Co-editors: Seán Mac Mathúna John Heathcote
Consulting editor: Themistocles Hoetis
Field Correspondent: Allen Hougland
Mystery has always surrounded the how a country in Latin America ended up with a name of Celtic origin. In traditional Irish legends, the phantom island of Brâzil was believed to lie off the south-west coast of Connacht in western Ireland. It was named after Bres, the son of Ériu whose father was a Formorian sea god, Elatha. Consequently, according to Michael Dames "Bresil" was a magical realm - neither sea nor land, yet both. According to Dames:
"Brazil, South America, was named after it". (Mythic Ireland (Thames and Hudson, London, UK, 1992).
Apparently well into the early 20th century, the Gaelic speaking people of the Aran Islands in Galway Bay believed that what they knew from legend as the mythical land of Brazil was visible every seven years. To earlier generations of people living in Connacht (the province of which Galway is the capital), Brazil was known as the Isle of the Living, the Isle of Truth, of Joy, of Fair Women, and of Apples. Other early Celtic legends also say that the island only appeared at sunset in the mists of the Atlantic and they called it:
"The blessed stormless isle, where all men are good and all the women pure and where God retreats for a recreation from the rest of us". (Summer of the Red Wolf by Niorris West, William Heinemann Ltd, UK, 1971)
In one account from the 17th century recounted by Dames, Captain John Nisbet of Lisneskay, Co. Fermanagh, claimed to have landed on the island and found cattle, sheep, horses, black rabbits, and a strong castle. Nisbet knocked on the door in vain - but there was no answer. When night came he made his way to the beach with his eight companions and lit a fire. Then a "hideous noise" ensured and they fled to the boat. When they returned the next day, the found an old Scottish gentlemen and servants on the shore, dressed in outdated clothes and talking "old fashioned speech". The old man claimed to have been imprisoned there by a necromancer and confirmed that the island was indeed "O Brazile".
Some also believe that the Brazil was is the disputed island of Rockall in the Atlantic Ocean (a small island some 84 feet wide and 70 feet of so above sea level), that was annexed by the UK in 1955 and is claimed as Irish territory, is the last remaining part of the lost land of Brazil.
Another hypothesis is that an Irish monk - Saint Brendan, had been to a land he called Hy Brazil. The island of Saint Brendan or Brazil of Saint Brendan was one of the names that could be seen in maps found in the early Middle Ages-around the 9th Century. This island was a mythological place:
"Where bells tolled over the old sea and the island seemed to vanish in the horizon every time the sailors tried to reach it"
According to this version of the legend, Hy Brazil was discovered by Saint Brendan, who left Ireland in 565 A.D. In my view, if St. Brendan visited any island, he may have found the island of Rockall and assumed that it was part of the mythical land of Brazil, which he would have known about as it had been mentioned in Irish legends going back some 3000 years. Bres after all was the son of Eriu, the mythical Goddess who gave her name to Eire (Ireland), which indicates that this was one of the earliest Irish legends.
Brazil was certainly well known during medieval times when explorers from Europe where setting out to discover what they called the "New World": In the period of 1351 up to around 1731, the name Hy Brazil could be found on most European sea maps, always showing it as an island in the Atlantic Ocean. According to A Russell-Wood:
Fourteenth century maps carried the reference to Insule Sancti Brandani, recalling the legendary voyages of the sixth century Irish monk in search of the "Promised Land of the Saints" which were to be recorded in Latin prose in the ninth century Navigatio Brendani. These islands 'migrated' from north of Europe to the west. Since the early fourteenth century, there had been references to an island called Brasil not far west of Ireland. Both name and island moved westwards, being transformed into a landmass and recognized as such by Duarte Pacheco Pereira in his Esmeraldo de situ orbis.
