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The Mirage of Brasil December 25, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval, Modern , trackback

Almost every European people with a coastline have invented magical lands for themselves in the waves out there… Some of these islands are sunken, some are on the surface. Some move around, some stay still but can’t be reached. Some are sentient (really!), some are just pieces of rock. Some are coastal, some are far out in the Atlantic or the Mediterranean away from coast-dweller’s defiling eyes.

The long list of these islands begins with Atlantis (the nightmare of an Egyptian priest recounted to Plato) passes through Madog’s haven among the waves and includes other staples of the European imagination such as Avalon and Vinland. Some of these islands may have been discovered and then forgotten, given over to the corrosive acid of myth. Others never existed, they were that most consequential and dangerous of things, an idea.

Brasil the mythical Irish land was among the weirdest of them all. The island was almost certainly a mirage somehow cast up on the Irish waters – perhaps not unlike those associated with Sea Hedges. But legends quickly became attached to this place. That it appeared every seven years, that those who reached it would come back with treasure. That fire could tame it: be that flames of brasil wood, a burning arrow or a bonfire.

Here though is an account of the mirage, with all the legends, but not all the poetry stripped away. Beach has found this very relaxing and has read it again and again, perhaps because it takes the reader back to a happy time and a happier place. The west Irish coast in the late nineteenth century in some impossibly beautiful twilight when the writer was young.

I myself have seen the illusion [of Brasil] some three times in my boyhood, and even made a rough coloured sketch after the last event, in the summer of 1872. It was a clear evening, with a fine golden sunset, when, just as the sun went down, a dark island suddenly appeared far out to sea, but not on the horizon. It had two hills, one wooded; between these, from a low plain, rose towers and curls of smoke. My mother, brother, Ralph Hugh Westropp, and several friends saw it at the same time; one person cried that he could ‘see New York’!

The author who wrote extensively on the legend of Brasil continued.

With such realistic appearance (and I have since seen apparent islands in 1887 in Clare, and in 1910 in Mayo), it is not wonderful that the belief should have been so strong, probably from the time when Neolithic man first looked across the Atlantic from our western coast. It coloured Irish thought for the pagan Elysium and the Christian Paradise of the Saints; affected the early map-makers; and sent Columbus over the trackless deep to see wonders greater than Maelduin and Brendan were fabled to have seen, till Antilha, Verde, and Brazil became replaced by real islands and countries; and the birds, flowers, and fruit of the Imrama by those of the gorgeous forests of the Amazon in the real Brazil. ‘Admiration is the first step leading up to knowledge, for he that wondereth shall reign.’

Sit semper. Happy Christmas and Brasils for all those who look out onto the waters.


31 Dec 2012: The Count’s thoughts on Brasil: I was very interested to read about Brasil, a mythical land which has the uniquely bizarre distinction of ending up as not only a real country totally unconnected with Ireland, but also a film by Terry Gilliam totally unconnected with either Ireland or Brazil. And it’s got a nut named after it and all – I should be so lucky! What I didn’t realise is that Brasil was a totally magical land that was so close to Ireland that people could sometimes actually see it, but getting there was a bit more difficult. As you say, and as the first-hand account you quote makes clear, unless the whole thing is made up, this is most definitely a mirage. The laws of optics mean that a mirage must be at a particular angle to your eye to be visible, therefore you can never get close to it without it disappearing. That’s why the rainbow’s end is always a certain minimum distance away from you, rendering that pot of gold sadly unattainable. Which is another tale associated with Ireland – I’m starting to wonder if the Emerald Isle is peculiarly susceptible to mirages? It also occurs to me that, since a mirage is a real thing that is as visible to a camera as it is to you, it would in theory be possible to take a photo of Brasil. I say “in theory” because I’m betting no-one has seen it for quite a long time. Mirages rely on something called temperature inversion, in which air near the ground is unexpectedly cooler than the air higher up, combined with the fact that light travels faster through cool air (in case you don’t know, that constant, unalterable Speed Of Light that you’re always hearing about is the speed of light in a vacuum – it can’t go any faster, but if it’s moving through anything that isn’t a vacuum, it always goes a bit slower). The best way to create a mirage is to have very hot ground which causes the air immediately above it to get so hot that it rises more quickly than the bit of air that replaces it can heat up. That happens a lot in deserts, typically resulting in a patch of sky being projected onto the ground. Since we normally only see sky on the ground when it’s reflected on water, and since hot air shimmers, it looks almost exactly like a cool, rippling lake, to the grievous disappointment of thirsty nomads – no wonder they tended to assume that malicious djinns were doing it just to torment them! Tarmac’s even better, which is why you can see the same thing on a much smaller scale every time you drive your car on a really hot day. But the Irish countryside is not, on the face of it, ideal mirage territory. I have to assume that some combination of features meant that a certain part of the Irish coastline was at certain times of the year unusually susceptible to mirages, probably of a specific other part of Ireland not very far away, but miraculously displaced offshore. I use the past tense because this phenomenon would have to rely on an extremely delicate combination of factors which any change at all would disrupt. Planting or uprooting a wood in a crucial spot, expanding a town, or any subtle alteration in the local climate would destroy the illusion forever. However, it’s equally likely that the same thing could spontaneously occur somewhere else. Though of course nowadays we’d regard it is an interesting optical illusion, not a magic disappearing island, so legends would be unlikely to grow up about it. All the same, it’s extremely unusual, and you’d expect people to take photos of it. So any photo of an offshore mirage anywhere will give you a very good impression of what Irishmen called “Brasil”. Thanks as always to the Count