Two Irelands—The Irish Discovery of America

by Gunnar Thompson, Ph.D.

Medieval maps show lands west of Greenland that were later identified as North American territories.  However, placement of an isle on a map is not sufficient proof of an Irish settlement in the New World.  Several ancient sources tell of Irish isles in the North Atlantic.  The Arabian geographer Al-Idrisi mentioned "Irlandah-al-Kabirah" or "Great Ireland" located "beyond Greenland" in his atlas of 1154 AD.  Norse sagas from the 11th century mentioned an Irish territory called "Vitramanland" or "Ireland The Great" that was situated near the Norse Wineland colony in the vicinity of modern-day Massachusetts.  And 16th-century Danish maps showed a land called "Estotiland" or "Albania" on the North American mainland.  The names Estotiland or Escotiland were commonly given to settlements of a Gaelic tribe from Northern Ireland.  Since these maps were all made after the Columbus voyage, historians have assumed that they represented belated attempts to deprive the Spaniard of his rightful fame as discoverer of the New World

"The issue of priority," says Thompson, "is settled by the travelogue of an anonymous Spanish Franciscan who traveled on Atlantic seas during the mid-14th century."  It was the friar's travelogue that convinced Thompson that Ibernia represents an Irish settlement in North America.  The travelogue, called "The Book of Knowledge," was written circa 1350 and deposited in a Spanish s, so there is no question that it predates the Columbus voyage.  The book is an accounting of all the nations in the world along with a description of their flags.  It was written to aid Christian travelers who could identify the religion and national loyalty of the places they intended to visit. 

Several features of the Ibernia described in the friar's book are sufficient to establish an Irish settlement in America.  According to the friar, Ibernia had forests and fat game birds that were delicious either "boiled or roasted."  Thompson points out that the only forested lands west of Greenland were on mainland North America.  Furthermore, there were no fat game birds in other northern isles like Greenland or Iceland.  He believes the friar's travelog contains the first historical mention of the American turkey.  A map by Mecia de Viladestes (1413) and the travelogue of a Spanish Franciscan provide evidence of Irish settlements in North America by the 13th century.  The Viladestes map has an isle called "Ibernia" north of Iceland and west of Greenland in the North Atlantic.  This isle is in the region of North America.  We can be certain that an Irish settlement is indicated because the name "Ibernia" (or "Hibernia") is an Old Irish word for Ireland.  The map also shows the traditional Ireland (called "Irlanda") located west of England.  Similar maps by Majorcan cartographers follow a tradition that goes back to a map by Angelino Dulcert (1339).  These maps correspond to an account in the travelogue of a Spanish Franciscan, The Book of Knowledge, which also mentions two Irelands

During the mid-14th century, an anonymous Spanish Franciscan traveled throughout the known world and wrote of his journey in a travelog that is commonly known as Libro del Conoscimiento or The Book of Knowledge.  The original title of the book is much longer, and it better represents the importance of the friar's travels to our understanding of medieval geography. The book is called "The Book of Knowledge of all the Kingdoms, Lands, and Lordships that are in the World, and the Arms and Devices of Each Land and Lordship, or of the Kings and Lords who Possess Them."  Sir Clements Markham prepared an English translation for the Hakluyt Society in 1912.  The travelog describes what was then known of Asia, Africa, Europe, and isles of the Atlantic Ocean.  Although Markham speculated that the friar's account might have derived from accounts of other travelers, and there are instances of fabulous storytelling, the Spanish friar reported political and geographical details with great accuracy.  For example, he mentioned that the isles of Denmark, Norway, and Iceland all used the banner of the Norse kinga black lion in a field of gold.  This report of the flags of ruling lords tallies with Norse claims of sovereignty over all the “Northern Regions,” that is, the territory from Denmark to the Magnetic North Pole.  This sovereignty lasted from 1261 to 1380. 

