Brasil, also known as Hy-Brasil or several other variants, is a phantom island which was said to lie in the Atlantic Ocean west of Ireland. In Irish myths it was said to be cloaked in mist, except for one day each seven years, when it became visible but still could not be reached. It probably has similar roots to other mythical islands said to exist in the Atlantic, such as Atlantis, Saint Brendan’s Island, and the Isle of Mam.
Etymology of the name
The etymology of the names Brasil and Hy-Brasil are unknown, but in Irish tradition it is thought to come from the Irish Uí Breasail (meaning “descendants (i.e., clan) of Breasal”), one of the ancient clans of northeastern Ireland. cf. Old Irish: Í: island; bres: beauty, worth, great, mighty.
Despite the similarity, the name of the country Brazil bears no relation to the mythical islands. It was at first named Ilha de Vera Cruz (Island of the True Cross) and later Terra de Santa Cruz (Land of the Holy Cross) by the Portuguese navigators who discovered the land. After some decades, it started to be called “Brazil” (Brasil, in Portuguese) due to the exploitation of native Brazilwood, at that time the only export of the land. In Portuguese, brazilwood is called pau-brasil, with the word brasil commonly given the etymology “red like an ember”, formed from Latin brasa (“ember”) and the suffix -il (from -iculum or -ilium).
Appearance on maps
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. 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. This was identified for a time with the modern island of Terceira in the Azores.
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.
On maps the island was shown as being circular, often with a central strait or river running east-west across its diameter. 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.
Searches for the island
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”.
In 1674 Captain John Nisbet claimed to have seen the island when on a journey from France to Ireland. He stated the island was inhabited by large black rabbits and a magician who lived alone in a stone castle. 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 imagins he was personally on O’Brasil for two days, and saw out of it the iles of Aran, 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 and discovered in 1862. As early as 1870 a paper was read to the Geological Society of Ireland suggesting this identification. The suggestion has since appeared more than once, e.g. in an 1883 edition of Notes and Queries and in various twentieth-century publications, one of the more recent being Graham Hancock’s book Underworld: The Mysterious Origins of Civilization.