In the realms of mythology, there are many disappearing islands and drowned lands. Hy Brasil has the distinction of being both at the same time. It was a round island with a river running through the centre, or at leas that was how it was usually depicted in maps, because oh yes! It featured in maps from the 14th century right up until 1873. The many variations on the island’s name include Hy-Breasal, Ysole Brazil, Bracir, Brazir and Brazil, which may mislead you as to its location – though a scattering of islands with the same name existed in the Atlantic Ocean, Hy Brasil was consistently thought to be located to the west of Ireland.
The name’s origins are up for debate. Brasil could be derived from the Gaelic word breas, meaning ‘noble’, ‘prince’ or ‘fortunate’; it could also have been taken from Breasal, who was apparently the immortal High King of the World in Irish mythology and held his court on Hy Brasil every seven years. Saint Bresal, an early Christian missionary, is another possible etymological parent of the island. More prosaically, a red dye known as brazil was very valuable during the time when the first mentions of Hy Brasil appear in maps. The island may have been considered a potential source of wood or lichen that produced the dye.
For centuries, cartographers continued to add the island into charts of the Atlantic. Sailors claimed to have seen it, even to have landed on it. An account from 1674 details the experiences of the Irish captain John Nisbet and his crew, who stumbled across a mysterious fog-shrouded island on their return home from France. They saw farmland occupied by cattle, sheep and horses, as well as a great many black rabbits, and were met by an elderly man who told them that the island had been made invisible by a necromancer’s spell, but that the magic was now lifted. The story turned out to have been invented by the author Richard Head – disappointingly, for those of us hoping for magical rabbits. While claims of sightings continued into the nineteenth century, Hy Brasil was eventually accepted as a myth.
Mind you, its mythological origins are equally hazy. The Undiscovered Islands claims it doesn’t actually have any, originating instead as a cartographical mistake. The Illustrated Encyclopaedia calls Hy Brasil a fairy island, condemned by the sea god Manannan to only appear above the sea every seven years. If fire and iron were brought onto its shores, the island would be forced to remain in sight. Other, very intriguing names for the island apparently include Tir fo-Thuin (Land Under the Wave), Magh Mell (Land of Truth), Hy na-Beatha (Isle of Life), and Tir na-m-Buadha (Land of Virtue). According to Christian folklore, it was Tir Tairngiri (Land of Promise) or Terra Repromissionis Sanctorum (the Promised Land of the Saints), a paradise to be found by the worthy. Saint Barrind and Saint Brendan were both said to have thoroughly explored the island, returning with treasures.
The interesting thing about a promised land is, what is it promising? In the case of Hy-Brasil, the promise appears to be that it will seem quite solid until you try and get a good look at it – and then it will melt into water and wishes.
References: The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies – Anna Franklin (Vega, 2002), The Undiscovered Islands – Malachy Tallack (Polygon, 2016), https://www.historicmysteries.com/hy-brasil-the-other-atlantis/, http://www.historyireland.com/medieval-history-pre-1500/what-is-hy-brasil/, Phantom Islands of the Atlantic – Donald S. Johnson (Souvenir Press, 1999)
These stories vary wildly depending on time and teller. If you know an alternative version, I would love to hear it!