UNEXPLAINED

Episode 8 Extra: Into the Myst

For the weeks in between episodes we look at the stories that for one reason or other didn’t make it into the show.

In last week’s episode, When the Light Fades, we looked at the haunting tale of the Light keepers of Eilean Mòr. The island is one of seven small rocky outcrops known collectively as the Flannan Isles, located 17 miles to the west of the isle of Lewis in the Scottish Outer Hebrides.  

The island was often referred to as ‘the other country’, a place where a mysterious other world had touched with our own mortal world.  It is a sentiment reserved for a number of mythical and remote islands from around the world. 

Though many will be familiar with the fantastical Atlantis or the lost land of Lemuria, there is one island, once thought to be located a few hundred miles off the South coast of Ireland that may yet prove to be the strangest of them all. 

The island is believed to have been first charted by famed Italian-Majorcan cartographer Angelino Dulcert in 1325.  It would appear again in his later map of 1339.  Widely considered his greatest achievement, the 1339 portolan chart now resides in Paris in the National Library of France.  Looking at it today, it is a masterpiece of composition and geometry. 

Considered the finest map of the known world from a European perspective for its time, it covers a region of land encompassing: Northern Africa, West Asia and the majority of Europe.  Despite some notable inaccuracies of scale it nonetheless depicts a clear picture of the various lands recognisable from any modern day atlas.  

And yet, if you look to the left hand side of the map you will see something fairly unexpected.  Clearly marked just off the coast of Ireland is a small land mass marked that over time has most commonly become known as Hy Brasil.

The exact origins of the name Brasil is unknown and it is not thought to be linked to the nation of Brazil, which instead derives its name from the Pernambuco tree, otherwise known as Brazilwood.

The likely provenance is to be found in Celtic and Irish folklore.  Irish historians will be familiar with the clan Ui Breasil who’s Iron Age Chief, the eponymous Breasel is said to have lost his daughter in the river Gaillimh which flows into Galway Bay on the West coast of Ireland.

However it’s most probable that the name is derived from another, known in Celtic folklore as the High King of the World.  The immortal monarch was said to hold court on a strange mythical island known as Hy Breasal.  A place of great and eternal happiness, the island was said to be nothing less than the ‘embodiment of the otherworld’.  

As the myth goes, the strange land was believed to only appear every seven years when it would rise from the waters, shrouded in mist.  Any attempt by a mortal to reach the island however would reveal it to be nothing but a strange mirage, forever out of reach.

What could possibly have compelled such a reputable cartographer as Angelino Dulcert to include a mythical island on his most prestigious of maps. Had this island in fact been discovered?

In 1497, famed explorer Giovanni Caboto, made his name leading the first European expedition to the mainland of North America since the Vikings. In 1480 however, Caboto launched the first of eight expeditions in search of this mythical Celtic land of Hy Brasil. 

There is no known proof that Caboto reached the island except for the report of one Spanish diplomat who travelled with Caboto to North America in 1497.  The diplomat, named Pedro de Ayala, maintained that in his words he had made his journey with the men who found Brasil.

Controversial Historian and Irish mythologiser Roderick O’Flaherty also claimed sometime in the 17th century that he had encountered a man named Morogh O’Ley who had visited the island for a period of two days.  The claim remains unsubstantiated.

Many have pointed to a 1674 expedition taken by the mariner Captain John Nisbet as proof that the island had indeed been discovered.  The claim is now known to be the invention of Irish author Richard Head.

Regardless the Island of Hy-Brasil continued to feature in many charts appearing again in 1776 as a ‘rock 6 degrees west of the Southern point of Ireland’.  The last known map to include the land was a British admiralty chart drawn up in 1865, after which the island appears to have vanished from the records.

When thinking of such places it is hard not to be reminded of Thomas More’s own fictional land of Utopia, perhaps the most symbolically fictitious of them all. 

And whatever you believe, whether there be a truth to the existence of Hy Brasil, or any of the other mythical lands, it is a curious myth that somewhere out there lies paradise, if only we could discover it.  When after all, do we not have everything we need to make it ourselves?

© Richard MacLean Smith


Sources

1.    O’Connell, T. (2016), Hi Brasil or Hy-Brasil, www.atlantipedia.ie, http://atlantipedia.ie/samples/hi-brasil-or-hy-brasil/

2.    Melissa (2013), The Legendary Island of Hy-Brasil, http://www.todayifoundout.com, http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2013/11/legendary-island-hy-brasil/#_edn1

3.    Curran, B. (2010), Mysterious Celtic Mythology in American Folklore, Body Mind and Spirit.

4.    An Island Called Brazil, History Ireland, http://www.historyireland.com/18th-19th-century-history/an-island-called-brazil/

5.    Dennis (2012), Hi Brasil The Real Mysterious Islands, www.topsecretwriters.com, http://www.topsecretwriters.com/2012/02/hy-brasil-the-real-mysterious-island/

6.    Fridtjof, N. (1911), In Northern Mists, Arctic Exploration in Early Times, Frederick A. Stokes Company (US).

7.    Brasil Wikipedia Page, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brasil_%28mythical_island%29

8.    Lemuria Wikipedia page, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lemuria_%28continent%29

9.    Angelino Dulcert Wikipedia page, https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angelino_Dulcert