The Legend of Hy Brasil • Geraldo Cantarino

Once upon a time there was an island. Fabulous, fantastic, fascinating. A body of imaginary land, surrounded by water, with legends and dreams on all sides. Hy-Brasail or Hy Brasil has many stories to tell. This ancient island of the Atlantic represented Paradise on Earth, bewitched navigators and deceived cartographers for years on end. From its mythical origins in Celtic culture, it traversed the mists of time and established a physical existence in nautical charts and maps for more than 500 years. Fleeting by nature, the island disappeared without trace, but lives forever in popular memory as an enchanted and blessed place of the Otherworld.

But what is Hy Brasil? Some say that no other illusory island in the Atlantic has had as many identities as Hy Brazil, Brazil, Breasil, Breasal or simply Brasil. Legend has it that it existed somewhere along the west coast of Ireland. Always covered with intense fog, it was rarely seen. Every seven years, the fog would dissipate, and the enchanted island would appear in its entirety. When it did, mountains, green fields and a luminous city would become momentarily visible. In this Celtic land of great enchantment, fairies, magic folk and wise healers would live. Irish legends and myths are full of heroes who, drawn by the fantastic view of towers and golden vaults, threw themselves into the sea in search of that vision. However, every time they came close to it, the island would mysteriously disappear.

Strange Island in Fog. Hy-Brasil allegedly disappeared into the mist. Source: BBC

Hy Brasil is considered to be the most intriguing of all the legendary islands of the Atlantic. It is the Irish Atlantis. It has its historical origins probably in the pre-Christian era. One of the first records of it was in the VII century, in an Irish text known as The adventure of Bran, Son of Febal. The manuscript tells of Bran’s visit to an island supported by golden pillars, where there was no sadness or disease and the people, cradled by lots of music, were always happy. Other definitions categorise it as an indecipherable place, a place of doubtful existence, permeating the boundaries between the real and the imaginary. 

There are those who believe that the enchantment has not been lost. Even after centuries, Hy Brasil continues to be the hiding place of magical creatures, whose existence is denied in the land of men. It is the home of choice for retired fairies, dragons and gods. Or, even leprechauns, gnomes and ancient tribes, when they are no longer able to find a place to live in our world. In Hy Brasil, like in no other place, the wisdom of the past would be preserved, and the ancient magic could remain alive. 

From popular imagination to nautical charts, the belief in this island was so strong that it ended up acquiring an intriguing existence in old maps. The first cartographic appearance of Hy Brasil or Brasil Island was in 1325 and the last, probably, in 1850. One detail that draws the attention of researchers is the fact that the island had, in most cases, the same location: on the west coast of Ireland. 

Fixed on the maps, Hy Brasil stopped being just an uncertain target for trivial adventures and became a destination for more experienced explorers. It was coveted, not only for its idyllic gifts or magical powers, but also as a real piece of land to be conquered and colonised. However, nobody ever set foot on it. Artistic representations of it became the main guide, if only symbolic, to get to Hy Brasil. Poets, musicians, painters and writers chased after images and legends in order to reconstruct what was not possible to reach in the real world. 

And its name, where did it come from? According to scholars, Hy is a variant of í, which in old Irish means island, which is why we also find the form I-Brasil, that is, Brasil Island. The word brasil, in turn, would have come from the root bres, which means powerful, grand, notable, beautiful, and takes its origin from the name Breasal, a god from Irish mythology, considered the Great King of the World. 

However, could Brasil Island be associated, in any way, with the baptism of the country Brazil of today’s Brazilians? Some Irish researchers think so. The official Brazilian history assures us that it does not: our “Brazil” (Brasil, in Portuguese) comes from the “brazilwood” tree. Regardless of this discussion, what is certain is that the word “brasil” had an Irish trajectory long before Pedro Alvares Cabral shouted “Land ahoy!” in the waters of Bahia. The historian Gustavo Barroso thought that it would be legitimate to ask the Brazilian people what they would prefer: “that their homeland’s name means Blessed Land, Fortunate Land, Land of the Blessed or that it registers only the common and utilitarian trade in dye wood?” 

Ultimately, Hy Brasil, rooted in the human spirit to strive for an antidote to the hardships of life, is an aspiration that inspires, comforts and warms the heart.
Hy Brasil is a utopian dream.

Excerpt of the poem Cider by Paul Muldoon, published in Geraldo Cantarino’s book uma Ilha chamada Brasil (an island called Brasil), 2004.

“Does Brazil really owe its name to older Irish roots, to a language that still struggles to articulate the hidden historical geography of its own Atlantic past?”

Angus Mitchell, historian and author of the text “Origins of Brazil.”

In this book, written in Portuguese, Geraldo Cantarino compiles many poems that mention the mysterious island. In addition to a broad study surrounding it, the connections between Ireland and Brasil, the hypothesis about the origin of the name Brasil, about Roger Casement and the influence he had in Amazonia, and much more.


Geraldo Cantarino is a Brazilian journalist with professional experience in television. Studied Photography and Photoshop, with Henry Reichhold at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design (CSM), University of the Arts London; Contemporary Portraiture Workshop, with Saraya Cortaville at the The British Institute of Professional Photography (BIPP), in Aylesbury; and Portrait Photography, with Peter Cattrell at the CSM. Based in England since 1999, he writes books that are on sale in Brazil. Website: www.cantarino.com


[This chronicle was published in our first printed issue • “Connections Brazil & Ireland” • in Dec 2020]

Translation into English by Caitriona Kavanagh | Amanda Faccioli


Also, read the interview with Irish Studies’ scholar Mariana Bolfarine, who also has writings and studies on Roger Casement: