by James A. McQuiston
Celtic Guide magazine
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So my opening blurb for February has to do with disappearing islands. With the news about sea level changes, these stories present another aspect of this theme.
Celtic legends are filled with mystical places like the Irish “Tír na nÓg,” the Cornish “Lyonesse,” from Arthurian legend, said to have sunk beneath the waves, and the more modern Hollywood-created “Brigadoon.”
Some of these places may be fact, some may be fantasy, but most refer to the longing to obtain the unobtainable.
When we think of an island disappearing, we generally think of Atlantis. But there are three more examples, all with a Celtic bent to them.
We begin with the island known as Hy-Brasil, shown above, off the coast of Ireland, on a very old map.
Hy-Brasil (also called Hy-Breasal, Hy-Brazil, Hy-Breasil, Brazir) is derived from the name Breasal, who was the High King of the world in Celtic history.
The island was noted on maps as early as 1325, by the Genoese cartographer Angelino Dulcert, where it was identified as “Bracile.”
It later appeared in the Catalan Atlas in 1375, which placed it as two separate islands with the same name, “Illa de brasil”.
Hy-Brasil is a phantom island said to lie in the Atlantic Ocean west of Ireland. Irish myths described it as cloaked in mist except for one day every seven years, when it becomes visible but still cannot be reached.
Surprisingly, there is no evidence to support the existence of this island at anytime in history.
One odd theory is that the binary code taken from a UFO seen at an airbase in the UK, when converted to Arabic numbers, gave the longitude and latitude of Hy Brasil.
After Atlantis, Hy Brasil has to be the most mysterious island in history.
The link below will take you to an issue of Celtic Guide from January 2014 that was entitled "Islands," with many good stories to be found there.
One story is about Hy Brasil and was written by Hugo da Nóbrega Dias, of Portugal.
Here's the link, but before you leave this page, you'll want to see what else I've dug up for you.
Next, we take a look at the New Hebrides island of Ambae Island, the inspiration for the mystical island of Bali Ha’i, in the musical “South Pacific”:
New Hebrides (officially the New Hebrides Condominium) was named for the Hebrides Scottish archipelago, and was the colonial name for an island group in the South Pacific Ocean that is now known as Vanuatu.
Vanuatu is a group of islands east of Australia that were originally populated by the Melanesian people, but also, through the years, partly populated with Polynesians and Scots from Australia, as well as the French and a few other ethnicities.
In its early days, Vanuatu was typically ruled by both the French and British governments.
Walter Hayde Lini, an Anglican priest, was the first Prime Minister of Vanuatu, from its independence in 1980, to 1991. His sister Heather Lini-Leo Matas was the first indigenous female lawyer in the country.
While Walter and his family were/are obviously Melanesian, ancestry.com states: “The Lini family name was found in the USA, and Scotland between 1880 and 1920.”
Other sites state that Lini is an Old Norse name.
The website surnamedb.com states that Hayde is a name originating in Cornwall, and Walter has long been a popular British name, for example: Sir Walter Scott, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Sir Walter Stewart, the 6th hereditary High Steward of Scotland, and father of King Robert II of Scotland.
The name Heather is obviously influenced by Scotland, and so it is possible, at least, that, whether there is any Celtic blood in this family line, or not, there is certainly some Celtic/British influence in their family names.
In the musical “South Pacific,” we hear of the island called Bali Ha’i.
The name refers to a mystical island, visible on the horizon but not reachable, which was originally inspired by the sight of Ambae Island, Vanuata, from neighboring Espiritu Santo, where author James Michener was stationed during World War II.
So Bali Ha’i is essentially an island in the New Hebrides. And it is disappearing, or at least becoming uninhabitable in recent years.
Bali Ha’i or Ambae Island is the apex of the volcano that sits under much of Vanuatu. A steam and ash eruption from this volcano began on November 27, 2005, leading to a Level 2 volcano alert and preparations for evacuations.
On December 8th, the eruption became stronger, displacing more than 3,000 of Ambae Island's inhabitants to elsewhere on the Vanuatu islands, and requiring the evacuation of two hospitals.
On September 28, 2017, after a week of increasing volcanic activity to Level 4 (Level 5 being a major eruption), the government of Vanuatu ordered a complete evacuation of the island, home to about 11,000 residents.
Since then, ash from the eruption has covered the island, killing crops and polluting the air and water. In April 2018 the remaining approximately 10,000 residents were ordered to evacuate permanently.
In “South Pacific,” Bali Ha’i was visible, but not reachable. How prophetic this legend was for this mystical New Hebrides island.
Finally, we move on to Montserrat:
Montserrat is a Caribbean island in the Leeward Islands, which is part of the chain known as the Lesser Antilles, in the West Indies. It is a British Overseas Territory.
Montserrat is nicknamed "The Emerald Isle of the Caribbean" both for its resemblance to coastal Ireland and for the Irish ancestry of many of its inhabitants.
The Irish constituted the largest proportion of the white population from the founding of the colony in 1628. Many were indentured laborers; others were merchants or plantation owners. The geographer Thomas Jeffrey claimed in The West India Atlas (1780) that the majority of those on Montserrat were either Irish or of Irish descent, "so that the use of the Irish language is preserved on the island, even among the (Africans).”
African slaves and Irish colonists of all classes were in constant contact, with intimate relationships being common and a population of mixed descent appearing as a consequence. The Irish were also prominent in Caribbean commerce, with their merchants importing Irish goods such as beef, pork, butter and herring, and also importing slaves.
There is indirect evidence that the use of the Irish language continued in Montserrat until at least the middle of the nineteenth century. The Kilkenny diarist and Irish scholar Amhlaoibh Ó Súilleabháin noted in 1831 that he had heard that Irish was still spoken in Montserrat by both black and white inhabitants. A letter by W.F. Butler in The Atheneum (15 July 1905) quotes an account by a Cork civil servant, C. Cremen, of what he had heard from a retired sailor called John O'Donovan, a fluent Irish speaker:
“He frequently told me that in the year 1852, when mate of the brig Kaloolah, he went ashore on the island of Montserrat which was then out of the usual track of shipping. He said he was much surprised to hear the blacks actually talking Irish among themselves, and that he joined in the conversation…”
On July 18, 1995, the previously dormant Soufrière Hills volcano, in the southern part of the island, became active. Eruptions destroyed Montserrat's Georgian era capital city of Plymouth.
Between 1995 and 2000, two-thirds of the island's population was forced to flee, primarily to the United Kingdom, leaving fewer than 1,200 people on the island as of 1997 (rising to nearly 5,000 by 2016).
The volcanic activity continues, mostly affecting the vicinity of Plymouth, including its docking facilities, and the eastern side of the island around the former W. H. Bramble Airport, the remnants of which were buried by flows from volcanic activity on February 11, 2010.
An exclusion zone that extends from the south coast of the island north to parts of the Belham Valley was imposed because of the size of the existing volcanic dome and the resulting potential for dangerous activity. Visitors are generally not permitted entry into the exclusion zone, but a view of the destruction of Plymouth can be seen from the top of Garibaldi Hill in Isles Bay.
Relatively quiet since early 2010, the volcano continues to be closely monitored by the Montserrat Volcano Observatory.
How long Montserrat will be able to withstand the dangers of its resident volcano is anybody’s guess, but for now, a few islanders, black and white, continue to make it their home.