manannán’s land: irish myths of the sea
Updated: Jul 4
Until I moved to Cavan eight years ago, I had always lived within sight or sound of the sea. Every summer I head down to Co Kerry for a few days with friends and the boys. There, we are surrounded by sea, and mountains. I love wide open spaces. Both the sea and the high places provide that.
Being a small island, peoples lives have been dominated by the sea. In mythology, the Danann, the Milesians, and various other races came to Ireland from the sea. According to legend, Ireland had two sea deities: Lir, and Manannán mac Lir, which means ‘son of Lir’, or ‘son of the sea’.
Little is known about Lir; there is a Lir who was father to the four children turned into swans by their jealous stepmother, but it is by no means certain that he is one and the same with the sea-god of the same name.
Even Manannán’s identity is uncertain, although he features far more in the stories and legends. According to the Yellow Book of Lecan (c. 1400 AD), there were four Manannáns: Manandán mac Alloit, a ‘druid of the Tuatha dé Danann’ whose ‘proper name was Oirbsen’; Manandán mac Lir, a renowned sailor and merchant; Manandán mac Cirp, king of the Isles and Mann; and Manandán mac Atgnai, who took in the sons of Uisnech.
Confused? Me too.
Manannán was guardian of the Otherworld. To get there, one had to sail west beyond the ninth wave. This was an island realm consisting of many different islets. It was sometimes known as the ‘Land under Sea’, although it is never specifically described as such. However, it could also be approached through water. It is unclear if this is the same land known as Tir na Nog, ‘Land of the Ever Young’.
His magical possessions included Aonbharr of the Flowing Mane, a beautiful white horse that could travel over water as easily as land. Note that he was not winged, like Pegasus. He also had a boat named Wavesweeper; it had no sails or oars, but was directed by the thoughts of its occupants. He also he owned a cloak of mists that granted him invisibility, a flaming helmet, and a sword named Fragarach (meaning Answerer/ Retaliator) that could slice through any armour and when pointed at a target could make that target answer any question truthfully.
Although these items were precious, Manannán would sometimes loan them out, particularly to Lugh, who was said to have been his foster son, and whom benefited from the the boat, the sword and Aonbharr.
Of course Manannán and Lir weren’t the only deities associated with the sea: Cliodhna was his daughter, who left her father’s realm to be with her mortal lover, Ciabhán. She is lulled into an enchanted sleep upon the shore of Glandore harbour in Co Cork by the music of Fer I, Manannán’s harper, while her lover is off hunting. Her father sends a wave to bring her back home, but instead she is drowned. The tide there is still known as Tonn Chlíodhna, meaning ‘Clíodhna’s Wave’.
According to legend, the sea was inhabited by many strange and mystical creatures, including the Merrows. These were Ireland’s mer-people. The word ‘merrow’ comes from the Irish murúch, which is said to mean ‘sea singer’. They were a bit scary; as you can probably guess, they would lure sailors to their deaths by singing beautiful songs, then drown and devour them.
Like all mermaids, she was half human, half fish, very beautiful, with pale skin and webbing between her fingers. She was said to be gentle and benevolent (huh?). Sometimes, a mermaid would fall in love with a human, and leave the sea to be with him, but she would always long to return. In order to prevent this, her human husband would have to hide her cohuleen druith, a little magic hat. If she found it, she would be off like a shot, never to be seen again.
Lí Ban was a woman who was turned into a mermaid when a spring burst under her house to form Lough Neagh, named after her father, Eochaid mac Mairidh, who was drowned. Li Ban survived in an underwater chamber in the lake for one year, after which she shape-shifted into a mermaid form, half human and half salmon. After 300 years, she was captured by a monk who was in a boat fishing, and she agreed to come ashore. She was then baptised Muirgen, meaning sea-born’, but died immediately and ascended to heaven. This story is recorded in two ancient manuscripts, he Four Masters in an entry under year 558, and the Annals of Ulster in the year 571. So I guess it must be true! 😂
A legend made popular in recent years by movies such as Ondine and The Secret of Roan Inish is that of the Selkie, or Roanes/ Rón in Irish. By day, Selkies swim the seas as seals, but during the dark of night, they shed their skins and hide them carefully on the shore. Their human form is beautiful with dark hair and eyes and a creamy white skin. Humans are instantly enamoured of them and try to win their love. As with the Merrows and their little caps, however, the only way a human can keep a Selkie is to find their skin and hide it. A Selkie that is thus trapped on land will always long for the sea.
Of them all, though, my favourite sea legend is the story of Fergus and the fearful sea-dragon, Muirdris. Fergus mac Leti was a King of Ulster who fell asleep one day on the beach. Not a very safe thing to do in Irish mythology. Anyway, three little sprites called lúchorpáin (meaning ‘little bodies’) came up out of the water and tried to steal him away.
The coldness of the sea awoke him, and he lunged at the creatures, catching one in each hand and crushing the third to his chest. They promised to grant him one wish if he let them go, to which he agreed, and asked for the power to be able to swim deep under water without having to surface for air. They gave him magical herbs with which to plug his ears, but warned him not to swim under Lough Rudraige (Dundrum Bay).
Being a King, Fergus was used to doing as he liked, so of course he disregarded their advice, and encountered a massive, fearsome sea-serpent called Muirdris. His terror caused a facial disfigurement, which his people kept secret from him, as a king must be whole and perfectly formed.
One day, seven years later, a spiteful servant girl revealed the truth after he beat her unfairly. Shocked, Fergus decided to confront Muirdris once again. They battled for a night and a day, the sea turning red with blood about them, but Fergus emerged onto the shore victorious, bearing the great brute’s head. Fergus’s good looks were restored, but he immediately collapsed and dropped dead from his efforts. No happy ever after for him, then. Sigh.
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