Hy Brasil

By Phillip McGough

This story has a happy ending, because Dermot found his Hy Brasil1.

           Far across the western sea lies Hy Brasil....behind the sunset, deeper than the sunset, where only dreams and lost ships may go. It is given to perhaps one in a thousand to see her, and perhaps one in a hundred thousand to see her once more. The rest of us have known a little of Hy Brasil and her beauty when evening comes to rest upon the spires and domes of old Jerusalem; or when dawn rises full of omens over Mecca in the cool of the morning, and gently rouses the sand leopard from his sleep in the blood-red shadows of the desert. A little of her beauty is in these things, and a little of her majesty and her mystery, but only a little; for they cannot compare to Hy Brasil across the western sea, whose gardens and lemon groves are watered by sweet-scented fountains fed by softly singing streams, and whose many golden temples are lit by constant and curious flames that do not so much as flicker in the rough Atlantic winds.

The fishermen have seen Hy Brasil as they sail south to Ballyeheige and safe harbour, for so long now that she has become a portent and a superstition with them; and when they glimpse her there, through the silent mist and silver light of the open sea, they cross themselves and say ten Hail Maries in a row, because they are not sure whether it is a vision of paradise or a vision of hell (and for all they know the two may be very similar). The English tourists who have heard of her, meanwhile, swear that Hy Brasil is Avalon where even now Arthur lies sleeping, sword-in-hand; and an eccentric scientist who makes his lonely home on Valentia Island never tires of appearing on the local news to talk knowingly about something called refraction and images of distant Dublin being thrown against the western sky.

But she is none of these things, Hy Brasil, being older than the Atlantic and Ireland, being here before there ever was a fisherman on a fishing boat to see her. Hy Brasil is the land of long ago, and it is ruled by priests of an ancient order, so old and so secret that it cannot even be said they are Christians with any degree of certainty. And they say the hidden wisdom of the universe is common knowledge among them, and of very little importance. They say they keep the stars there in golden cages, deep within a great golden tower, releasing them at sunset to fly into the sky, where they sing and play until sunrise before sailing home; and they say the Moon makes her bed there, in Hy Brasil, sleeping through the day at the bottom of a crystal lake until she is woken by the laughing and chattering of the stars above her, whereupon she makes her lazy way to heaven to watch over dreamers and lovers and all others whose soul belongs to the night.

Dermot was such a soul, and, as we have said, he found Hy Brasil- but it took him thirty years to do it, and cost him a great deal in terms of sorrow and patience. During the day he toiled in a small office in the middle of Killarney’s concrete heart, and from his small window he could not see the sky, nor even the earth, only other men and women toiling in even smaller offices across the road. Sometimes they stared back. To his horror, Dermot came to realise that he was actually very good at pretending to be the very person he hated the most, a person who was happy to toil in the small office with the small window, exchanging his soul for the meagre price of his daily bread; and those who worked with him would praise him for the melancholy they mistook for diligence, and the loneliness they preferred to call single-minded dedication. And at 5 o'clock every day (or, at least, Monday to Friday) Dermot went home to a wife and child whom he was sure he loved, but whom, like everyone else, preferred to think of him as someone he was not, someone he did not know and would not care to meet.

Dermot had come to realise that in most people the soul dies well before the body- so he retreated behind his books, and armed himself with pen and paper, and began to write, telling tall tales of old Ireland and old Britain across the Irish Sea, filled with billowing mists around sacred stones and druidic rites beneath baleful moons. Because his stories were far too interesting to be published, at first he showed them only to his wife, but she laughed and said he quite obviously had too much time on his hands. Then Dermot showed his stories to his daughter, and she smiled and for a time seemed to share his love of wonder and enchantment, and his solemn belief that the old lore and the old magic is not yet dead. But as she grew older, and her eyes grew duller and more like her mother's, she lost interest in Dermot's stories, and she too began to laugh.

Eventually Dermot wrote only for himself, in silence and in secret, until one day he stopped writing altogether, and simply told himself stories while he lay in bed beside his snoring wife. Sometimes his stories would melt into dreams. On one occasion Dermot found himself drifting to paradise, where he met the Creator on His throne, sitting and staring at the world in grim silence while nervous-looking angels skulked and frowned in the shadows. And they had a long talk, the Creator and Dermot, lasting many thousands of years, about man and woman and life and death and the meaning of it all. Unfortunately, however, very little of the conversation was worth remembering.

But mostly Dermot dreamt of Hy Brasil, far across the western sea. He had seen it once, albeit twenty or more years ago, when his grandfather had taken him out for the day to play among the rock pools at Portmagee. Even without the vision of Hy Brasil the day would still have been perfectly magical, and Dermot could see it now, all these years later, all warm and golden in his mind's eye. He remembered catching sandhoppers in his shrimping net and bottling them like rare specimens in old jam jars. He remembered eating stale sandwiches and paddling in the retreating tide, and falling over and getting soaking wet and laughing until he cried. And at the end of the day, with the sky all red and gold like a faded battleflag, and while his grandfather dozed in a deckchair, Dermot remembered hearing a voice- or was it a song?- so faint and far-away that he could scarcely tell what it was saying or who was saying it; but the voice came from the west, from across the sea, and as Dermot stood there and looked out across the strange Atlantic, that ocean of storms and secrets, the sky seemed to lift itself from the water like a theatre curtain, to reveal another world on the horizon, a hidden world of obelisks and pillars and lemon groves, and golden temples where hooded priests kept watch over peculiar fires that did not so much as flicker in the rough Atlantic winds.

