Reinventing Brazil
New Readings and Renewal in
the Narratives of Irish Travellers *

Laura P.Z. Izarra
University of São Paulo

Translated by Peter O’Neill and Gloria Karam Delbim

Marion McMurrough, Between the Amazon and Andes; or Ten Years of a Lady’s Travels in
the Pampas, Gran Chaco, Paraguay and Mato Grosso
(London: E. Stanford, 1881).

Brazil is a geographical area that exerts great fascination in the global context of the history of the movement of people. 'A giant by its very nature,' the character of Brazil's people, and the image of its natural wealth, unity and security have for many centuries inspired the imagination of foreigners coming from different corners of the world to fulfil their dreams in these tropical lands. Its territory transforms itself into a 'diaspora space' [1] where the immigrants, who had been part of the most diverse type of diasporas, interact with individuals who are represented as a generous and hospitable people. Marilena Chauí in Brazil, Founding Myth and Authoritarian Society, demolishes the internal image of a nation with a unique and indivisible identity, with peaceful and orderly inhabitants, who are happy and hard-working. She delves deep into the heart of these representations that reactivate the founding myth that propagates itself continually, and unmasks the paradoxes that make up the identity of the Brazilian people. Chauí affirms that 'the founding myth offers an initial repertoire of representations of reality and, at each moment of historical formation, these elements are reorganised not only from the point of view of the internal hierarchy (that is, what is the main element that commands the others), but also from the enlarging of its meaning (that is, new elements come to add to the primitive meaning)' (10). Keeping this in mind, how do the narratives of foreign travellers and immigrants interpret and reinvent these representations produced for the founding myth, and how do they adjust to historical moments and ideologies that contribute to transnational displacements? What images of Brazil do they construct, why, and how do they circulate?

The aim of this essay is to analyse the images of the founding myth present in the narratives of Irish travellers at the end of the nineteenth century in comparison with the images at the end of the twentieth century constructed by the Irish poet Paul Durcan on his visit to Brazil in 1995. The question arises as to why one should focus on Irish stories and not English stories in general, since the former had dissolved in the language of the latter after more than ten centuries of English domination. When analysing the founding myth, Chauí points to the medieval writings that, on a symbolic level, had consecrated a powerful myth in the history of the great sea voyages, 'the so called Fortunate Islands, promised land, or blessed place, where perpetual spring and eternal youth reign, and where man and animals coexist in peace' (59), according to the Phoenician and Irish traditions. Braaz, as designated by the Phoenicians, or Hy Brazil as designated by Irish monks, appears on fourteenth- and fifteenth-century maps as an island divided by a great river, Insulla de Brazil or Isola de Brazil, to the west of Ireland and south of the Azores.

The mention of the Irish origin of the name of Brazil was the subject of a lecture written by Irish diplomat Roger Casement when he was British consul in Belém do Pará in 1907. [2] The text starts with an exposition of the sublime nature of the name Brazil, 'probably the sweetest sounding name that any large race of the Earth possesses' (22), but affirms that he only became interested in its origin after he disembarked in Santos as Consul in 1906. By refuting the theory that Brazil had received its name as a result of the abundance of red dye-wood (Brazil wood or Pau-brazil), which soon after the discovery of Brazil became a constituent part of the opening of new markets to European mercantile capitalism, Casement tried to demonstrate how, at that time, every concept associated with Ireland was 'wiped out.' This was due to the preconception generated in the eyes of England of a dominated people, namely, 'a race of senior barbarians liv[ing] in squalid misery without parallel in civilization' (24). He was subsequently to recognise the negative dimension of the direct or indirect participation of Great Britain in the violations committed in Africa and South America, as denounced later in his diaries, and he would eventually rebel against that power, being condemned to death for his participation in the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916.

On the other hand, his writings reveal the elements that contributed to the celebratory image of Brazil. Casement confirmed that Ireland 'was the home of the legend which for centuries had turned men's minds westward in search of that fabled land':

Brazil owes her name to Ireland – to Irish thought and legend – born beyond the dawn of history yet handed down in a hundred forms of narrative and poem and translated throughout all western Europe, until all western Europe knew and dreamed and loved the story, and her cartographers assigned it place upon their universal maps. (28-29).

