Kirwan's Search for Hy-Brasail by Thomas Wentworth

The boy Kirwan lay on one of the steep cliffs of the Island of Innismane— one of the islands of Arran, formerly called Isles of the Saints. He was looking across the Atlantic for a glimpse of Hy-Brasail. This was what they called it; it was a mysterious island which Kirwan's grandfather had seen, or thought he had seen—and Kirwan's father also;—indeed, there was not one of the old people on the island who did not think he had seen it, and the older they were, the oftener it had been seen by them, and the larger it looked. But Kirwan had never seen it, and whenever he came to the top of the highest cliff, where he often went bird-nesting, he climbed the great mass of granite called The Gregory, and peered out into the west, especially at sunset, in hopes that he would at least catch a glimpse, some happy evening, of the cliffs and meadows of Hy-Brasail. But as yet he had never espied them. All this was more than two hundred years ago.

He naturally went up to The Gregory at this hour, because it was then that he met the other boys, and caught puffins by being lowered over the cliff. The agent of the island employed the boys, and paid them a sixpence for every dozen birds, that he might sell the feathers. The boys had a rope three hundred feet long, which could reach the bottom of the cliff. One of them tied this rope around his waist, and then held it fast with both hands, the rope being held above by four or five strong boys, who lowered the cragman, or "clifter," as he was called, over the precipice. Kirwan was thus lowered to the rocks near the sea, where the puffins bred; and, loosening the rope, he prepared to spend the night in catching them. He had a pole with a snare on the end, which he easily clapped on the heads of the heavy and stupid birds; then tied each on a string as he caught it, and so kept it to be hauled up in the morning. He took in this way twenty or thirty score of the birds, besides quantities of their large eggs, which were found in deep clefts in the rock; and these he carried with him when his friends came in the morning to haul him up. It was a good school of courage, for sometimes boys missed their footing and were dashed to pieces. At other times he fished in his father's boat, or drove calves for sale on the mainland, or cured salt after high tide in the caverns, or collected kelp for the farmers. But he was always looking forward to a time when he might get a glimpse of the island of Hy-Brasail, and make his way to it.

One day when all the fleet of fishing-boats was out for the herring fishery, and Kirwan among them, the fog came in closer and closer, and he was shut apart from all others. His companion in the boat—or dory-mate, as it would be called in New England—had gone to cut bait on board another boat, but Kirwan could manage the boat well enough alone. Long he toiled with his oars toward the west, where he fancied the rest of the fleet to be; and sometimes he spread his little sprit-sail, steering with an oar—a thing which was, in a heavy sea, almost as hard as rowing. At last the fog lifted, and he found himself alone upon the ocean. He had lost his bearings and could not tell the points of the compass. Presently out of a heavy bank of fog which rose against the horizon he saw what seemed land. It gave him new strength, and he worked hard to reach it; but it was long since he had eaten, his head was dizzy, and he lay down on the thwart of the boat, rather heedless of what might come. Growing weaker and weaker, he did not clearly know what he was doing. Suddenly he started up, for a voice hailed him from above his head. He saw above him the high stern of a small vessel, and with the aid of a sailor he was helped on board.

He found himself on the deck of a sloop of about seventy tons, John Nisbet, master, with a crew of seven men. They had sailed from Killebegs (County Donegal), in Ireland, for the coast of France, laden with butter, tallow, and hides, and were now returning from France with French wines, and were befogged as Kirwan had been. The boy was at once taken on board and rated as a seaman; and the later adventures of the trip are here given as he reported them on his return with the ship some months later.

The mist continued thicker and thicker for a time, and when it suddenly furled itself away, they found themselves on an unknown coast, with the wind driving them shoreward. There were men on board who were familiar with the whole coast of Ireland and Scotland, but they remembered nothing like this. Finding less than three fathoms of water, they came to anchor and sent four men ashore to find where they were; these being James Ross the carpenter and two sailors, with the boy Kirwan. They took swords and pistols. Landing at the edge of a little wood, they walked for a mile within a pleasant valley where cattle, horses, and sheep were feeding, and then came in sight of a castle, small but strong, where they went to the door and knocked. No one answered, and they walked on, up a green hill, where there were multitudes of black rabbits; but when they had reached the top and looked around they could see no inhabitants, nor any house; on which they returned to the sloop and told their tale. After this the whole ship's company went ashore, except one left in charge, and they wandered about for hours, yet saw nothing more. As night came on they made a fire at the base of a fallen oak, near the shore, and lay around it, talking, and smoking the lately discovered weed, tobacco; when suddenly they heard loud noises from the direction of the castle and then all over the island, which frightened them so that they went on board the sloop and stayed all night.

The next morning they saw a dignified, elderly gentleman with ten unarmed followers coming down towards the shore. Hailing the sloop, the older gentleman, speaking Gaelic, asked who and whence they were, and being told, invited them ashore as his guests. They went on shore, well armed; and he embraced them one by one, telling them that they were the happiest sight that island had seen for hundreds of years; that it was called Hy-Brasail or O-Brazile; that his ancestors had been princes of it, but For many years it had been taken possession of by enchanters, who kept it almost always invisible, so that no ship came there; and that for the same reason he and his friends were rendered unable to answer the sailors, even when they knocked at the door; and that the enchantment must remain until a fire was kindled on the island by good Christians. This had been done the night before, and the terrible noises which they had heard were from the powers of darkness, which had now left the island forever.

