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Manannan Mac Lir

by Bernadette Weyde

Miss Margaret Dobbs, an authority on Celtic mythology, delivered a lecture at the Manx Museum on 11th February, 1924, on “Manannan Mac Lir,” the ancient god of the sea, from whom, it is said, the Isle of Man is named.

There was, she said, a question as to whether Manannan was a god or a man, a deity or a hero. This point was doubtful even in the Middle Ages, to judge from certain passages in early Irish literature. Manannan was frequently classed as a god with Ana, Brigit, Dagda, Lug and others; and in many sagas he is a god pure and simple. But there are statements to the contrary in Irish MSS., and these she read.

According to the old MSS. there were four Manannans:

(1) “Manannan, son of Alloit, wizard of the Tuatha De Danann. . . . ‘Tis he was killed in the battle of Cuillin by Uillinn Abradruid, contending for the kingdom of Connaught.”

2. “Manannan, son of Cerp, King of the Isles.”

(3) “Manannan, son of Ler wizard. The Irish and British call him `god of the sea,’ and say he is a son of the sea; the same is worshipped by the people as a god who can change himself into many shapes.”

4. “Manannan, son of Athgno King of Man and of the Hebrides.”

Miss Dobbs gave a large number of quotations from Irish MSS. concerning the four Manannans. There was, she stated, the assertion that “he dwelt in Ara and from him Emain Ablach is named. “Which Ara? There is Arran off Connaught, Arranmore off Donegal, Arran in the Clyde. From references elsewhere, Miss Dobbs said, it is Arran in the Hebrides that is indicated. One MS. speaks of Arran as “Emain of the son of Ler.”

The question of the site of Emain Ablach is interesting. The passage just quoted implies it was in Arran, but a poem in the Book of Fermoy places it in Man and calls it “Emain of the sweet apples, the Tara — elevated place of guileless Manannan.” The poem is addressed to an historical character, Ragnald, a prince of the Hebrides. [she thought it might be King Reginald I, King of Man and the Isles], and Emain Ablach is his residence, so that the name was known and in use at that time. Possibly, Miss Dobbs suggested, the adjective “ablach of apple trees” is preserved in the names. Barrool and Keamool and Masool, associated with Manannan in Manx tradition. The actual name Emain Ablach (possibly pronounced Oola) may yet survive in some form in the Island. It is equated with the Welsh “Ynys Avallach,” the famous Avalon of Arthurian romance. This land of faery, therefore, had its origin in an actual place-name, but, as Manannan himself became mythical, so did his residence until in the latest romances he and Emain Ablach are both in the “Land of Promise,” the region of myth and magic.

Miss Dobbs here suggested a possible explanation for the conflicting personalities and localities associated with Manannan. They were, she said, not necessarily pure imagination. She suggested that the legends of the Tuatha De Danann, mythical as they are, had their origin in a very early Scandinavian invasion in pre-historic times. The accounts are obviously suggested by Scandinavian characteristics. The early sagas, Battles of Moytura, etc., point to invasions of Connaught. There is nothing unnatural in sailing ships from the north coming to the west of Ireland and also to the islands down the west of Scotland. This was what happened in the 9th century. It is possible that Manannan was originally a title (like Pharoah in Egypt or Caesar in Rome) which applied to a whole dynasty of sea kings. This would explain how one Manannan is so strongly associated with Connaught, and others with Arran and Man. It would account for the different fathers assigned to each, and a Scandinavian origin would account for Manannan’s skill at sea and reputation as a merchant and pilot. It is noteworthy that Mac Lir is literally ” Son of the Sea.”

Coming to the position of Manannan in Celtic romances, the lecturer said there was a large amount of matter to deal with. Manannan plays a part in the following famous sagas:

• The Voyage of Bran (seventh century)
• The Sick Bed of Cu Chullain
• The Adventures of Cormac
• The Birth of Mangan

There are also many allusions to him scattered through poems and legends, and some of these point to stories now lost. For instance, in the Agallam na Senorach, Casilte tells St. Patrick a story about a “Carn Manannain” which was evidently in County Antrim. There is again another story relating to Slieve Donard in Co. Down which links Manannan with that mountain. All the many stories relate naturally to places on the sea coast. These facts are of interest, as the “Manannan country” in Man is on the west side, and Manx tradition makes Peel Manannan’s headquarters. The intercourse in those early days would seem to have been with Ireland more than with Britain.

One of the finest legends connects Manannan with Dundalk and Carlingford: the “Serglige Con Culaind,” which has come down to us in very early form. It is one of the great sagas of Ulster in the Tain Age, and deals with Fand, the wife of Manannan and Cu Chullaind. “…Manannan came from the east to seek her. No one perceived him save Fand only…She said, `I see the heroic son of Ler in the plains of Eogan Inbir; Manannan, lord of the fair world; there was a time when he was dear to me…One day that I was with the son of Ler in the sunny palace of Dun Inbir, we thought nothing should ever part us…I see coming over the sea – no foolish person may see him – the horseman of the crested sea, no fairy ships follow him. Thy coming past us here none can see save they of the Sidhe (fairies/mounds]. Manannan had shaken his cloak between Cu Chullaind and Fand so that they should never meet again.”

Miss Dobbs pointed out that in this story Manannan is a divine being, invisible to mortals, riding on the waves, passionless and magnanimous as only a god can be. He is conceived on nobler lines than the Greek gods, who were often represented as very human.

