Emerald Isle

Manannan mac Lir

Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from Irish Gods and Monsters

Prince of the Waves, Son of the Sea

A name which echoes through many ancient Irish myths and legends is that of the spirit of the oceans, Manannán mac Lir. Was he a Gaelic god and father of gods, a powerful king of old, first among the Tuatha De Danann, a title for a cult of secretive mystics or a Lord of the Otherworld? Perhaps all of these and more, or none.

The earliest legends of the Gaels say it was Manannán who led the surviving Tuatha to safety after they lost their war with this new and vigorous race of men, protecting them and cloaking them in the mist of invisibility, the féth fíada, hiding their homes and strong places, their halls and mounds in a supernatural fog. Some say this sorcery persists even today, thinning only on cross-quarter days when other worlds come close to this one!

Manannán was said to be the high king of three realms, or perhaps it was only one place under three names. These were Emain Ablach, the place of the apples, where Lúgh was raised, a land filled with swans and yews. Manannán gave to Lugh a magical spear which he used to slay Balor of the evil eye, master of the dreaded Fomorian race. From this place came the magical silver apple branch given to Bran mac Febail, and here it was said Manannán made his own home.

Tír na nÓg or the land of the young was another of his realms, an island paradise of everlasting youth, beauty, joy and abundance. It was also called the Land of Promise or Tír Tairngire.

Here the Tuatha Dé sang poems to one another, composed music, danced and enjoyed the feast of Goibniu, which was said to grant immortality to partakers. They ate Manannán's Swine, the Mucca Mhannanain, which produced an inexhaustible supply of food.

There were many other wonders in this fabled otherland, such as a well where salmon swim under a grove of nine hazels, from which hung an enchanted drinking horn. A huge tree with birds singing beautiful music in its branches stood in the centre of the isle. Legends speak of cities and fortresses made of jewels and precious metals, and houses thatched with the colourful feathers of exotic birds, and a bright plain of flowers humming with bees amid the forested wilderness.

This enchanted isle could be reached through burial mounds or caverns, travelling over the sea for three days, whether on a boat or on Manannán's magical horse Aonbharr which could travel over land and sea, or by passing through mists in the right place and at the right time.

The sea way to Tír na nÓg was called the honey road, the path made by the sun through Moy Mell, the Plain of Honey. This was the third realm over which Manannán claimed dominion, and he told Bran the Voyager that neither the plain nor its denizens could be seen unless his magical mist was lifted.

But visitors to this land should beware, for time passed differently in this place – three days might be three years back in the old world, and someone returning to the earth might find a burden of centuries landing on them all at once!

When Manannán returned to the mortal world, it was said that his movements could be seen in the wind, or in the flight of the swallow or hawk, and sometimes he might take the shape of a thundering wheel rolling across the land. This is an old tradition on the Isle of Man, and is the source of their famous triskelion symbol. He could also come as an old man or a splendid youth in golden armour, a callow boy or a fierce warrior.

There is a long association between the Isle of Man and Manannán, and many are the stories the Manx tell of this spirit, although whether he was named after the isle or the isle was named after him isn't clear. They say he was the son of Lir, who was the ocean, and that he was the first ancestor of the human race, and that he kept the Land of Man swathed in mists through his necromancy.

They also offered him marsh reeds and rushes as a sacrifice, considering those sacred to him.

But in the Yellow Book of Lecan it is written that there were four men called Manannán who lived at different times. These were Manandán mac Alloit, a “druid of the Tuath Dé Danann” who was really called Oirbsen, Manandán mac Lir, a mighty sailor, merchant and druid, Manandán mac Cirp, king of the Isle of Man, and Manandán mac Atgnai, who harboured the sons of Uisnech and sailed to Ireland to avenge their deaths.

Manannán was given many different names by different peoples. His name is spelled Manandán in Old Irish, Manannán in modern Irish and Scottish Gaelic, and Mannan in Manx Gaelic. In other stories he is named Duartaine O'Duartaine, Gilla Decair or the troublesome boyservant, Cathal O'Cein and Manawydan fab LlÅ·r in Wales, as well as the Bodach an Chóta Lachtna, or the churl in the drab coat.

Indeed there is no end to the legends which feature Manannán in one way or another, and no less famous were the arcane treasures he possessed!

He shook his cloak of forgetfulness when his adulterous wife Fand returned to him, so that neither herself nor her lover Cúchulainn should remember one another. His soothing musical silver branch with golden apples that could cause anyone to sleep, and the goblet of truth and lies, he gave to Cormac mac Art.

His boat Sguaba Tuinne or wave sweeper could sail itself, and his horse Aonbharr could ride over land and sea with equal facility. He loaned both to Lugh and gave him an array of armour and weapons as well, such as the sword Freagrach, The Answerer, which inflicted the weakness of a woman giving birth on any enemy it touched.

The gem-set helmet Cathbarr, his lúirech or body armour and Manannán's scabal, neck-piece or breastplate were also granted to Lugh.

Not least among his treasures was the corrbolg, or crane skin bag, whose contents were only visible when flooded during full tide, and would seem empty when the tide had ebbed, which he filled with occult items. This he had made from the skin of Aoife who was transformed into a crane by the druidery of her jealous love-rival, and died after two hundred years in that form.

Lugh was given this too, until he was killed by the three son's of Cermait. When they lost it, Manannán gave it to Conaire Mór, the high king at Tara, and it was eventually passed down to none other than Fionn mac Cumhaill!

Not content with giving Fionn the crane-skin bag, Manannán also commissioned the craftsman Lucra to make him a shield of wood, which came from a withered hazel tree, on the fork which Lugh had set the severed head of Balor. The venom had penetrated this tree, killing or blinding workers trying uprooting or handling it.

Mannanán also owned a speckled cow that he and Aengus retrieved from India along with a dun cow, two golden goblets, and two spancels of silk.

Perhaps it is not such a strange thing with Ireland being an island that the power of the ocean was the most respected, and the spiral patterns that can be found on many dolmens, burial ground and monoliths may represent the waves of the sea.

Loch Corrib, whose name originally meant Loch Oirbsean, another name for the sea lord, is marked on the map below!

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