Hy-Brassil: Irish origins of Brazil

By Roger Casement



The name Brazil is probably the sweetest sounding name that any large race of the Earth possesses. How this musical name came to be assigned to the great country of South America did not interest me until after I had landed at Santos [4] in the autumn of 1906. We accept the names of countries and of places as we find them on maps without question taking them as a matter of course just as we accept the Atlantic Ocean or Asia. The name seems a part of the country and if a very inquisitive mind should ask the origin of the name itself, reference is made to a school geography, where the new-comer may find a probable commonplace origin.

Thus it is with the name Brazil.

Map by Dalorto (1325), including Hy-Brassil and Daculi islands

The beautiful name that we are told came from a dye-wood used in the commerce of the middle ages. Whether it be the individual Brazilian we ask, the school book we turn to or the encyclopaedia we appeal to, the answer is the same - brief, unexplanatory and precise - the country was named from the abundance of the dye-wood that was soon exported from its shores after the discovery. It was first called Terra de Santa Cruz - Land of the Holy Cross - by Cabral, [5] its discoverer, a baptism that the King of Portugal his master confirmed. But in spite of official and royal recognition the dye-wood prevailed over the wood of the true cross. Such, in brief, is the universal reason assigned to the naming of Brazil. No writer has even got beyond this: altho' a few have been on the threshold of the truth without knowing it. For there is no doubt at all that in so deriving the name Brazil the country from the dye-wood of medieval commerce, the school book, the individual Brazilian, the encyclopaedia and the dictionary are astray.

They have been satisfied from the first with a half truth only, and not seeking further, or not knowing where to seek they have stopped short with a reason that not only gives no meaning, but leads the mind astray.

One or two of the writers who have dealt with the origin of the name have been quite in sight of the truth, but the limitations of European learning which had been shut off for centuries from the one literature that could have made things more clear.

Strange as it may seem, Brazil owes her name not to her abundance of a certain dye-wood but to Ireland. The distinction of naming the great South American country, I believe, belongs as surely to Ireland and to an ancient Irish belief old as the Celtic mind itself.

It may be asked how it is that none of the standard works upon the discovery of the two Americas contain an inkling of the truth. How comes it that authors, who are claimed as classics, have all failed to trace the origin of a name that covers one of the greatest dominions of the two continents to whose history and professional development they have devoted the genius of their pens and the erudition of great minds.

The answer can only be that the name of those who have undertaken the task have realised that Ireland played a more important part in the life of medieval Europe than later day records assign her, and that her influence on the minds of men was not confined to religious questions, but extended very largely into the commercial and intellectual life of the times. Far from being a remote "island beyond an island" she had fleets on many seas and her speech and shipping penetrated the western and southern seaboard of Europe from Antwerp to Genoa. Her mariners were in every port and while her traders had collected at Lisbon and along the coasts of Spain in numerous and important communities her own ports were for centuries the rendez-vous of Spanish, French and Italian shipping, as in earlier days they had been of Roman.

Some of the evidence on their head has lately been given an abiding place in literature by Mrs J.R. Green [6] in her Ireland from 1200-1600. A writer to whom Mrs Green has accorded her grateful recognition, Mr J.R. Kenny, has also in a series of articles, which have appeared in the columns of the Irish press, given us a glimpse of the vast field of international activity - whereon Ireland played so large a part. None of these things were known to the modern authors Washington Irving, [7] or Prescott, [8] or Robertson, [9] or Southey, [10] who have dealt with American discoveries for the English-speaking world. To them Ireland was a name that denoted a land steeped in poverty and ignorance - the back woods of Europe, a reproach to England it might be, but a people having nothing to offer the scholar. Her only language was unwritten, untaught, unknown beyond the confines of the cabins where a race of senior barbarians lived in squalid misery without parallel in civilization, and of such repute that the great world of thought and culture might deplore. With a vicarious sympathy it dismissed from serious consideration the people and the country where such a condition was known to prevail.

When these scholars came across some reference to Ireland in their researches through Peninsular records their minds were blank by reason of prevailing prejudice, the child of ignorance, their very knowledge of their Ireland of their own day but broadened already a wide range of misunderstanding. What could Ireland possibly offer the scholars who sought the beginning of European thought in its western striving quest for a New World? Clearly nothing. It is thus that we find so delighted an author as Washington Irving confronted by the record which, had he known it, would have unlocked much to his imagination, passing over with contemptuous misreading the story of St Brendan. [11] So ignorant indeed was he of the origin of the story, while admitting that Columbus [12] must have been acquainted with it that he speaks of St Brendan as "a Scottish monk" with no perception of the meaning that attached to the word "Scot" or "Scotia" in the early middle ages. In this he doubtless sinned unwittingly not as Hallam [13] who, with that true quality of British meekness which seeks to inherit the Earth, writes of Duns Scotus [14] as an Englishman.

St. Brendan's search for Paradise
(West to the Garden)

The Hallams indeed we have always with us.

It is sufficient for an Irishman to be distinguished in any walk of life for him to be at once annexed.

When Washington Irving wrote his history of Columbus the Anglo-Saxon theory of mankind was being invented. Its cult has widened from a variety of motives; its rise synchronised with a far less laudable minor cult which today finds frequent expression in American historical records. I refer to the term "Scotch-Irish" to designate the pioneers who, in the early days of Indian border fighting, or later revolutionary strife, did so much to build up the fabric of America. I am not sure if Washington Irving may not be held largely responsible for the term Scotch-Irish. In his later literary development of the "Scotch-Irish" ancestor of the innumerable Murphys, Sullivans, MacDonalds or O'Tooles, he assigns their ancestry to a hybrid whom neither Ireland nor Scotland claims. Certain it is that his Scotch monks allusion to St Brendan has been amplified by American ignorance until in a work published in 1892 to commemorate as "an absolutely complete Colombian memorial (1492-1892)" the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America; we find the Bishop of Clonfert, born and bred in Kerry taking his place among the legendary Scotch-Irish of the revolution.

I refer to a monumental work issued by the Syndicate Publishing Co of Philadelphia entitled The Discovery and Conquest of the New World, which among other gifts to the American people, offers them in Chapter II "the fable of St Brendan, a Scotch-Irish priest who was accredited with first having discovered America in the sixth century". On turning to the body of the work dealing with the episode it becomes clear that the compilers of the modern work have merely copied from Washington Irving's pages the scanty references wherein he dismisses the Brendan legend. This modern American work was offered to the American people with an "Introduction by the Hon. Murat Halstead. Most Renowned Journalist and Colombian student of Both Americas" and in this gentleman's introduction we are told that to "properly introduce to the multitudinous readers of this book the subjects, authors and illustrations seemed a task of such gigantic proportions as to create a feeling of awe in the breast of the most intrepid."


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Copyright � Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2006

Online published: 1 July 2006
Edited: 07 May 2009

Mitchell, Angus (ed.),
Roger Casement's Hy-Brassil: Irish origins of Brazil' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" 4:3 (July 2006). Available online (, accessed .


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