And indeed when the sailors were led to the castle, they saw that the chief tower had just been demolished by the powers of darkness, as they retreated; but there were sitting within the halls men and women of dignified appearance, who thanked them for the good service they had done. Then they were taken over the island, which proved to be some sixty miles long and thirty wide, abounding with horses, cattle, sheep, deer, rabbits, and birds, but without any swine; it had also rich mines of silver and gold, but few people, although there were ruins of old towns and cities. The sailors, after being richly rewarded, were sent on board their vessel and furnished with sailing directions to their port. On reaching home, they showed to the minister of their town the pieces of gold and silver that were given them at the island, these being of an ancient stamp, somewhat rusty yet of pure gold; and there was at once an eager desire on the part of certain of the townsmen to go with them. Within a week an expedition was fitted out, containing several godly ministers, who wished to visit and discover the inhabitants of the island; but through some mishap of the seas this expedition was never heard of again.

Partly for this reason and partly because none of Captain Nesbit's crew wished to return to the island, there came to be in time a feeling of distrust about all this rediscovery of Hy-Brasail or O-Brazile. There were not wanting those who held that the ancient gold pieces might have been gained by piracy, such as was beginning to be known upon the Spanish main; and as for the boy Kirwan, some of his playmates did not hesitate to express the opinion that he had always been, as they phrased it, the greatest liar that ever spoke. What is certain is that the island of Brazil or Hy-Brasail had appeared on maps ever since 1367 as being near the coast of Ireland; that many voyages were made from Bristol to find it, a hundred years later; that it was mentioned about 1636 as often seen from the shore; and that it appeared as Brazil Rock on the London Admiralty Charts until after 1850. If many people tried to find it and failed, why should not Kirwan have tried and succeeded? And as to his stretching his story a little by throwing in a few enchanters and magic castles, there was not a voyager of his period who was not tempted to do the same.


"The people of Aran, with characteristic enthusiasm, fancy, that at certain periods, they see Hy-Brasail, elevated far to the west in their watery horizon. This has been the universal tradition of the ancient Irish, who supposed that a great part of Ireland had been swallowed by the sea, and that the sunken part often rose and was seen hanging in the horizon: such was the popular notion. The Hy-Brasail of the Irish is evidently a part of the Atlantis of Plato; who, in his 'Timaeus,' says that that island was totally swallowed up by a prodigious earthquake." (O'Flaherty's "Discourse on the History and Antiquities of the Southern Islands of Aran, lying off the West Coast of Ireland," 1824, p. 139.)

The name appeared first (1351) on the chart called the Medicean Portulana, applied to an island off the Azores. In Pizigani's map (1367) there appear three islands of this name, two off the Azores and one off Ireland. From this time the name appears constantly in maps, and in 1480 a man named John Jay went out to discover the island on July 14, and returned unsuccessful on September 18. He called it Barsyle or Brasylle; and Pedro d'Ayalo, the Spanish Ambassador, says that such voyages were made for seven years "according to the fancies of the Genoese, meaning Sebastian Cabot." Humboldt thinks that the wood called Brazil-wood was supposed to have come from it, as it was known before the South American Brazil was discovered.

A manuscript history of Ireland, written about 1636, in the Library of the Royal Irish Academy, says that Hy-Brasail was discovered by a Captain Rich, who saw its harbor but could never reach it. It is mentioned by Jeremy Taylor ("Dissuasives from Popery," 1667), and the present narrative is founded partly on an imaginary one, printed in a pamphlet in London, 1675, and reprinted in Hardiman's "Irish Minstrelsy" (1831), II. p. 369. The French Geographer Royal, M. Tassin, thinks that the island may have been identical with Porcupine Bank, once above water. In Jeffrey's atlas (1776) it appears as "the imaginary island of O'Brasil." "Brazil Rock" appears on a chart of Purdy, 1834 (Humboldt's "Examen Critique," II. p. 163). Two rocks always associated with it, Mayda and Green Rock, appear on an atlas issued in 1866. See bibliography in Winsor's "Narrative and Critical History," I. p. 49, where there are a number of maps depicting it (I. pp. 54-57). The name of the island is derived by Celtic scholars from breas, large, and i, island; or, according to O'Brien's "Irish Dictionary," its other form of O'Brasile means a large imaginary island (Hardiman's "Irish Minstrelsy," I. p. 369). There are several families named Brazil in County Waterford, Ireland ("Transactions of the Ossianic Society, Dublin," 1854, I. p. 81). The following poem about the island, by Gerald Griffin, will be found in Sparling's "Irish Minstrelsy" (1888), p. 427:—


  On the ocean that hollows the rocks where ye dwell
  A shadowy land has appeared, as they tell;
  Men thought it a region of sunshine and rest,
  And they called it Hy-Brasail, the isle of the blest.
  From year unto year on the ocean's blue rim,
  The beautiful spectre showed lovely and dim;
  The golden clouds curtained the deep where it lay,
  And it looked like an Eden away, far away!

  A peasant who heard of the wonderful tale,
  In the breeze of the Orient loosened his sail;
  From Ara, the holy, he turned to the west,
  For though Ara was holy, Hy-Brasail was blest.
  He heard not the voices that called from the shore—
  He heard not the rising wind's menacing roar;
  Home, kindred, and safety he left on that day,
  And he sped to Hy-Brasail, away, far away!

  Morn rose on the deep, and that shadowy isle,
  O'er the faint rim of distance, reflected its smile;
  Noon burned on the wave, and that shadowy shore
  Seemed lovelily distant, and faint as before;
  Lone evening came down on the wanderer's track,
  And to Ara again he looked timidly back;
  O far on the verge of the ocean it lay,
  Yet the isle of the blest was away, far away!

  Rash dreamer, return! O ye winds of the main,
  Bear him back to his own peaceful Ara again,
  Rash fool! for a vision of fanciful bliss,
  To barter thy calm life of labor and peace.
  The warning of reason was spoken in vain;
  He never revisited Ara again!
  Night fell on the deep, amidst tempest and spray,
  And he died on the waters, away, far away!