The land 'beyond the sea' was to inspire, in various political contexts, utopian thoughts, especially among those who had suffered the effects of the potato famine and British direct rule in the middle of the nineteenth century. That historical period witnesses the scattering of the Irish Diaspora to English-speaking countries such as the United States, Canada and Australia, the destinations of the majority of those emigrants. However, a smaller number of Irish people, inspired by travel stories and letters from those who had established themselves south of the equator, set off for South America where they had to live side-by-side with other cultures and face the challenge of learning their languages. Some emigrants had probably chosen tropical lands as their destination because the rumours rekindled imagery that had been incorporated into the folklore memory of the Irish people, i.e., the legendary myth of Hy Brazil that was associated with holiness and an original Garden of the Eden. Nevertheless, the largest group of this second migratory wave settled in Argentina where they formed a politically, religiously and economically united community, and established their own means of communication, which they consolidated, as for example in the case of the newspapers, The Standard (1861-1959), The Southern Cross (1875 up to the present day), Fianna (1910-1912), and The Hibernian-Argentine Review (1906-1927). In Brazil though, there are some records of Irish immigrants prior to 1827. It was on that date that 2,686 Irish people from counties Cork and Waterford, including women and children, were transported to Rio de Janeiro as mercenary soldiers under the command of an Irish officer, Colonel Cotter, to serve in the new Brazilian imperial armada, and to fight in the war against Argentina for the disputed lands that today form part of the Republic of Uruguay (Basto 1971). Once the war was over, they were supposed to remain on in order to work in the countryside, where manpower was much needed. However, the Brazilian government did not concede the reward as promised – namely, accommodation, food, and land. Many were deported after the failure of the military confrontation, and a bloody riot that lasted three days, which was initiated by 200 soldiers of the Irish regiment unsatisfied with their treatment by the government. One hundred families were sent to Taperoá, State of Bahia, to form a colony know as Saint Januária, while others were settled in an agricultural colony in the State of Rio Grande do Sul, and some spread to the states of Paraná and Santa Catarina.

Approximately four decades after this frustrating experience, Irishman William Scully founded the Anglo-Brazilian Times newspaper in Rio de Janeiro (1865-1884), which became a vehicle for spreading a positive image of Brazil in Ireland as the land that offered 'more opportunities' than the other countries chosen by emigrants. Scully negotiated with the government and promised the Irish that they would receive their salaries immediately on landing in Brazil, contrary to what had happened in the past. In his letter to the clergy of Ireland in 1866, [3] he asked them to encourage farm workers to emigrate and compared the benefits of the country to the situation in the United States. Scully reinforced the myth of a paradisical climate as described in medieval writings (the eternal spring) – that was more moderate, 'the heat of summer never reaching the extremes' and the winters resembling more an Irish summer, 'though somewhat warmer to the north, and cooler in the south and interior, where frosts occasionally occur'. He also affirmed that there was religious tolerance, although Roman Catholicism was the official religion, and he promoted justice and the spirit of progress of the country.

Scully asserted that laws protecting the individual and property were similar to Irish laws, and that immigrants could become naturalised citizen after two years of residence, compared to five in the United States. The editor of the Anglo-Brazilian Times thus borrowed from the ideologies that accompanied the historic movements in the formation of the Brazilian nation. In addition to the celebration of nature, the romantic nativism of the nineteenth century also established the image of a peaceful people, with no racial or religious discrimination. Scully described the type of people the Irish would find in Brazil and wrote that they would receive much affection and kindness, demonstrated in various forms 'as in their native land', and that they would experience 'nothing of the unconcealed contempt which the native American is apt to show 'raw' Irishmen, until five years residence has entitled them to vote.' The elements that constituted the founding myth became evident – the grandeur of the country and opportunities for all, without prejudice towards differences. According to Marilena Chauí, the idea of the non-existence of prejudices was part of the effect produced by Brazil-Nature, since this cover up was decisive in the founding of the myth because 'the natural juridical way of things, being a hierarchy of perfect acts and powers desired by God, indicates that Nature is constituted by human beings who naturally subordinate to each other' - a form of voluntary servitude (64-65). Also present is what she called the sacredness of history, that made Brazil 'the country of the future', guaranteed by the presence of an ecclesiastic institution and religious tolerance.


* Text originally published in Literaturas Estrangeiras e o Brasil: Diálogos. Ed. Laura P.Z. Izarra. São Paulo: Associação Humanitas/FAPESP, 2004. 159-176. Translated by Peter O’Neill and Gloria Karam Delbim; revised by Laura Izarra. The lithographs are reproduced with the permission of the Biblioteca do Instituto de Estudos Brasileiros, Universidade de São Paulo. In: Mulhall, Marion McMurrough. Between the Amazon and Andes; or Ten Years of a Lady’s Travels in the Pampas, Gran Chaco, Paraguay and Mato Grosso (London: E. Stanford, 1881).


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Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2006

Online published: 1 July 2006
Edited: 07 May 2009

Izarra, Laura, '
Reinventing Brazil: New Readings and Renewal in the Narratives of Irish Travellers' in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" Vol. 4 N° 3 (July 2006). Available online (, accessed .


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