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.

Manannan 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’.


Aonbharr

Aonbharr


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.


Mermaid

Mermaid


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.


31 Comments on “Manannán’s Land Irish Myths of the Sea

  1. Love this, mostly because I have some mermaid/siren like creatures in my book. I also LOVE the name Merrow. I had a character called that and the wife made me axe it! tut.

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  2. I love this post, not only for the great photos ~ but for you showing your history and love of the sea (and of course the Irish myths that go along with the sea). There is not a great peace I feel when I am next to (or on) the sea.

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    • I have a healthy respect for the sea and everything in it, tempered with an edge of fear. I prefer to keep my feet firmly on land, but can still appreciate its beauty and power. Although I don’t mind a quick dip now and again, or a short boat trip within sight of the shore. 😁 The sea was FREEZING that day, and it was only a couple of weeks ago… looks like a beautiful hot sunny lagoon, doesn’t it? That’s Ireland for you, a wonderful mix of contrasts. As for the photos, they’re just snaps taken on my phone, and I feel embarrassed that someone as skilled as yourself should see them, but fortunately, the content is so breath taking, I just about get away with it. 😁

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  3. I`m from a small island in Orkney called Rousay and my Mam was from Dublin. The legends of the selkies is what I grew up with and I write about them, changing little details such as my selkies once ruled this earth until they were banished to another world called Fomor. They are shapeshifters but prefer the selkie form for they all love the sea and consider her their mother. My Granny came from Connemara so I learned a lot of Irelands myths and legends at her knee. I was blessed having the best of both worlds.

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  4. Hi Ali, apologies for kind of disappearing! No, I didn’t lose my way in the otherworld or get taken off somewhere, lol. Just off in an employment immersion program where I was unequivocally immersed, and after three weeks of that started applying for a job. Keep me in your thoughts!
    I missed reading your posts! I had no idea that mermaids were a part of Irish mythology. I’m glad of that though, I always hoped they were and even tried looking it up once. I still adore selkie stories the most. 🙂
    Thanks for sharing all these stories, I hadn’t heard most of them. I imagine your pictures are just stunning.
    How are you? How is Carys? It’s been long, too long. Okay off to catch up on all your posts. 🙂

    Ailbhe says hello. She might have had other things to say too but I’m too tired at the moment to translate so I’ll share you that for now. 🙂

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  5. Beautiful post, as always, Ali! Especially coupled with your pictures of the sea. These are wonderful myths! BTW, I loved the Secret of Roan Innish and have seen it twice.

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  6. Not a lot of happy endings in these stories. The guy caught three leprechauns and only got one wish, what a ripoff. I know they were spelled differently, but that’s how I related them.

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  7. Being from Galway, I’ve always had a fascination for the sea. There’s something about beaches and the way they’re a boundary between two different worlds. The sea itself is so beautiful but also so deadly.

    I’m also reminded of W.B. Yeats’ poem, The Mermaid:
    A mermaid found a swimming lad,
    Picked him for her own,
    Pressed her body to his body,
    Laughed; and plunging down
    Forgot in cruel happiness
    That even lovers drown.

    Have you seen the animated film Song of the Sea, which is about selkies? The animation and music are truly beautiful, and the young voice actors are amazing. Watch it if you can!

    Liked by 2 people

    • 😰No I havent seen it yet, and I meant to include it in my little list of selkie movies! Love that little mermaid poem, btw. I had some great pictures of Galway and Connemara beaches on my old phone, which were lost, sadly. Yes the shore is certainly a boundary between worlds, a liminal or thin place where magic can happen. Thanks Fiona! 😊

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  8. A great post to kick start my Monday Ali. I love mythology (or ancient truth depending on your point of view) . Ireland seems to have a vast catalogue of Gods, demons,powerful and beautiful rulers imbued with magic powers unrivalled by any other Country.
    xxx Massive Hugs to a great Storyteller.xxx

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks David. Although I would say your own country has more than enough of its own to run away with the competition. Id love to hear some of it, hint hint nudge nudge! Someone needs to tell it, and if you love myths, why not you? Hope all is well with you, David! Huge hugs back at ya!

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