Hy-Brasail, the Isle of the Blest

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  • Teideal (Title): Hy-Brasail, the Isle of the Blest.
  • Uimhir Chatalóige Ollscoil Washington (University of Washington Catalogue Number): 840111.
  • Uimhir Chnuasach Bhéaloideas Éireann (National Folklore of Ireland Number): none.
  • Uimhir Roud (Roud Number): none.
  • Uimhir Laws (Laws Number): none.
  • Uimhir Child (Child Number): none.
  • Cnuasach (Collection): Joe Heaney Collection, University of Washington, Seattle.
  • Teanga na Croímhíre (Core-Item Language): English.
  • Catagóir (Category): song.
  • Ainm an té a thug (Name of Informant): Joe Heaney.
  • Ainm an té a thóg (Name of Collector): unavailable.
  • Dáta an taifeadta (Recording Date): 15/11/1983.
  • Suíomh an taifeadta (Recording Location): University of Washington, United States of America.
  • Ocáid an taifeadta (Recording Occasion): evening class.
  • Daoine eile a bhí i láthair (Others present): unavailable.
  • Stádas chóipcheart an taifeadta (Recording copyright status): unavailable.

There was a man from the Aran Islands who saw this Isle of the Blest. And if you look at that1, this is the song that was written about that man, when he went looking for the island. And believe me, you’d swear, as I did coming from school-I thought I could leave my hand on that island, and it was millions of miles away from me… But if you go back to Conamara, don’t stay up looking for the Isle of the Blest. You won’t see it. And you won’t see it – you have to be terrible innocent before you’d see it. And, eh, well, you could be innocent – but then again, you might be there at the wrong time. Well, this is the way they used to sing that song – the old people2:

On the ocean that hollows the rocks where ye dwell
A shadowy land has appeared as they tell;
Men thought it a region of sunshine and rest,
And they called it Hy-Brasail, the Isle of the Blest.

From year unto year on the ocean’s blue rim
This beautiful spectre showed lovely and dim;
The golden clouds curtained the deep where it lay,
And it looked like an Eden away, far away.

A peasant who heard of the wonderful tale
In the breeze of the orient loosened his sail.
From Ara the holy, he turned to the west;
For though Ara was holy, Hy-Brasail was blest3.

He heard not the voices that called from the shore,
He heard not the rising wind’s menacing roar;
Home, kindred and safety he left on that day
And he sped to Hy-Brasail away, far away.

Morn rose on the deep, and that shadowy isle
O’er the faint rim of distance reflected its smile;
Noon burned on the wave, and that shadowy shore
Seemed lovelily distant and faint as before.

Lone evening came down on the wanderer’s track,
And to Ara again he looked timidly back;
Oh! Far on the verge of the ocean it lay
Yet the Idle of the Blest was away, far away.

Rash dreamer, return! O ye winds of the main,
Bear him back to his own peaceful Ara again.
Rash fool for a vision of fanciful bliss
To barter thy calm life of labour and peace!

The warning of reason was spoken in vain;
He never revisited Ara again.
Night fell on the deep, amidst tempest and spray,
And he died on the ocean away, far away.

They’ll tell you that story in the Aran Islands. That man did that. And it looks so near! It’s funny. You know, on a calm day, there’s something – the sea, it does something to your vision. An island that’s three miles away, it will seem like it’s only ten yards away… That’s a dangerous time to go on the ocean.

Notes

1. Joe was referring to a printed text of the poem as he sang this, and was letting students know what to look for among their own printed materials.

2. It is debatable whether ‘the old people’ actually sang this – not because they would not have sung a song in English (which they manifestly did), but because its idiom and structure are so different from the kinds of English-language songs they habitually chose.

3. A section of the recording, where Joe points out to students an error in their printed text, has been edited-out. When he resumes singing at the fourth verse, the pitch of the melody is a half-tone higher. While it was common for Joe to ‘go sharp’ over the course of a song – indeed, this is a very common phenomenon among traditional singers in Ireland – he normally does so imperceptibly. The fault in this recording should not, therefore, be laid at his door.

‘Hy-Brasail, the Isle of the Blest’ is a poem composed by Limerick-born poet Gerald Griffin (1803-40) which draws upon a traditional legend. Joe appears to be using it to illustrate the traditional belief in the existence of such a place, reminiscent of stories about Tír na nÓg (compare the story of Oisín and Niamh of the Golden Hair) or other mythical lands-beneath-the-waves such as Atlantis. Joe liked to tell about the time that he believed he himself saw Hy-Brasail, when he was a boy on his way home from school; also the story of how the island figured in one local family’s reputation as bonesetters. For more about Hy-Brasail (in Irish, ‘Beag-Árainn’ or ‘Lesser Aran’), see Tomás Ó Concheanainn, ‘Seanchas ar Mhuintir Laidhe’ in Éigse 33 (2002), 179-225; also Daithí Ó hÓgáin, ‘The Mystical Island in Irish Folklore,’ in P. Lysaght, S. Ó Catháin and D. Ó hÓgáin (eds.), Islanders and Water-Dwellers: Proceedings of the Celtic-Nordic-Baltic Folklore Symposium held at University College Dublin 16-19 June 1996, DBA Publications Ltd. for the Department of Irish Folklore, UCD (1999), 247-60.