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The Lost Phantom Island of Ireland

Throughout history, one common maritime tradition has been the phenomenon of what are known as phantom islands, or islands that have at times appeared on maps and been considered to be real places, only to disappear from maps later, or have been seen or even visited by seafarers, only to later vanish without a trace. The reasons offered for this are numerous. Sometimes the reason is as simple as a cartographical error, geographical error, navigational error, misidentification of icebergs or fog banks, or a mistaken placement of an actual island. At other times, the phantom island is merely an optical illusion, deceiving the observer into thinking an island exists where there is none. Phantom islands can also be purely mythical constructs; often magical lands said to be populated by all manner of fantastical creatures. Still others can be islands that once existed, but have since been submerged or destroyed by some catastrophe such as a volcanic eruption, earthquakes, or underwater landslides. Yet at other times it is not so easy to define just what is going on, and the island’s mystique grows over time, accumulating wonder and curiosity until it has reached a legendary status. Such is the case of a mysterious island said to be located somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean west of Ireland, and which has a history so steeped in mystery and strangeness that it has transcended its mere designation as a phantom island to become something more.

The island mostly known as Hy-Brasil, but also variously referred to over the ages as O’Breasail, Hi-Brasil, O’Brazil, Hy Breasail, Hy Breasal, Brazil Rock, Brazir, Insula Fortunatae (Fortunate Island), Mag Mell (Land of Truth), Hy na-Beatha (Isle of Life), and Tir na-m-Buadha (Land of Virtue), among many others, was first documented in 1325, when it appeared on maps made by the Genoese cartographer Angellino de Dalorto, who placed it to the southwest of Ireland. The island was at the time labelled Insula de monotonis siue de brazile, and was described by the cartographer as being almost perfectly round, with a channel or river running down its center. Although this was the island’s first appearance on maps, the Celtic people of Ireland already had a long folkloric tradition of a mythical island off the western coast they called Hy-Brasil, a name derived from the Old Irish hy, which stems from the word for “island,” í, plus brasil, which comes from the root bres, meaning “beautiful” or “mighty.” It has also been suggested that the name could have come from Uí Breasail, which refers to a mighty tribe that once inhabited northeastern Ireland, or perhaps from the name Breasal, the legendary Celtic Immortal King of the World. In spite of the similarity, the name is largely thought to have nothing to do with the country Brazil, which was named after brazilwood, a type of wood used to create dye.

Old map of Hy-Brasil

Old map of Hy-Brasil

The Celtic people believed the island to be a land of eternal plenty and happiness, populated by an advanced civilization of immortals possessing high technology and vast wealth. The island was said to harbor magnificent cities with towers and streets of gold, and to be ruled by mysterious priests with magical powers who knew all of the secrets of the universe. Hy-Brasil was said to typically be shrouded in fog, hidden from the world of mortals, only to appear once every seven years. Typically the stories went that anyone approaching the island would find themselves somehow unable to reach it, but those who did manage to get there would come back laden with gold and riches beyond their wildest imaginings.

The location of the curious circular island on Dalorto’s maps coincided with the Celtic legends, and so this mysterious place became something more than a myth to many people, and an elusive destination for adventurous explorers throughout the ages. During this era of exploration, it was thought that if the legends of gold and immortality were true, then there was a definite benefit to locating the lost land of Hy-Brasil, and even if it were a mere island it was still an island that could be claimed by whoever found it first. The race was on to try and find this mystical land and many well-funded expeditions were mounted by experienced explorers to this end, with some being more successful than others.

In 1480, explorer John Jay Jr. departed from Bristol, England and embarked on a quest to find the island in a huge ship loaded with provisions, only to come back frustrated and empty handed after spending two full months at sea scouring the ocean for it. Not long after, in 1481, two other impressive ships called the Trinity and the George also departed from Bristol on an expedition to find Hy-Brasil and again they found the fabled land to be elusive. Several other expeditions were also launched from Bristol to search for the legendary island, and it is uncertain of how successful they were.