Another isle in the north Atlantic that used the Norse banner was "Ibernia."  Although the common translation for "Ibernia" is Ireland, it is apparent from the friar's account and from contemporary maps that this "Ibernia" does not refer to the Ireland situated west of England.  The friar's account tells us that:

I left Inglaterra (England) in a boat and reached the island of Irlanda (Ireland) which is a short crossing of a mile.  They say that formerly it was called Ibernia.  Know that it is a well-peopled island with a good climate, and that there are three great cities in it.  The chief one, where they crown the kings, is Estanforda (Strangford), the others Ymeria (Limerick), Gataforda (Waterford), Rois (Ros), and Donbelin (Dublin).  In this island there is a great lake, and they say that the lake brings good fortune, because many enchantments were made on its banks in ancient times.  The king of this island has the same arms as the king of Inglaterra. 

Being in Irlanda, I sailed in a ship bound for Spain and went with those on that ship on the high sea for so long that we arrived at an island called Eterns (Faeroe), and another called Artania (Orkney), and another called Citilant (Shetland), and another called Ibernia (The Ireland of The North).  All these islands are in the part where the sun sets in the month of June (the northwest Atlantic), and they are all peopled, well supplied, and with a good climate.  In this island of Ibernia there are trees, and the fruit that they bear are very fat birds.  These birds are very good eating whether boiled or roasted.  The men in this island are very long lived, some living 200 years.  They are born and brought up in a way which makes them unable to die in the island, so that when they become very weak, they are taken away and die presently.  In this island, there are no snakes nor vipers, nor toads, nor flies, nor spiders, nor any other venomous things.  And the women are very beautiful though very simple.  It is a land where there is not as much bread as you may want, but a great abundance of meat and milk.  Know that this island is outside the seven climates.  The king of this island has for his device the same flaggold with a black lionas the king of Noruega (Norway). 

After this, I departed from the island of Ibernia in a ship and voyaged so far over the western sea that we sighted the Cape of Finnisterre (northwest Spain). 

Several passages from this account confirm that the Spanish friar was not referring to the island commonly known as "Ireland" that is situated west of England.  First, the friar refers to this "Ibernia" as an isle that he sailed to after visiting Irlanda (Ireland west of Britain).  Second, he mentions that this second Ireland is north beyond the Faeroes, beyond the Orkneys and Shetlands on the high seas.  Third, he tells us that the isle is located where the sun sets in June (to the northwest), and he says that this isle lies beyond the "Seven Climates" of Ptolemythat is, to the far north.  We also know that the location is in the far northwest because the account says that it is in the region where the sun sets in Summer.  Clearly, the friar is not referring to the Irlanda west of Britain.  The "fat birds" he mentions is a probable reference to the American game bird commonly known as the "turkey."  The lack of serpents and insects fits well with America's northeast coastat least in the early months of Spring and Summer.  However the most telling clue as to the identity of this northern Ibernia is the fact that the ruling lord uses the standard (or flag) of Norway.  This Ibernia of the north, this second Ireland, is none other than Irland Mikla land of the so-called "Polar Regions" (that is, beyond the Seven Climates to the northwest).  This region, which included Greenland and Iceland, came under Norse sovereignty in 1261 when the Norse king declared that his dominion reached from the Baltic to the North Pole.  His reference to the North Pole actually referred to the Magnetic North Pole of Hudson Bay.  Norse sovereignty lasted until 1380 AD.  Climatic changes, political upheaval, and epidemics of bubonic plague led to depopulation in Norway, Iceland, and along the northeast coast of North America.  Probably at this time, Ibernia was also depopulated.  By the mid-15th century, Danes, Basques, Portuguese, and English sailors took over control of the seas and lands of the northwest Atlantic.  They replaced the old names of the regionIbernia, Wineland, Estotiland (or Escotiland), Norumbega, and Norveca (an old name for North America)with such names as New England, New Amsterdam, Terra Bacalaos, and Labrador. 

In addition to the friar's commentary that this isle of the northwest Atlantic was called "Ibernia,"