Another story connects Manannan with Conn’s grandson, the famous Cormac mac Airt (third century A.D.). It is found in the Yellow Book of Lecan. Cormac is the celebrated king who ruled Ireland in the third century. Manannan comes to him as a noble warrior, bearing the magic branch of music, and tests Cormac’s staunchness by taking his daughter, his son, and his wife away to the Land of Promise. When Cormac eventually reaches Manannan’s dun he does not recognise him, as Manannan is now a golden-haired young prince. When Cormac wins back his family, Manannan gives him a magic golden cup. Throughout the tale Manannan is a divinity and dwells in the world of faery. In the tale of the Sons of Tuirin, although undoubtedly old, the name has only survived in very late MSS., so it is not certain if Manannan was mentioned in the original. His possessions play an important part, and are all magic instruments: his steed Enbarr, his coat of mail, his sword “The Answerer,” his helmet ” Cannbarr,” his boat “The Wave Sweeper,” kept at Brugh na Boinne (Newgrange). Without these the Sons of Tuirin can do nothing.

After quoting from MSS. which have already been edited by scholars, Miss Dobbs referred to a tale which is not yet fully translated. It is in the Book of Fermoy, and suggests an early tale of pagan character worked up and given a Christian moral. The story, in sketch form only, is now printed for the first time.

It begins with the history of the defeat of the Tuatha De Danann and their retreat into the Sidhe – fairy hills. “After the battles of Tailltiu and Druim Leghean the Tuatha De Danann sent for the noble king, Manannan, and they made him and Bodb their rulers, and Manannan ordained their “sidhe” to each of them. . . and he made the Feth Fiada – by which the princes were invisible, and Goilniu’s feast – which gave immortality, and Manannan’s swine – which though slain and eaten were renewed perpetually. Manannan taught the nobles to settle at their palaces, and to order their triumphs like the race of the Land of Promise and of Emain Ablach. The nobles acknowledged Manannan’s yoke and right and law over every festivity and feast that might be prepared in their dwellings. There was another power in Ireland at that time whose name was Ealcmar and Aengus Og, son of the Dagda, was his fosterling, and his home was Brugh na Boinne (Newgrange tumulus).

Manannan made a tour to visit all the Sidhe and Ealcmar heard he was treated disrespectfully . . . and sent Aengus to invite him and Manannan came in front of his army to the fort. . . . The powers of the Tuatha De Danann and the nobles of the Land of Promise were all there, and they were all envious of the fine house. Ealcmar sent his chief steward Dichu to seek fish and fowl, etc. and the nobles sat down and Manannan with them; Bodb Derg on his right, Ealcmar on his shield-hand, Eachdond Mor, son of Manannan at the side, and so on. Aengus was superintending the service they were very merry and cheerful. After three days and nights of this, Manannan had to clear the house, for not one of them was conscious, save Manannan and Aengus. They began to talk: ‘It is a pleasant house, Aengus, and I never saw it’s equal save Cruitin na Cuan or Emain Ablach. . . If I were you, it is I would have this house, and I would call on Ealcmar to give it up. You would get help from powerful friends to do so,’ and said Manannan, ‘Are you aware that of all the Tuatha De Danann that I am lord of your kings, senior of your hosts, torch of your battalions and though Elcmar be your guardian I am your tutor in valour and magic (cp. Dermot O Dyna in Gilla Deacair) and I am foster-son of the Dagda, and every one of his children who seek prosperity I have a portion to bestow on them.’ ‘I am glad you admit that,’ said Aengus, ‘and for what reason is the cairn so called’ ‘ I will tell you that,’ said Manannan . . . (gap) ‘do you know that it is not fitting for Ealcmar to own the fort and to found the Brugh and, when we sit down again, go to Ealcmar and summon him to quit. That will bring you luck and to him misfortune and exile. Forbid him to return till ogham and pillar, till earth and heaven, till sun and moon be bent together.”

This impressed Aengus, and he said, ‘I will act on your advice.’ Ealcmar was preparing the Brugh to welcome Manannan, and Manannan came into the place and sat with the warriors; everyone was happy except Aengus, who was sick with fear of summoning his guardian, but for all that he stepped out before Elcmar at the time ordained by Manannan and made a terrible incantation of expulsion against his guardian. Ealcmar straightway left the Brugh with all his people and, when he came out on the lawn, he said: ‘Our break-up here is pitiful, good people. It is sad for you to leave the Brugh and it is treacherous Manannan who taught my foster-son to drive me out by magic. Woe to every foster-son after this.’ Then Elcmar disappeared and all his people. They asked Manannan where Elcmar would go. ‘I do not know,’ said Manannan, ‘and no sage or prophet knows it save only Almighty God.’ Thus Aengus made the feast of the Brugh in honour of Manannan and of the nobles of the Tuatha De Danann.”

There is no allusion to the Isle of Man, whereas Emain Ablach and an unknown spot, Cruitin na Cuan, are emphatically given as his home. If the site of Emain Ablach could be identified in Man it would be of great interest to this study, and as the place was known in the 11th century, it should be possible to locate it.

The lecturer, in summing up, said there is a quantity of romantic legend which in the earlier ages represented Manannan as a noble and dignified divinity but later on only remembered, and dwelt on, his magical powers and possessions. There is also a definite tradition that there was a mortal Manannan, and we have seen that he is particularly associated with the coasts of Man, Antrim, Down, Arran and also with a stretch of the West of Ireland and with the Hebrides. Miss Dobbs. suggested a possible foundation for this tradition, and with the advance of archaeological research thought we may possibly get a clue to more accurate knowledge as to what these traditions mean. In the meantime she hoped her researches in Irish literature might have brought Manannan a little nearer, and made him a more real figure, to his own people in this ancient Island of Man.


(source: Journal of the Manx Museum, Vol. 1 1924; artwork by Erwan Seure Le Bihan, http://erwan.seurelebihan.free.fr/ courtesy of http://www.manannan.net/art/searage.html)

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