Leventhal Map Center at BPL spotlights Mythical Irish Island

Hy-Brasil: Jodocus Hondius (1563-1612) America (detail) Amsterdam, [between 1609 to 1633] Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public LibraryHy-Brasil: Jodocus Hondius (1563-1612) America (detail) Amsterdam, [between 1609 to 1633] Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library

Beginning in the 14th Century, a curious island located off the coast of Ireland was recorded on official nautical maps of the time. The Island, known topographically as Hy-Brasil, was, in early years, noted to be a round formation near the western coast, and was reported to be observable only once every seven years.

The island was believed to be inhabited by an advanced civilization belonging to Elysium and Tir Na Nog, the Land of Eternal Youth. Despite hundreds of maps depicting Hy-Brasil’s existence over roughly 500 years, it is now known that the Island is actually a result of folklore and mythical storytelling run amok.

As with most mythical folklore, the “belief” in Hy-Brasil was passed down through the centuries by seafarers, whose depictions of the island were told and retold by countless sailors and given credence by the mapmakers who featured it prominently as a geographical reference on their maps.

Over the centuries, the island’s prominence on these maps shrunk until it no longer existed.

A wonderful, three-part exhibit featuring this curiosity is now being featured at the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library in honor of the Centennial of the Easter Rising. Entrance to the physical exhibit is free and open to the public and can be viewed online as well.

The online portion of the exhibit, Hy-Brasil: Mapping a Mythical Island, which can be explored at www.bpl.org/exhibitions/current-exhibitions/hy-brasil/, takes us through more than 40 maps that depict the imaginary island and how its image morphed over the years. The exhibit also features a globe dating to 1492 and is shown alongside modern day sketches by Irish artist Caoimhghin O Fraithile.

Exhibit curator Stephanie Cyr enthusiastically shared her theory as to why the mythical island came into being.

“The Celtic Otherworld offered a neat story, a bit of hope to the people of Ireland.” She stressed the belief that this Otherworld provided solace, that “Land of Eternal Youth” with no suffering.

“We need to believe in these types of places to survive,” said Cyr, who laughed as she mentioned that only those of superior intellect were able to “see” the island. No doubt that gift contributed to the belief in its existence despite any physical evidence or exploration of such a place by human hands.

O Fraithile has also installed a physical art-piece behind the Museum of Fine Arts that is reminiscent of the island emerging from the mist. Both this piece, entitled “South of Hy-Brasil” and another by artist Michael Dowling called “The Well House” are to be featured as a temporary public art project entitled Tir na nOg in the Fenway section of Boston.

Overseen by Medicine Wheel Productions, both public art installations will mark the Centenary of the Easter Rising.