‘In the beginning, when Ireland was emerging from the invisible cloak of time, Manannán Mac Lír was a prince of the Tuatha de Dánann,
there was nothing he loved more than leaping over the waves and riding his big horse Enbarr of the Flowing Mane across the sea until the hooves raised the waves thirty feet high and topped them with churning white foam’
The stories of the ever changing moods of Manannán Mac Lir make him a fascinating character, he is both generous and capricious, protective and cruel, a trickster who can change his shape at will and an inveterate clown. The image that stuck in my mind was one of him riding the waves with his beloved horse Enbarr of the flowing mane, churning the waves into foam and sending sailors scuttling for safe harbour. I sighed inwardly a little as I realised I was going to tackle water once again, something that always makes me nervous no matter how many times I depict it.
But this time it wasn’t the water that confounded me, it was ‘Manannán himself. That contrary sea god kept eluding me. Every sketch I made just came out looking too much like just another bloke on a horse. No magic was there, no sense of a greater power. I was also experiencing a difficult time in my personal life and became increasingly convinced that I wouldn’t find the magic again, not an uncommon problem for people who do what I do and one that can lead to a sort of horrified inertia if it goes on for long…
Then away from home at a summer school where I was in a different environment and my mind was largely on other things something cleared a little and I tried once more to wipe the foggy window of my imagination and peer through to what I hoped still lay beyond.
I reread the tale and was struck by this passage.
‘When he took the notion to catch a glimpse of his throne on the top of Barrule on the Isle of Man, the other part of his Kingdom, sure all he had to do was fill his lungs and blow and then he’d ride the towering waves. No wonder the locals along the Lough would shake their heads and mutter, ‘Manannán is angry today.’ Sure maybe he wasn’t angry, just homesick, for as I said before, nobody likes to be stuck in the one place all the time and he probably missed his other wee island in the middle of the Irish Sea’
There it was. The shift of focus that I needed. The notion that perhaps he should be more a part of the sea than riding on it, this shapeshifting God/magician of the sea.
And I think it worked
Here is the extract from Derry Folk tales concerning Manannán Mac Lir. Reproduced with the kind permission of the author, Madeline McCullly.
Manannán Mac Lír
In the beginning, when Ireland was emerging from the invisible cloak of time, Manannán Mac Lír was a prince of the Tuatha de Dánann, a race of supernaturally gifted people in Irish mythology. Sure didn’t he make places for all of the Tuatha to live in, for he was a responsible sort of being.
Now after he’d done all that he went away out of Ireland and it was said that he died in battle at Magh Cuilenn at the hands of Uillenn Faebarderg, a son of Finn. Well, didn’t they bury him standing up on the Tonn Banks and they lived to regret it for a giant wave burst up from under his feet in the place known as the Red Bog at that time. And the brave Manannánrose again.
That lake got the name of Lough Foyle from one of the names of Manannán and so it’s been known ever since. And the brave Manannán was reincarnated as Manannán Mac Lír- the son of Lear- meaning the sea. But Manannán, being a decent sort went around Ireland after that,doing bits and pieces of good in his own way. He enjoyed moving about for he wasn’t one to stay for any length of time in any place.
Well, listening to all the myths of the Lough we hear that Manannán MacLir guards the Foyle well. He had a mighty sword called Fragarach that was forged for him by the gods. Manannán wielded it well and it was said that you couldn’t tell a lie or move with the swordat your throat and that’s how it earned the name of ‘The Answerer’ or the ‘The Retaliator’.
Now this sword saw had some pedigree and Manannán fought many battles with it before he passed this weapon on to Lugh, his foster son. Manannán was the one who rescued Lugh from the sea at Tory when his grandfather Balor ordered him to be drowned (you see, there was a prophesy by a Druid that Balor’s grandson would kill him so he decided that he would kill Lugh first.) But Balor didn’t know that Manannán rescued Lugh and didn’t the very same Lugh kill Balor of the Evil Eye with the sword and fulfilled the prophecy? Now Balor and his shenanigans is another story for another time but let it be known that the evil man deserved it.
After that Lugh give the sword to Cuchulainn who later gave it to Conn of the hundred battles. That was some sword, wasn’t it?
Sure this sword did other magical things for if you were the one using it, didn’t it place the wind at your command and it could cut through any shield or wall, and if you happened to be wounded by it, sure you’d recover without a scratch or scar.
Some people still ask the question, “Who was Manannán MacLir?”
Now there’s a question and all I can say is that he was changeable. He could be one thing one day and a different one the next. It depended on the mood he was in. You wouldn’t know the likes of him for wasn’t he a God of disguise. He used these disguises to get his own way. One thing you can be certain of is that you don’t want to get on the wrong side of him for ‘tis a terrible temper he has when roused. All of us who live along Lough Foyle know that.
Manannán was a trickster and a magician for couldn’t he turn himself into a three-pronged wheel in order to travel faster across the land and if that wasn’t enough didn’t he have a magic boat known as Scuabtuinne ‘Wave-sweeper’ so that he could ride hell for leather over the waves and there was no escaping him if you were the one he was chasing.
He must have given his poor parents, Lir and Aoib, a wild time when he was young. Sure there was nothing he loved more than leaping over the waves and riding his big horse Enbarr of the Flowing Mane across the sea until the hooves raised the waves thirty feet high and topped them with churning white foam. No wonder the poor sailors hated to see him coming but sure nothing his parents could do would stop him. He was a stubborn impudent fella.
