Brasil, the Atlantis of Ireland

An ancient map of Ireland.
Ireland as depicted on the 1572 map of Europe by Abraham Ortelius

Welcome to the mysterious island of Brasil, said to be named for Breasal, the High King of the World, in Celtic lore. Claimed to be the home of a wealthy and advanced civilization, those who are alleged to have visited it described it’s healthy cattle, wealthy people and gold roofed towers and domes. Both Saint Barrind and Saint Brendan found the island on their legendary voyages, and both described it as a “Promised Land.” In some stories it might be compared more to Brigadoon than Atlantis, as it seems to have disappeared and reappeared out of the fog every seven years, and according to some, could be sighted, but was never reached. Other tales described it as simply shrouded in fog, or actually beneath the ocean in some way.

A nautical chart by Angelino Dulcert as far back as 1325 identified an island called “Bracile” west of Ireland in the Atlantic Ocean. Later it appeared as Insula de Brasil in the Venetian map of Andrea Bianco (1436).

Expeditions left Bristol in 1480 and 1481 are said to have gone in search for the island; and a letter written by shortly after the return of John Cabot (from his expedition in 1497), reported that an island found by Cabot was one “discovered in the past by the men from Bristol who found Brasil“.

In 1674 Captain John Nisbet of Killybegs, Co. Donegal, Ireland is said to have discovered the island. He and his crew were in what they thought were Familiar waters west of Ireland. But a fog came up, and when it lifted they found themselves nearly on the rocks. The ship anchored in in relatively shallow water and having noticed the island, sent four crew ashore in a boat Captain Nisbet and crew spend the day on the island where they saw large black rabbits and were gifted with silver and gold from an old magician who lived there. Another ship under the command of an Alexander Johnson and allegedly confirmed the stories of Nisbet’s crew. Today the story of Captain Nisbet is often believed to have been a story invented by author, play write and bookseller Richard Head (1637-1686).

The last alleged sighting of Brasil was in 1872, when author T. J. Westropp and several companions saw the island appear and then vanish. This was Mr. Westropp’s third alleged view of the Irish island, but on this voyage he had brought his mother and some friends to verify its existence.

A map showing the location of the Peruvian sea.
Northeast Atlantic bathymetry, with Porcupine Bank and the Porcupine Seabight labelled.

It is interesting that in 1862 the HMS Porcupine, a British sail and paddle-wheel ship used mainly for surveying discovered what became named Porcupine Bank. This relatively raised area of seabed is about 120 miles west of Ireland and comes to within 200 meters below sea level at its highest. In an 1870 paper presented to the Geological Society of Ireland, Mr W Fraser suggested that these reefs mark the site of the sunken island of Brasil. It is likely that a portion of Porcupine Bank was above water until rising sea levels submerged it after the last Ice Age. But it seems like a rather large stretch to believe that there was surviving memory of an island that was likely submerged long thousands of years ago. It’s more likely just coincidence. Considering how many legends of “lost” islands there are around the world, some are likely to be in the area of shallower waters like this.

At least now we have a better chance of documenting real “lost cities” and sunken islands as they happen with the likely increasing sea levels of climate change. Some may even continue to be tourist destinations in the long run, but for divers, “glass bottom” boats, or tourist submarines as well as researchers.

Of Swords & Stones
Trees & Kings

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