Hy-Brasil: Mapping a Mythical Island

June 29, 2016 through October 23, 2016

Central Library, Norman B. Leventhal Map Center

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In 1325, an island appeared on a nautical chart, just off the southwest coast of Ireland. This island, shrouded in mist, was said to appear once every seven years and was home to an advanced race that was immune to sickness and the passing of time. This mystical place, known variously as Brasil, Brazil, Breasil, Hy-Brasil, O’Brasil and numerous other names, would appear on maps for the next five centuries. Its exact location on maps would change over the years, and numerous expeditions would venture into the North Atlantic Ocean to find the island. Some mariners claimed to have discovered the legendary island; however, these reports teemed with fantastic accounts of alien beings, and eventually fell into legend.

In actuality, Hy-Brasil appears to derive from oral folklore and written literature from coastal Ireland, combined with geographic knowledge from early discovery. The western coast of Ireland is dotted with many rocks jutting out of the ocean. These numerous natural features, combined with optical illusions and other “tricks of the eye” could account for the presence of Hy-Brasil in the water, and its appearance on maps. However, the story of mythical islands including Hy-Brasil, and the legend of an Elysium or “Land of Youth” is part of the greater Irish-folklore belief in Tír na nÓg, or in English, “The Otherworld,” going back to ancient times.

In this online exhibition of forty maps from the collection at the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library and the Mapping Boston Foundation, visitors will see the transition of Hy-Brasil over the course of five centuries from legitimate island destination, to “imaginary” place, to simply a “rock,” before it finally stops appearing on maps in the late 19th century. A variety of map formats are included in the online exhibition, such as portolan charts, woodcut engravings, copperplate engravings and lithographic prints. Hy-Brasil even makes an appearance on a 1492 globe.

In addition, several sketch books and drawings of internationally acclaimed visual artist Caoimhghin Ó Fraithile (Quee-veen Ó Frá-ha-la) (Ireland) will be on display in the Leventhal Map Center gallery from late June-October 2016. Mr. Ó Fraithile’s intricate drawings echo maps found in the collection and invite us to visit the forgotten or hidden lands and places that inhabit our collective imagination. His sketchbooks, however, illustrate images of his site-specific floating artwork entitled “South of Hy-Brasil,” a three-dimensional piece that will be sited in the lagoon behind the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, from late summer through mid-October 2016. His floating work is part of Tír na nÓg, a temporary public art project in the Fenway section of the Emerald Necklace park system. The project also features “The Well House,” a sculptural work by artist Michael Dowling (Boston/Ireland). Tír na nÓg is a fitting name for this temporary art project, as both of these artists explore art as a threshold to otherworldliness and back again.

The outdoor artworks by Mr. Ó Fraithile and Mr. Dowling are part of Ireland’s 2016 Centennial – a global initiative to mark the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising which set Ireland on its path for independence. Boston is the only U.S. city hosting temporary public art projects to commemorate the 1916 Centennial. These works will also celebrate the 2016 Centennial of the National Park System of which the Emerald Necklace is part. Tír na nÓg, and its related exhibitions and events, are supported by Culture Ireland as part of the Ireland 2016 Centenary Programme. Medicine Wheel Productions is the lead organization for Tír na nÓg and their Cultural Partner is the Fenway Alliance. Additional key supporters of the project are Mayor Martin J. Walsh, the Consulate General of Ireland in Boston, and Boston Parks and Recreation. To learn more about Medicine Wheel and Tír na nÓg, or to see a full listing of project sponsors and collaborators, please visit: http://mwponline.org/wordpress/projects/tir-na-nog/

Please take the Culture Ireland 2016 Centenary Survey to provide feedback on this exhibition http://bit.ly/1sLfBWC