The mythical island of Hy Brazil appeared out in the Atlantic to the west of Ireland in charts as early as 1325, as well in the famous Catalan Atlas dated 1375 and, subsequently, on numerous maps for the next 200 years, including Waldseemuller's map of the British Isles issued at Strassburg in 1513 and its later editions. It was also shown on Toscanelli's chart dated about 1457 which was said to have been used by Christopher Columbus on his first voyage in 1492. This is highly significant as it indicates that if Brazil was known to Columbus, then it would almost certainly have been known to Pedro Alvares Cabral (1460-1526) who "discovered" Brazil in 1500.
To add to the confusion that faced early explorers using these maps, some early charts also depicted the mythical land of Brazil far out in the ocean half way to Zipangu (Japan). Apparently Brazil been 'sighted' so often that early geographers were reluctant to abandon the possibility of its existence. In fact, it was not finally removed from British Admiralty charts until the 1865.
So how did the country called Brazil end up with it's name ? One theory says that Brazil was initially colonized by people coming from Viana do Castelo (in northern Portugal), and that through the knowledge of legends from the Celts in Galicia, they would have been aware of the lost continent of Brazil. And not only Columbus, but other early explorers from England knew about the lost land of Brazil. According to The Island of Brazil, a contemporary account written by William of Worcester (and published in the late 18th century) recalled that when word of a "new land to the west" reached Bristol in the late 1470s this was presumed to be Brazil. In 1480, a Bristol merchant John Jay outfitted at great expense an 80-tonne ship to sail to the island of Brazil, described as "a name often given in medieval European tales to a land far to the west of Ireland". Setting sail in July 1480 from Bristol, Jay's ship voyaged west, intending to "traverse the seas." But the journey ended in failure. English crews had yet to master the new methods of astronomical navigation devised in Portugal and Spain: open, oceanic voyaging - as opposed to island hopping by way of Iceland and Greenland.
In the Welsh and Cornish myths, Bresal was a High King who made his home in the Otherworld "which is sometimes called Hy- or I-Breasal in his honor". Like in the Irish myth, "His world is visible on only one night every seven years". Thus, it is clear that the Celts of Galicia, Cornwall, Wales, Ireland and sailors from England all knew of the legend of the lost land of Brazil. Would it then be unreasonable to assume that when Portuguese explorers reached South America they mistakenly thought they had landed on Breasal's world and named the land they discovered "Brazil" in his honour ?
Of course, it is possible that the name of the country called Brazil is not connected with the Celtic myth - but in my opinion this theory is not convincing. In this account, the word "Brazil" is derived from the Portuguese and Spanish word "Brasil", the name of an East Indian tree with reddish-brown wood from which a red dye was extracted. The Portuguese found a New World tree related to the Old World brasil tree when they explored what is now called Brazil, and "as a result they named the New World country after the Old World tree". The authors are clearly not aware of how most of the Celtic nations (especially Galicia) - themselves with a history of seafaring as old as the Portuguese and Spanish - had there own legends of the mythical continent of Brazil.
Of course, we do not know if Cabral in 1500 knew about the legends of the lost land of Brazil from the of the Celt's of Galicia when he claimed the land of Brazil for the Portuguese Crown in 1500. It is interesting to speculate as to whether Cabral himself was of Celtic origin. Some writers believe that the Cabral family in Portugal came originally from Galicia, from one of two towns of that name, and that they arrived in Portugal very early presumably before the Islamic conquest of the Iberian peninsula. Another link is that Irish legend records that the Irish people are themselves descended from the Milesians who with their King, Heber, and the Bard Amergen, came from Galicia around 1268 BC and conqured Ireland, as noted by Robert Graves in his classic book The White Goddess (1961, 1972 Farrar, Strauss and Giroux New York, USA).
Either way, it is my view that most evidence concerning the origin of the land of Brazil suggest that it was of Celtic origin, and that this same name ended being given to the land of Brazil when it was "discovered" by Cabral, as it featured on most nautical maps at the time, and because the Celtic myth of the lost land of Brazil was certainly known to Spanish and Portuguese explorers.