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Lord of the Stormy Headlands

by Bernadette Weyde

“O Manannan, Lord of the stormy headlands,
Cast thy mantle over us now!”

The above lines were perhaps a charm, or part of a charm, for invisibility or protection by means of the magic mist with which he enwreathed the Island and its inhabitants. Manannan’s “mantle” is reminiscent of the Cloak of Forgetfulness or separation which he shook between his wife Fand and Cúchulain in the old Irish story, so that they should never meet again, or should not remember each other if they did meet. Probably both the Manx and the Irish garment were, at some previous stage of the Manannan legend, that favourite property of folk-tale, the Cloak of Invisibility. In Ireland it was the ‘dion-bhrat-dubhra’, the Covering Cloak of Darkness, which Aoibheall, the Munster banshee, lent to an O’Hartigan on the eve of the battle of Clontarf.

What was known as the ‘Feth Fiadha’ (spelt variously) had an effect similar to that of the cloak or mantle. It appears to have been more in the nature of a ceremonial incantation, but “cloak” may have been a figurative term for it. Manannan laid this spell on the Tuatha De Danann when they retired into the fairy hillocks, and ever since that time they have been invisible to human beings, except when they wish otherwise.

St Patrick employed his own adaptation of it to persuade his enemies that he and his clerics were a herd of deer. Lesser persons, mere druids and poets, are said to have used a similar spell to render themselves or other men invisible.

The name ‘Feth Fiadha’ was sometimes given to a concealing mist which gathered of its own accord, a convenient auxiliary for fighters and lovers of which old Irish literature affords many examples.

“Lord of the stormy headlands” is a traditional epithet for the Sea-king. In the first volume of the ‘Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Dublin’, published in 1808 (page 69, note) Manannan is said to have been “called by the tale-writers of old Manannan mac lir, sidhe na ccruac, ‘man of Manan, son of the sea, superhuman being of the headlands.’ “Ccruac here (correctly cruacha) must mean headlands in the sense of mountain-tops. The Manx ‘kione’, plural ‘ching’, is applied to sea-promontories, not to mountains, and with three or four of these Manannan is still associated — with Spanish Head, with Peel Island and the adjacent cliffs of Creg Malin, with Jurby Head, less definitely with Gob ny Garvan in Maughold, and doubtless with others in traditions which have perished. But more vital in his legend is his presence from time to time on South Barrule and other summits.

If the foregoing couplet was used as a charm and is not a fragment of an old song, it is the only surviving specimen in which the King’s name appears, with the exception of a rhyme given in ‘Witchcraft and Second Sight in the Highlands’, page 83. “When a person is pulled up at law for abusive language, let him when entering the Courthouse spit in his fist, grasp his staff firmly, and say the following words :

” I will close my fist
Faithful to me is the wood.
It is to protect my abusive words
I enter in.
And Manannan Mac Leth,
And Saint Columbus, gentle cleric,
And Alexander in heaven.”

Probably this charm from Kingairloch in Argyllshire (which, in its English form at least, appears to be incomplete), was adaptable to any legal cause, and was not valid only in slander cases. It suggests the question, did the popular belief in the efficacy of “touching wood ” take its rise from faith in one’s war-club or shillelagh?

The recorder of the charm, the Rev. J. G. Campbell, thinks that “Leth” is a corruption of “Leirr” (as he spells it), which doubtless it is. He goes on to say, “Ni-Mhanainnein (i.e. the daughter of Manannan) is mentioned in a Gaelic tale as having remarkably beautiful music in her house, and ‘the Dairy-maid, the daughter of Manannan’ (Bhanachag ni Mhanannein) is mentioned in another tale as a midwife, whose residence was somewhere near the moon.”

In her office and in her connexion with the moon she makes one think of Mëre Lucine or Mëlusine, the French fairy evolved from the Roman goddess Lucina who superintended the births of children. She was known in England also. At Calver, near Barlow in Derbyshire, the fairies were accustomed to dance in a certain field at dusk; in the midst of their ring stood a little woman, herself a fairy, who was called “the Midwife,” and was always blindfolded. In that county it is said that when a woman is about to be delivered of a child, the fairies bring this little fairy midwife, her eyes being hooded for the journey. She assists; and when all is over they take her back to Fairyland.

That, needless to say, is a typical example of folk-lore’s favourite trick of turning itself inside out. The more familiar story tells of a human woman being called to superintend a fairy birth; the fairies blindfold her for the outward and homeward journeys, so that she shall not remember the way into fairyland. But the fairy presence at the human birth is the truer parable, and should therefore be the older of the two versions.

In support of this opinion we have the Hebridean aspect of St. Bride as a midwife; in the Isles, Carmichael tells us, the ceremonial invitation to Bride to enter the house was made not only at the beginning of February and Spring, but when a birth was imminent. The pre-Christian Goddess Bride no doubt passed through a fairy-queen stage of existence in early Christian times, before she became a saint, and her office of superintending the transit from the formless world into this life has, throughout her changes of condition, clung to her name as a mark of her divine origin. She was a Spirit of Rebirth in Nature and in the human world, and it was probably she who was meant by the epithet “daughter of Manannan.”

(source: A Second Manx Scrapbook by W Walter Gill (1932); artwork by Erwan Seure Le Bihan, http://bit.ly/1lNsMCI, via http://bit.ly/1PP1qnR)

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