy-Brasil.[15]

In The Magician's Daughter by H.G. Parry the protagonist and title character is raised on Hy-Brasil. The island plays a main part in the story.[16]

Canadian singer-songwriter Allison Russell has a song named after the island, and casts Hy-Brasil as the spiritual home to which Russell's soul would travel to escape the trauma of the mental abuse she was suffering. It draws on Russell's Scottish heritage and acts as a tribute to her grandmother, Dr. Isobel Roger-Robertson, whom Russell describes as the “brightest light of my childhood”. Her grandmother had often told her stories of the island as a child.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b McKillop, James (1998). "Hy Brasil". A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. Oxford University Press.
  2. ^ Hy Brasil, Hy Breasil, Hy Breasail, Hy Breasal, Hy Brazil, I-Brasil
  3. ^ Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Brazil, or Brasil" . Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 4 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 438.
  4. ^ Tolkien, J. R. R. On Fairy Stories (PDF).
  5. ^ Lišèák, Vladimír: Mapa mondi (Catalan Atlas of 1375), Majorcan cartographic school, and 14th century Asia, Proc. Int. Cartogr. Assoc., pg 3,, 2018.
  6. ^ "A $7.5-million find: Overlooked Getty estate sale map turns out to be 14th century treasure". Los Angeles Times. 25 October 2023. Retrieved 3 January 2024.
  7. ^ "The Oldest Portolan Chart in America and The Fourth-Oldest Surviving "Complete" Portolan Chart of Europe". Retrieved 3 January 2024.
  8. ^ Seaver, K.A. (1995). The Frozen Echo. Stanford University Press. p. 212. ISBN 0-8047-3161-6.
  9. ^ Freitag, Barbara (2013). Hy Brasil: The Metamorphosis of an Island. Rodopi. ISBN 978-9401209106.
  10. ^ Velasco, Francisco; Landa, Jorge; Barrado, Joaquín; Blanco, Marian (2008). "Distribution, abundance, and growth of anglerfish (Lophius piscatorius) on the Porcupine Bank (west of Ireland)". ICES Journal of Marine Science. 65 (7): 1316. doi:10.1093/icesjms/fsn130.
  11. ^ Winsor, Justin (1889). Narrative and critical history of America. Vol. 1. Houghton, Mifflin and Company. p. 51.
  12. ^ Frazer, W. (December 1883), "O'Brazile or Hy Brazile", Notes and Queries, s6-VIII (207): 475, doi:10.1093/nq/s6-VIII.207.475a
  13. ^ Griffin, Gerald (1846). "Hy-Brasail—The Isle of the Blest". In MacCarthy, D. F. (ed.). The Book of Irish Ballads. Dublin: James Duffy. p. 34.
  14. ^ "Review: The Faber Book of Best New Irish Short Stories 2004-5". The Guardian. 27 May 2005.
  15. ^ Stewart, Mary (1980). Mary Stewart's Merlin Trilogy. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc. ISBN 0688003478.
  16. ^ "The Magician's Daughter by H G Parry". Retrieved 8 June 2023.

Further reading[edit]