It was worse though, when he wrapped his invisible cloak around him and he would creep up unexpectedly and blow boats off-course and even sink some of them, for didn’t he have his kingdom under the water at the mouth of the lough, just where the sand banks are. Many an unwary boat disappeared on those banks between Magilligan and Inistrahull when Manannán played God.
When he took the notion to catch a glimpse of his throne on the top of Barrule on the Isle of Man, the other part of his Kingdom, sure all he had to do was fill his lungs and blow and then he’d ride the towering waves. No wonder the locals along the Lough would shake their heads and mutter, ‘Manannán is angry today.’ Sure maybe he wasn’t angry, just homesick, for as I said before, no body likes to be stuck in the one place all the time and he probably missed his other wee island in the middle of the Irish Sea.
He wasn’t invited too often to dine in any of the big palaces but once or twice he invited himself. Needless to say he always went in disguise. Sure one time he heard that the chieftain Aodh Dubh O’Donnell was having a big feast with musicians and all the local big-wigs and the bould Manannan dressed up as a bedraggled clown with water squelching in his shoes and a sword that was naked for the want of a sheath sticking out behind him. His ears were stuck through an old cloak and he carried three blackened sticks of holly wood in his hand.
When O’Donnell caught sight of him he wanted to know how such a dirty fella entered his house and not one of the guards on the gate stopped him. Manannán spoke up for himself and as boldly as you like, says, “I can leave as easily as I came in and none shall stop me.” It was a bit of a challenge he was throwing down, just to see what O’Donnell would do.
Just at that moment the musicians started to play and the clown covered his ears and shouted above them, “By my word, O’Donnell, that music is worse than the noise of hammers beating on iron. T’would deafen ye. Would ye stop your people making that racket!”
And with that he took a harp from one of the musicians and began to play on it and right away there was total silence in the banqueting hall for there never was the likes of that music heard in all of the land. It could have put a woman in labour or wounded men in battle to sleep.
O’Donnell had a smile as wide as the ocean on his face, “I have never heard better music than your own. It is a sweet player you are.”
“Oh,” answered the clown, “one day I’m sweet and another day I’m sour.”
“Come sit at my table,” says O’Donnell, and let me give you more fancy clothes.” But the clown would have none of it. So, afraid that he might leave, the O’Donnell put twenty men to hold him and even more outside the gate and that brought the fiercest anger on the clown.
“Begod,” he said, “T’is not with you I’ll be eating my supper tonight and if I find you giving one stir out of yourself or your big castle between this and morning I will knock you into a round lump on the ground.”
With that he took up the harp again and played music even more sweet and when the whole gathering were listening he called out,” Here I’m coming, watch me well now or you will lose me.”
Sure they didn’t know that the clown was Manannán and he swung his invisible cloak around him and disappeared. Now the men were all watching the gate with their axes lifted up to stop him leaving but Manannán nipped each one and they swung around, thinking they were going to hit the clown, but instead they struck each other until they were all lying drenched in blood on the ground.
When they were all lying dead, the clown took the gatekeeper to one side and whispered, “Let you ask twenty cows and a hundred of the free lands of O’Donnell as a fee for bringing his people back to life. Take this herb and rub it in the mouth of each man and he will rise up whole and well again.”
You might well ask why Manannán was so good to the gatekeeper. Sure didn’t he have a bit of sport and play with the mother before the child came into the world at all and who is to say that he might even be the Gatekeeper’s father. Anyway, that is how the gatekeeper got the cows and land from O’Donnell and the men were grateful to be back in the land of the living again.
That was the sort of thing Manannán did for fun and he was known to say that a life without humour is like a tree without leaves or a spring without water.
Manannán was always up to something when he wasn’t chasing the women for as you’ve probably gathered, he was a wild man with the ladies and always had a great liking for them,but not everything went his way for he never got the woman that he coveted above all others -the Princess Túaige.
It might surprise you to know that Manannán had a wife by the name of Fand and she was a goddess in her own right but sure they had an argument and three demons attacked her kingdom. And t’is here that the brave Cúchulainn enters the picture for sure didn’t he take Fand as his mistress and him had a wife of his own!
Now when Cúchulainn’s wife Emer heard this didn’t she come after him and Fand was looking for a way to escape Emer when she saw her own husband Manannán appearing in a ‘magic mist’ and she cleared away off back with him. Begod, it came as a great surprise that he took he back for he wasn’t known to be a forgiving god. But then, wasn’t she a bit of a poet and used it as a bit of flattery:
When Manannán the great married me
I was a wife worthy of him.
A wristband of doubly tested gold
He gave me as the price of my blushes…
So just in case Cúchulainn would follow her didn’t Manannán shake his cloak of invisibility between her and him so they might never meet again in time. And what did poor Cúchulainn do but take a draught of forgetfulness to ease his heartache at losing Fand.
It’s a pity when they were burying Manannán that they didn’t bury him horizontal for if you were a God, being buried upright meant that you could face and vanquish your enemies. Maybe that’s why the Tonn Banks are so beset by angry waves that they form one part of a triad known as “The Three Waves of Erin”. Many shipwrecks have occurred there and the spirit of Manannán still rides on the storm wearing his invisible cloak. I haven’t seen him myself but sure you wouldn’t catch me on a boat anywhere near the Tonns.