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From 1480 to 1497, the Italian explorer John Cabot, or Giovanni Caboto in his native land, made yearly excursions in the service of English King Henry VII with the main objective of finding North America, but Cabot also had the ulterior motive of searching for Hy-Brasil while he was at it. His journeys were not in vain, for as he ventured out increasingly further west in his expeditions he would become the first to discover Newfoundland in 1497, which would be claimed by England and pave the way for British settlement of Canada. Although at the time of his discovery of Newfoundland Cabot was most actively searching for a short route to the Indies, he was also ever on the lookout for Hy-Brasil, which he was convinced was somewhere out there. It is not certain if Cabot ever actually found this legendary land, but shortly after this 1497 voyage a curious and rather cryptic letter from the Spanish diplomat Pedro de Ayala to the Catholic Monarchs of Spain reported that Cabot had claimed he had found land that had been “discovered in the past by the men from Bristol who found Brasil,” implying that he had at least seen it and that someone from one of the Bristol expeditions had apparently actually managed to find it. He would further add of the Bristol expeditions:

For the last seven years the people of Bristol have equipped two, three [and] four caravels to go in search of the island of Brazil and the Seven Cities according to the fancy of this Genoese. The king made up his mind to send thither, because last year sure proof was brought they had found land.

One of the most interesting and certainly bizarre stories of an expedition successfully finding Hy-Brasil is the account given by a Captain John Nesbitt in 1674, in which he claimed to have found the island while on a voyage from Ireland to France.  Nesbitt claimed to have not only seen the island, but to actually have landed on it and explored it. Of the island’s discovery, Nesbitt claimed that they had been sailing along when a sudden, dense blanket of fog had descended up their ship. When the fog had cleared, it soon became apparent that they were near a rocky shore which they had not expected to find since at the time they were in waters that they were quite familiar with.

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Upon stumbling across this unexpected find, the crew then checked various nautical maps to see that they were in the area of the mysterious Hy-Brasil. Excited, Nesbitt and his crew put the ship at anchor and ventured ashore, after which they spent the entire day exploring the island. Nesbitt made many strange claims about the island, saying that it was inhabited by giant black rabbits and that a wizard lived there alone in a stone castle. It was also claimed that they had returned loaded with gold and silver that had purportedly been given to them by the generous inhabitant of the island. This would encourage another expedition to follow in Nesbitt’s footsteps, this time a ship captained by Alexander Johnson, whose expedition also reported finding Hy-Brasil and confirmed Nesbitt’s story.

Other people were also said to have been successful in locating Hy-Brasil. In 1684, an Irish historian by the name of Ruairi O’Flaherty claimed to have met a man named Morrough ó Laoí, who told him that he had been abducted and taken to Hy-Brasil against his will for two days. During his imprisonment, he reported that he had fallen ill and lost consciousness, only to find that he was inexplicably back in Ireland when he woke up again. The story is odd, but it got even weirder when an Irish language scholar named John O’Donavan claimed a different set of events in relation to Ó Laoí ‘s story in 1839. O’Donovan said that Ó Laoí  had actually apparently been a sailor who had landed on the island and been confronted by an old man who had emerged from the wilderness to warn them that the island was enchanted.  As Ó Laoí  was leaving, the old hermit had given him a book which he was told should not be opened for 7 years. Ó Laoí  dutifully waited the 7 years, and when he opened the book he found it to be filled with a vast amount of miraculous, arcane knowledge, namely pertaining to illnesses and medicine. Armed with this new knowledge, Ó Laoí  then allegedly went on to become a prominent doctor with a knack for treating and curing a wide variety of serious illnesses. The two versions of this story are so divergent that it is hard to know what to make of them. Perhaps Ó Laoí  really did find the island and had been really been given such a book, with the story of his capture a ruse to cover-up the real events and thus keep his prized possession a secret.

