Hy-Brassil: Irish origins of Brazil

By Roger Casement


Mercator Terrestial Globe, 1541 (detail)
(Harvard Map Collection)


It must assuredly create regret in the minds of the most sympathetic that the multitudinous descendants of illustrious Irishmen in the United States should have offered to them as history in 1892, the statement that the Bishop of Clonfert in 563 "was a Scotch-Irish abbot who flourished in the sixth century and who is called sometimes by the foregoing appellations (St Brandon or Borondon) sometimes St Blandanns or St Blandanus."

Moreover England assiduously spread the tale. Just as when she first began her civilizing mission to Ireland in Tudor times, the Lord Deputies of Elizabeth were careful to provide that those "German Earls", who had come from the Courts of Christendom to visit Ireland, should "see as little as might be" of the great Queen's regenerated kingdom beyond the walls of Dublin. So to the modern European questions England had turned a face of firm benevolence, with uplifted deploring hands, and regretted while she double-barred the door, that the condition of her turbulent patient still precluded the visits of enquiring or possibly sympathetic minds. The Irish of the early nineteenth century were as effectually beyond the pale of cultured thought as their language was beyond the ken of the scholar.

Speaking, as Young wrote a generation earlier, "a despised language", with no school wherein their tongue was taught, with no printed book of their language, with no means to make their thought known save in the half-speech of their conquerors; the oldest people in Western Europe, whose unknown literature in truth revealed a character of lofty consistency and high ideal, were ranked with the African slave and at best could offer nothing but a "kitchen midden" to research. The shafts of wilful ignorance that was then a part of English international statecraft flashed wherever the pen of the writer or the soul of the scholar might for a moment have been drawn to Ireland. These shafts indeed are still often bared, but while today impotent to daunt or blind the gaze of the Continent, they play their malicious part in English party strife and in the columns of the English Press. It was but four years ago in 1904 that the Morning Post, certainly one of the most cultured and generally best informed of the English journals permitted its leader writer to liken the study of Irish in the schools of Ireland to the teaching of "kitchen kaffir" in South Africa.

The Statute Book of Ireland still makes it a punishable offence in 1908 to report in any newspaper in Ireland, any proceedings in an English Law Court in any language but English. When this Act was passed in 1740, the language of the whole of Ireland, outside a colonist aristocracy and their immediate dependants was Irish - and no proceeding in a Court of Law could have been carried to an issue save by a continuous appeal to that language in which there must on no account be made public or recorded.

The thing was not tomfoolery - it was all part of the great plan for wiping out the Irish mind. It had nearly succeeded.

The scholar today is beginning to realise that the Irish mind has something to reveal in the only tongue that ever gave it expression, or can give it expression. No historical student today would dream of writing a history of Ireland without reference to Irish records. In years to come international scholars will not dream of a complete scholarship which ignored the Irish language.

But when Washington Irving wrote his history of Columbus few scholars knew that there was an Irish language and very few Irishmen themselves believe that their language, although the language of our childhood and of all their fore fathers, has anything to offer even to Ireland that was worth recording or preserving. An ignorance more complete, more dastardly, more debasing never assailed a whole people - and its baneful fruit has been the bread on our school-boys lips for how many generations? If this was the condition of Ireland in say, 1820, what wonder that the student of European records took no thought of her when he turned to medieval times, or if when he found her name recorded, he passed it over as of no import or even, as Irving did, assigned the very name itself to another country and another people. Brendan the Kerryman in quest of Hy-Brassil, is to Washington Irving and millions who have read him, a Scottish monk.

Roger Casement (1864-1916)

For Washington Irving's ignorance of the true significance of the Brendan legend he had found Columbus studying there is every excuse. He wrote, as Prescott wrote, at a time when much that later research has given to the world was still withheld from the scholar or locked up in the archives of Continental libraries. Just as Prescott knew nothing of the gigantic discoveries in Yucatan and elsewhere in Central America which have since revealed so much to our historical gaze of the past of the Indian peoples, so when Irving compiled his delightful works upon Columbus no historian dreamed that Ireland could offer anything worthy the contemplation of scholars, seeking mid-Continental records to throw light upon that medieval mind which first invented and then discovered a New World. And yet nothing is more certain than that Ireland was the home of the legend which for centuries had turned men's minds westward in search of that fabled land, and that the very name by which the earliest Irish records, called that region St Brendan set out to find, was the very name by which, when the discovery came, the discovering people themselves decided by popular will and all pervading prior use to confer upon this new found possession. That Brazil owes her name to Ireland - to Irish thought and legend - born beyond the dawn of history yet handed down in a hundred forms of narrative and poem and translated throughout all western Europe, until all western Europe knew and dreamed and loved the story, and her cartographers assigned it place upon their universal maps, I think has been made clear enough in the forgoing article.

Legends die hard - and doubtless the legends of the dye-wood's origin of the name Brazil, resting as we have seen on no historical proof and abundantly disproved by antecedent application of the name no less than by the clear and continuous Irish record of the land, the locality, the search and the name, will die slowly. The "Scotch-Irish" origin of so many of the American people already shows signs of failing vitality. As the study of Irish records becomes more general those who today are still ashamed to claim descent from the "mere Irish" will discover that a truly Irish origin may even be fashionable. That it has always carried with it a storied value to the discerning, an inspiration to the brave, and an immemorial claim upon the generous and high souled has been hidden from men's minds, not by the faults of Irish character so much, as by the wanton obscurity in which the home of that people has been plunged.

That darkness was not a chance cloud, and now that it is lifting others besides Irishmen and their multitudinous descendants in the western world, may learn from the enduring legend of Hy-Brassil, to prize the records of a race who have given much to mankind, besides the historic facts of ancient fable and who are destined, if they will still honour their own past, to discover fields of thought and action for "the dauntless far-aspiring spirit of the Gael."


Roger Casement
Belém do Pará, Amazon River, c. 1908


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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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