Emerald Isle

The Music of Manannan

Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from the Historical Cycle

Sweet to the ears of some, sour to the ears of others

It's true to say that music has a magic all to itself, for it can transport us to different places and times with the strumming of a few notes. It can make us feel angry, or sad, or happy, or any one of a myriad of other emotions. But if you were to hear the music of an occult Sidhe instrument played by one of the fairy folk under a loon's moon, you might experience a different sort of magic – of the more tangible variety!

A story comes to us from the century before the ending of old Ireland as it was, and it tells how the Sidhe fairy lord of the seas and oceans, Manannan Mac Lír, walked once again among the people of Ireland. In his hand he carried a magical harp, the Four-Angled Music, named Uaithne.

This had been crafted by the Dagda's mastery and it was his most favoured relic. It had been shaped from the first oak tree and inlaid with gold and precious jewels, and its music could make an angel weep.

Forth from his mellow halls, whether they were beneath the sea, on his favourite Isle, or hidden among the mounds of Ireland came Manannan, and as he travelled he strummed the harp, causing flowers to bloom and little creatures to look up wherever he passed.

He passed into the fastness of Black Hugh O'Donnell, and as he came to the gate his raiment became motley and patchwork, with a tunic and breeches decorated with thin stripes. On his feet were leather shoes and every part of him was soaking wet, although no rain had fallen that day.

Only his ears and half his sword protruded from his hooded cloak, and in his right hand was a blackened javelin made of holly wood. This was the costume of an impoverished Kern, or a warrior of old Ireland. He wandered in bold as you like, and the guards at the gate could look anywhere but in his direction, and so he went without challenge.

Once in the court and presence of Black Hugh, Manannan challenged the bards, poets and musicians to a competition which he won handily, playing such music as none of those present had ever heard before, bringing peace even to those suffering and dying.

Black Hugh swore such melodies were a miracle in themselves and offered Manannan new clothes, although he did not know him by that name, instead calling him Gilla Decair. Manannan declined the gift and said that he had to travel on to Cnoc Áine the next day, which was too much for Black Hugh, and so Manannan found himself surrounded by armed warriors!

Shaking his head, Manannan played a new tune which instead of bringing rest, aroused fury, and in the blink of an eye the O'Donnell's men were hacking each other to pieces with axes! Seeing he was out of his depth, Black Hugh apologised and Manannan got from him a fine of twenty cattle and land as well.

As he left, he rubbed a strange herb from Tír na n'Óg on the gums of the slaughtered men, and they rose from the ground, feeling none the worse for wear!

Well he went next past Limerick, and past the house of a man called Shane Mac an Iarla, who saw him strolling past and invited Manannan into his home. Manannan boasted of his skill with letters and with song, but was unable to either read or play until Shane threatened him with the killing satire.

Shane then asked Manannan whether he has visited that part of Ireland before, near Desmond, and he got an answer that surprised him – his guest declared that he had visited with the Fianna, more than a thousand years ago!

He went next in the guise of a Kern and under the name of Duartaine O'Duartaine to the home of a notoriously tight fisted and rude chieftain called MacEochaidh. As it happened, MacEochaidh had a broken leg and the bone had started to cause poisoning of the blood within him, so Manannan told the court he was a great healer.

He said also that he wouldn't heal the chieftain unless he reformed his stingy and miserable ways, and then dressed the broken leg with a mysterious paste which caused the bones to knit cleanly and the blood to purify.

In delight MacEochaidh offered him not only three hundred each of hogs, horses, sheep and cattle, but the hand of his beautiful daughter in marriage as well! Considering his lesson taught too well by far, Manannan quietly slipped out the back that night and made good his escape!

Now as a Kern calling himself Cathal O'Cein, he went to the north and west of Ireland where he came upon an army about to go make war with Munster in the south, what used to be called Mumu. Still appearing shoddily dressed and wet, his warlike skills were mocked by the soldiers, but he promised them a fine display of martial skill if they closed their mouths!

Their leader, a man called O'Connor, agreed to his terms out of curiosity and they went raiding for cattle. They were chased back north by a band of enraged Munstermen, but Manannan shot many of them with a bow and two dozen arrows, causing the rest to flee in terror.

However at the feast afterwards, O'Connor insulted Manannan by drinking first with no mention of the Kern, so Manannan recited many insulting and abusive verses of song accompanied by the harp which rang around that chief's hall long after he passed away, and once again shook the dust of that place from his heels.

Being somewhat soured by the experience, Manannan next came to the Dún of the King of Leinster, and idly he declared that the musicians played worse than the flatulence from the rear ends of herd of cattle.

Well, needless to say, neither the King nor his musicians were going to take that sitting down, so they leaped upon him as he strummed the harp and struck him many times, but it seemed that each blow they struck only inflicted the same injury upon themselves! The King decreed this impudent Kern should be hanged, and so they trotted him out and hung him, but each of the three times they tried it, one of the King's favourite advisers was found swinging from the end of the rope!

At sunrise the following day, the mysterious Kern returned and offered to heal all the men who had died, giving each one a restorative herb.

Deciding that his gallivanting was done for this century, Manannan found himself at the O'Donnellan's house in county Meath, where they offered him crab apples and bonnyclobber. He revealed there his true identity and walked off into the misty dusk, but who knows where and how he may appear again!

The fortress of Black Hugh O'Donnell is marked on the map below.

More Tales from the Historical Cycle

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