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Interestingly, throughout this entire obsession with finding the island of Hy-Brasil it kept showing up on various maps as an actual place even though its existence could not really be confirmed. It appeared in the Catalan Atlas in 1375, which placed it as two separate islands with the same name, Illa de brasil, one to the west of Ireland and one to the south. In 1436 the island appeared in maps by Venetian cartographer Andrea Bianco, in which it was called Insula de Brasil. By 1480, the location of the islands on maps had shifted to one west of Ireland and one just south of Greenland. In 1513, the famous Ottoman admiral, geographer, and cartographer, Piri Reis, included the island situated off the west coast of Ireland in his map of Europe and the Mediterranean. Two famous maps in 1595, called the Ortelius Map of Europe and the Europa Mercator Map, also featured the island lying west of Ireland. Various other maps and nautical charts consistently featured Illa de brasil, and in all cases it was always depicted as being perfectly circular with the channel down the middle. Also, although the location of the island sometimes shifted a bit on different maps, it was mostly depicted as lying at roughly the same coordinates west of Ireland. The mythical island would continue to persistently pop up on maps well into the 18th century until 1870, when it was finally officially removed from British Admiralty charts and it simply disappeared without a trace.

The lack of a place on maps did not mean an end to alleged encounters with Hy-Brasil. In 1872, Irish folklorist and author T. J. Westropp was travelling with a man by the name of Robert O’Flaherty, as well as his own mother, and several other companions and family members, when they all witnessed the island appear out of nowhere in front of them only to once again vanish before their eyes. Westropp had seen the island several times before, and on this particular expedition had brought along his friends and family in order to witness it for themselves and verify its existence. On July 7, 1878, people living in the Irish seaside town of Ballycotton, in County Cork, were amazed to see an island appear at sea where there had never been one before. Baffled town inhabitants allegedly gathered along the shore to gawk at this wonder, claiming they could make out the various geological features of the island such as mountains, valleys, and woodlands. Several local fishermen set out in their boats to try and reach this miraculous island, but as they approached it is said to have faded out of existence as if it had never been there at all.

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Alleged sightings of Hy-Brasil have continued well into more modern times as well. On February 18, 2012, pilot Niger Gosseur reported seeing a mysterious bank of fog rolling over the ocean near the western coast of Ireland at around 1pm in otherwise clear conditions. Gosseur reported that as he flew over the area, his compass had gone haywire, and when he looked down he could see green rolling hills through clear patches in the fog where there should have been no landmass. The pilot said that the fog had then become suddenly thicker, heavily blanketing the area and obscuring his view of the baffling green land below, after which he continued his flight to Ireland. In addition to sightings such as this, local Irish fishermen to this day often tell stories of coming across Hy-Brasil, or even managing to venture ashore, where it is still claimed a fabulous land of riches and prosperity awaits those who make it.

The legends and accounts surrounding the fabled island of Hy-Brasil are certainly intriquing, but is there any substance to them? Does this island still exist somehow, perhaps floating between our reality and another? Did it ever exist in any form at all? Is this a real place? Through the ages, Hy-Brasil has become almost akin to Atlantis in its mysterious scope, and there has been much discussion around it, as well as a plethora of theories put forth which run from the plausible to the outlandish and absurd.

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One idea is that this island did indeed exist at some point, but was lost to some cataclysmic event and subsequently buried beneath the waves. Proponents of this theory point to an area approximately 200km off the west coast of Ireland called Porcupine Bank, which is a peculiar raised area of the seabed that was discovered in 1862. The bank’s highest point is around 200 meters below sea level and it is speculated that it could be evidence of an island that once existed, but was sunk either due to a catastrophe or rising sea levels. Proponents of this idea are quick to point out that during the very peak of the Ice Age, around 200,000 years ago, sea levels were much lower than they are today. This theory on Hy-Brasil has been making the rounds since around at least 1870, when it was mentioned as a possibility by the Geological Society of Ireland.

