Islands of Ireland: Welcome to dreamland

The islet of Rockall captured the public interest last month as the periodic claims of its nearest neighbours (ourselves and Scotland mainly) were laid out in stark detail.

Islands of Ireland: Welcome to dreamland

The islet of Rockall captured the public interest last month as the periodic claims of its nearest neighbours (ourselves and Scotland mainly) were laid out in stark detail.

However, there is another island lurking out there at the edge of our psyches which has confounded not just ownership but reason itself.

It is an island whose shores have evaded the compass of the cartographers of antiquity and the GPS of modern mapmakers.

It is far out there but not too far and maybe on a crystal clear day its shape can be discerned from Loop Head in Co Clare…

For this is an island of the imagination, yet one that was thought to exist for perhaps thousands of years. Once upon a time it was probably as real to our ancestors as Inis Mor or Sherkin Island.

It was an island, or a dream of an island, that provoked poetic fancy, in this case by the 19th century Limerick writer Gerald Griffin:

“On the ocean that hollows the rocks where ye dwell/ A shadowy land has appeared, as they tell/ Men thought it a region of sunshine and rest, And they called it Hy-Brasail, the isle of the blest.”

In Islands: From Atlantis to Zanzibar Steven Roger Fischer writes that “all societies create their own literary islands and then set out to find them.”

Thomas More’s idealised world of Utopia is one of the most famous idealised islands of western civilisation. Hy Brasil falls into this category of dreamscape rather than landscape.

‘A Race in Hy Brazil’ (1937) by Jack B Yeats which can be seen in the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork City.
‘A Race in Hy Brazil’ (1937) by Jack B Yeats which can be seen in the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork City.

Why did people think the island existed? Possibly due to lack of information, word of mouth, and inability to prove one way or another whether it did or did not exist.

Thus Hy Brasil gained a foothold in the imagination of the people and then the cartographers themselves.

Two other islands accompany Hy Brasil in the ‘realms of uncertainty’ — Buss and St Brendan’s Isle.

Medieval cartographers placed Hy Brasil on their maps about 500km west of Galway.

The ‘island’ even appeared on a 17th century map. Irish naturalist Robert Lloyd Praeger in The Way that I Went indicated that J Purdy in his General Chart of the Atlantic from 1830 actually gave the co-ordinates for Hy Brasil as 51° 10’ north and 15° 50’ west.

Praeger was nobody’s fool and applied some cold reasoning to the existence, or not, of Hy Brasil.

Writing that Rockall is on the edge of the Porcupine Bank and the given position of Hy Brasil is also on this edge where the ocean floor rises to within 82 fathoms of the surface, he concludes that there probably was such an island.

It would have been of volcanic make-up part of the same mid-Atlantic ridge on which the volcanic Portuguese islands of the Azores are situated.

Writers too extolled its virtues.

According to the 17th century historian Roderick O’Flaherty: ”From the Isles of Aran and the west continent often appears visible that inchanted island called O’Brasil, and in Irish Beg-ara, or the Lesser Aran, set down in cards of navigation.

"Whether it be reall and firm land kept hidden by speciall ordinance of God, as the terrestriall paradise, or else some illusion of airy clouds appearing on the surface of the sea, or the craft of evill spirits, is more than our judgments can sound out.”

Hy Brasil suggests a linguistic link with old Norse whose suffix ‘ey’ meaning island is seen in many Irish islands: Dursey, Saltey.

In old Irish ‘hy’ referred to ‘island’. ‘Brasil’ may derive from the word for great ‘bres’. More likely is a connection to the old Irish clan Uí Breasal.

Folklorist TJ Westropp also fell under the spell of Hy Brasil, writing in 1912: “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.

"It had two hills, one wooded between these rose towers and curls of smoke.”

It is probably better for humanity to not prove such things. As an escape from reality the concept of Hy Brasil is very attractive.

As Griffin wrote: “From year unto year, on the ocean’s blue rim/ the beautiful spectre showed lovely and dim/ the golden clouds curtained the deep where it lay, And it looked like an Eden, away, far away.”

How to get there: Flight of fancy

Other: Roderick O’Flaherty West Connaught, Irish Archaeological Society’s Publications; Robert Lloyd Praeger, The Way that I Went

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