Young as he was, Dermot knew this was a vision of Hy Brasil, the land spoken of by his grandfather when his tongue was loosened by porter and his pipe full of his favourite tobacco; the land spoken of by everyone's grandfather in Ireland, the land of long ago. Indeed, Dermot was about to run to his grandfather and tell him that there it was, Hy Brasil, sitting as plain as day on the western horizon; but he stopped dead in his tracks when he saw one of the hooded priests standing and waving from the tallest of the temple towers. And looking closer he saw that the priest was not waving at all, but beckoning; beckoning Dermot over the sea to Hy Brasil, where, as we have said, only dreams and lost ships may go.

The spell broke, and Dermot ran to his grandfather and shook him as hard as he could by his hairy arm. But by then the sky had come down once more to touch the water, and there was nothing where Hy Brasil had been but clouds and circling seagulls and three or four fishing boats steaming their way back to Ballyheige. The old man smiled gently at the boy's story, and said that he was a lucky lad indeed to have seen such a wonder in his lifetime; and he had best treasure the memory because he was not likely to see it again. But when Dermot told him about the priest beckoning him from the temple tower, his grandfather grew serious and told him they should make their way home before nightfall.

           Many times since then Dermot had returned alone to Portmagee, as a boy and as a man, and stood a long time on the shore and stared out at the seagulls and the fishing boats, and the rising and falling of the storm clouds far away. But never again had he seen Hy Brasil, nor heard that voice far-off in the west, except in his dreams.

Only in those dreams, so it seemed, was he allowed to approach it, drifting close enough to its shore to glimpse rich tapestries in banqueting halls framed by great arched windows; and close enough to see a phalanx of red-armoured guards who kept grim watch over a strange and terrible ebony tomb sealed with a single ivory door2. Close enough too to see the great golden tower at the very centre of the city, that tower where the stars lie dreaming and waiting for the night; close enough to see the same hooded priest still standing on the tallest of the temple towers, beckoning Dermot to draw closer. But suddenly and always at that point Dermot would wake.

            Almost every night he would dream of Hy Brasil, and as his waking life grew yet greyer and duller, and as more and more colour ran out of his world, so Dermot would draw nearer each time to her shore. It was the morning after a particularly vivid dream, and Dermot went to work and to his surprise found himself promoted, and shifted to a slightly larger office with a slightly larger window, though he still could not see the sky. And at lunchtime they gave him a promotion party and hearty slaps on the back, and talked about a great future and a partnership if he played certain cards correctly. And when he got home his wife gave him two kisses instead of the usual one, and she talked all evening about moving house and changing cars and having five more babies (not necessarily in that order, mind).

Dermot, meanwhile, went to bed early, and dreamt a welcome dream of Hy Brasil; and it seemed he was closer to its temples and fountains and lemon groves than he had ever been before. He even caught a brief glimpse of the face of the hooded priest who stood and beckoned to him from the tallest of the temple towers, just for a second as he turned to the setting sun and showed himself in profile. It was a vaguely familiar face, like a long-lost friend or a relative remembered only from childhood. And when Dermot woke he wiped the tears from his face and saw that it was still night.

            Dermot left his snoring wife alone in bed and kissed his snoring daughter, before driving out to Portmagee through the darkness. He was surprised to see so many foxes and hares on the country lanes along the way, sitting and watching him from the roadside, and once a barn owl flew right next to his car for what must have been a mile or more before vanishing back into the night. And when he arrived at Portmagee, the sea singing dreamily to itself as if half-drunk and the rock pools glittering like a shower of silver moons, Dermot parked his car on the beach and stood alone there, and for the first time in maybe twenty years he felt something he used to call happiness.

            It goes without saying that Dermot found Hy Brasil that night, not in dreams but in reality. As if by appointment, it appeared to him as he stood gazing out to sea, and the priest was still beckoning, and the guards were still standing by the strange and terrible tomb, and the golden tower was empty, because of course it was night and the stars had been released to laugh and play in heaven. And there was nothing to stop Dermot walking straight into the murmuring sea and swimming with all his might towards Hy Brasil, far off in the west.

Dermot stayed in Hy Brasil, never returning to his wife and his daughter and his slightly larger office with its slightly larger window. Indeed, he is a priest now, a hooded priest, who stands on top of the tallest of the temple towers and waves and beckons to those rare souls in the east who occasionally glimpse Hy Brasil through tears or dreams. But it would be quite pointless telling any of this to his wife and daughter, and the four or five others who attended a bleak funeral last week in a dreary church in the dreariest part of Killarney; because they are convinced that Dermot was the body found washed ashore at Portmagee just a few weeks ago, a body which did indeed look very much like him, and even wore his clothes and his watch; but which in truth was just a shell that bore his name, just a stranger in the midst of others who could never find Hy Brasil.


  1. The legendary land of Hy Brasil (sometimes spelled Hy Brazil or Hoy Brazil or endless variations thereon) has indeed been seen for centuries to the west of Ireland, a sort of Gaelic equivalent of the Mediterranean’s Fata Morgana. Every village on the west coast has its own stories and legends concerning its origin and meaning. My favourite was related to me by a fisherman in the tiny village of Croigh, so many years ago I’m surprised I can still remember it. He told me that Hy Brasil was the piece of heaven which the devil had taken with him when he fell from paradise. And where better to put heaven than next to Ireland?
  1. Similarly, according to some legends, the devil himself lies sleeping within that terrible ebony tomb, behind the ivory door.

Phillip McGough.  Copyright 2002.  All Rights Reserved.