Another theory is that the legendary Hy-Brasil was actually a misidentification of Baffin Island, a remote island off the northern coast of Canada. Somewhat backing up these claims is the curious fact that the location of Hy-Brasil on maps seems to have gradually moved west as mapmaking skills became more sophisticated and advanced. Looking at the steady crawl west of the island, it has been extrapolated that if it that had continued on this path it would have eventually ended up approximately where Baffin Island lies. Baffin Island is also one of around 80 islands in the Arctic Archipelago, which is interesting when considering that in Dalorto’s earlier maps Hy-Brasil was placed among other islands collectively referred to as the “The Fortunate Islands.” In this case, people who thought they had seen Hy-Brasil had really just mistaken Baffin Island, or some other known island, for the mythical island of legend.

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This is all assuming that Hy-Brasil has ever even existed in any tangible form at all, which according to some, it hasn’t. One school of thought is that the materialization of this mysterious island out of nowhere is no more than intricate optical illusions caused by the interplay of hot and cold layers of air and the bending and refracting of light off of fog, clouds, water, or ice. One type of mirage that could certainly possibly account for sightings of Hy-Brasil is called a Fata Morgana, in which a layer of warm air sits upon a layer of cold air, which basically can act like a huge refracting lens that sends up a series of inverted images that can dramatically distort the appearance of a distant object such as a boat, coastline, or island. These mirages can look incredibly realistic, and since a Fata Morgana is constantly changing and can fade at a moment’s notice, it is not hard to see how this sort of illusion could maybe account for some of the mysterious sightings of Hy-Brasil. As to an explanation for the accounts of people actually going ashore there and loading up on gold or seeing magical creatures, well, who knows?

The theories only get more far out from here. It may come as no surprise that this mythical land has invited the explanation of aliens and UFOs as well. There are some who believe that the island is some sort of alien base, which explains its ability to appear and disappear at will since the aliens could be cloaking it somehow, either physically or telepathically. One particularly bizarre case allegedly supporting this idea links to another strange incident that occurred at Rendlesham Forest, Suffolk, England in 1980, during which time the U.S. Air Force was using a base called RAF Woodbridge. Often called “Britain’s Roswell,” the Rendlesham Forest incident basically revolved around an intense series of UFO sightings and alleged landings that occurred within the forest in late December of that year, which were experienced by dozens of Air Force personnel and then were later claimed to be covered up by the government.

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During the incident, one airman by the name of Sgt. Jim Penniston claimed to have actually touched one of the UFOs, upon which he had been telepathically taught a binary code, which he wrote down in a notebook and then kept under wraps for the next 30 years until programmer Nick Ciske was hired by the History Channel for the TV show Ancient Aliens in order to try and decode it. When Ciske deciphered the meaning of the binary code, it was allegedly found to contain sets of coordinates for various places, among which one of these sets pinpointed a location off the west coast of Ireland, exactly where Hy-Brasil supposedly is. Incidentally, since you may be wondering, the alien code also offered coordinates for locations in Central America, South America, China, an island in Greece, Giza in Egypt, and Sedona, Arizona. Other weird theories are that the island itself is not just a base for extraterrestrials, but rather an enormous mother ship of some kind, or even that Hy-Brasil and Atlantis are one and the same.

In this age of Google Earth, there are very few places for a landmass the size of a whole island to hide indeed. So what is going on with Hy-Brasil? Is it a sunken island, misidentification or mirage? Is it an alien UFO base, a mother ship, or the fabled Atlantis? Or is it just a figment of the imagination; mere folklore and legend? Whatever the case may be, the occurrence of such phantom islands such as Hy-Brasil has certainly captured the imagination of humankind since we first took to the seas. It is a romantic notion to think that in this modern, ever more crowded world of satellite imagery, and easy, instant access to complete maps of wherever you want, that there is some hidden tranquil island of plenty that mysteriously exists out there beyond our civilization and our ability to see it. This notion is almost a basic human need; to hope for something that lies beyond our ability to taint it or reach it. Whatever Hy-Brasil is or was, it seems that it, and others like it, will long retain the power to instill a potent curiosity in us.

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Brent Swancer is an author and crypto expert living in Japan. Biology, nature, and cryptozoology still remain Brent Swancer’s first intellectual loves. He's written articles for MU and Daily Grail and has been a guest on Coast to Coast AM and Binnal of America.
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