Emerald Isle

Islands of the Otherworld

Irish legends from time immemorial have a great deal to say about the land of the fairies, the home of the Tuatha De Danann, or the world of the Sidhe. There are those who claim it lies beneath fairy mounds or on the other side of deep caves where Druids once held tryst and shared magical secrets, while other tales tell of heroes and adventurers, even saints sailing far into the turbulent western ocean to find the Land of the Young, Tír na n'Óg.

This was a place of great beauty and eternal youth, none who set foot here would age a day, although they'd feel the full weight of their years if they ever returned to the mortal realm! It was a place where time passed differently, a year might be a day or a day a year, and strange creatures inhabited its rolling hills and forests.

By other names it was known as well - Tír Tairngire or the land of promise, so called by Saint Brendan, Tír faoi Thuinn, the land under the waves by its association with the Merrow fairy folk, Mag Mell, the plain of delight, or Ildathach, the multicoloured place.

The voyages of Mael Duin and Bran tell us that there wasn't one island, but many, each with its own peculiar inhabitants and customs; enchanted realms, some for the living and some for the dead.

Europeans called it Hy-Brasil, taking its name from Breasal, the Celtic High King of the World, and it was marked on many medieval maps such as those of Genoese cartographer Dalorto, often to the southwest of Galway bay, but otherwise off the west or south coast.

It was reputed only to make an appearance once every seven years, and even then only if you happened to be in the right place and at the right time. An expedition from Bristol in 1481 claimed to have landed there, and it was charted to be perfectly circular, with a semicircular channel through the middle of it.

Of great renown was the supposed visit to the island by one Captain John Nisbet of Killybegs, who after getting lost in a dense fog found himself hard upon a reef, so they anchored to get their bearings. Four of the crew rowed to a nearby island for a day and returned with silver and gold given to them by an old man who lived there.

Another old man is spoken of by Roderick O'Flaherty in 1872, who tells us how he claimed to live there for a while. As he recounts:

“There is now living, Morogh O’Ley, who imagines he was himself personally on O’Brasil for two days, and saw out of it the isles of Aran, Golamhead, Irrosbeghill, and other places of the west continent he was acquainted with.”

And in the town of Blackrock, overlooking Dundalk bay, a local version of a ancient song called Déalradh an Lae as penned by James Clarence Mangan, "The Dawning of the Day", is translated as follows:

'Twas a balmy summer morning
Warm and early,
Such as only June bestows;
Everywhere the earth adorning,
Dews lay pearly
In the lily-bell and rose.
Up from each green leafy bosk and hollow
Rose the blackbird's pleasant lay,
And the soft cuckoo was sure to follow.
'Twas the Dawning of the Day!

Through the perfumed air the golden
Bees flew round me:
Bright fish dazzled from the sea,
'Till medreamt some fairy olden
World-spell bound me
In a trance of witcherie.
Steeds pranced round anon with stateliest housings,
Bearing riders prankt in rich array,
Like flushed revellers after wine-carousings—
'Twas the Dawning of the Day!

Then a strain of song was chanted,
And the lightly
Floating sea-nymphs drew anear.
Then again the shore seemed haunted
By hosts brightly
Clad, and wielding shield and spear!
Then came battle-shouts—and onward rushing—
Swords and chariots, and a phantom fray.
Then all vanished; the warm skies were blushing
In the Dawning of the Day!

Cities girt with glorious gardens
Whose immortal
Habitants in robes of light
Stood, methought, as angel-wardens
Nigh each portal,
Now arose to daze my sight.
Eden spread around, revived and blooming;
When . . . lo! as I gazed, all passed away—
. . . I saw but black rocks looming
In the dim chill Dawn of Day!

A note attached to the transcription says that "This song is founded on a tradition prevalent among the people in the vicinity, that an ancient city, with fine land adjoining it, are seen every seventh year by the fishermen off Blackrock shore near Dundalk. The bard, remembering the legends of Gerald Iarla in Mullach-Elim, and O'Neill in Aileach, considers the appearance a favourable sign for Ireland's liberation."

"It may have happened, time out of mind, that a city and land in this part of the Island were encroached on by the sea. A great causeway, built with huge mountain stones, has been traced from Dunany to Cooley Point, a distance of more than seven miles across the Bay of Dundalk... The old people used to tell many stories of the inhabitants of the enchanted city, and assert that some of their offspring still live at Blackrock."

And the tale grows stranger yet! For on July the 21st in 1866, a local newspaper, the Coleraine Chronicle had the following peculiar event to report:

At eleven o'clock this forenoon, the grandest optical illusion that we ever witnessed appeared on the coast of Ennishowen between Greencastle and the Lighthouse at the north-east point of the peninsula.

When our attention was first drawn to it, the place where the Lighthouse stands was, as seen from Portstewart, occupied by a magnificent castle of gigantic proportions with two towers in the wings. In a few moments it was a villa of much humbler dimensions, surrounded by a lawn elegantly laid out and carriageways and footpaths clearly visible.

Then, in a few moments, another castle of still grander proportions with three towers appeared, distinctly visible along the coast of Greencastle, encircled as it seemed by a dense forest. Magilligan Strand seen from this point at ordinary times, is little better than a golden thread hemming in the dark blue waters but on this day, one end of it, next to Donegal, seemed to rise up and stand as a perpendicular cliff - a grand precipice, enclosing the sea on that side like a mighty wall.

In a few minutes all had changed. The precipice at Magilligan had faded away. The grand castle at the mouth of the Foyle had disappeared. Then the whole shore from Greencastle down to the Lighthouse seemed a continuous plantation, showing many openings, villas, stately mansions and, in one instance, a great square church tower, that was distinctly visible for upwards of thirty minutes...

...But through the thin, hazy atmosphere appeared the strange landscape, ever varying in its forms, which we have described. Cliffs and cottages, forests, castles, churches, all successively appeared and vanished and at last the vapor set down on the peninsula for the afternoon, all minor objects became lost to view and nothing appeared by the long dark barrier of the Donegal mountains standing between us and the west.

At the other end of the country in County Cork, near to the little town of Ballycotton on July the 7th 1878, local people were amazed to see an island in the ocean that had not been there the day before. Sightseers gathered on the strand were able to see the new island quite plainly and were able to make out its coastline, woodlands, fields, and deep valleys.

Several fishermen took to their boats and sailed out to investigate, but it winked out of existence before their very eyes! Notable academics of the time dismissed these events as optical illusions, but you know, it seems odd that there have been no such wondrous apparitions since. A trick of the light or a glimpse into the islands of the Otherworld?

Ballycotton can be found on the map below if you fancy your chances of catching a glimpse of the strange vanishing islands.


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