The Celtic god returned to his rightful place on Causeway coast
On a trip along the West Coast of Ireland last year for his new travel book on the Wild Atlantic Way, Paul Clements became fascinated by the sea-god Manannan mac Lir. On his journey, he discovered many twists in the story of one of Ireland's most captivating mythological figures
In terms of news stories last year, the theft of a statue of the Celtic seagod ranks as one of the most bizarre. Towards the end of January, a gang vandalised the tall steel and fibreglass statue of Manannan mac Lir. It had been erected near Binevenagh mountain overlooking Lough Foyle as part of a myths and legends sculpture trail.
Mystery surrounded its disappearance, but it was believed to have been linked to Christian fundamentalists offended by Celtic idolatry. Those who carried it out used an angle grinder to cut it off from a small boat, leaving behind a wooden cross carved with the words "You shall have no other gods before me".
Manannan was depicted with a belted dress and long robe, while by his side, his sword, or fragarach, could, it is said, cut through any armour. At sea, his horse, Enbarr of the Flowing Mane, which pulled his Wavesweeper chariot, galloped over water as though it were solid land.
As a divine lord of the Tuatha De Danann (a supernatural race who colonised Ireland and lived in the Otherworld) Manannan was affiliated with Tir na nOg (the Land of Youth, or the Ever-Young) and was a fearsome figure who borrowed iconography from Neptune.
In Lough Foyle, local people believe his spirit is released during fierce storms and some are still heard to remark "Manannan is angry today". He is said to inhabit the offshore sandbanks between Inishtrahull Sound and the Magilligan waters.
For my meandering journey along the Wild Atlantic Way, Manannan became an emblematic figure. As I made my way by car, bike and ferry, on foot and on horseback, his presence was a presiding spirit.
All along the West Coast, connections cropped up as developments in the story of the disappearance of the statue unfolded in tandem with my trip. These included a large-scale search for him, a PSNI appeal, tongues firmly in cheek, for information on a missing "person", a reward for his safe return and his very own Facebook page: Bring back Manannan mac Lir.
More than a month after being stolen, he was found by a group of walkers, the Bannside Ramblers, unceremoniously dumped in a forest, hardly a comfortable love bed for a powerful sea-god.
Further south along the Way, Manannan is linked to the Children of Lir and Inishglora, an uninhabited island off the Mayo coast. He was a half-brother to the children who were magically turned into swans for 900 years and, according to legend, the island was their final resting-place, where they spent 300 years. Four holes of Carne Golf Club on the Mullet peninsula are named Conn, Fiachra, Aodh and Fionnuala in their honour.
At nearby Benwee Head, a Children of Lir loop walk has been created, while the Clann Lir bar in Belmullet celebrates the family name. In the same county, a few miles inland at Castlebar, a bronze stylised statue depicts Manannan pulled by two horses. It stands on the Mall and is dedicated to Ernie O'Malley, who was born in the town and was the author of several books about his role in the Irish War of Independence and the Civil War.
The neighbouring desolate and raw Connemara landscape, where the tide creeps in over seaweedy black rocks, is one of the places, par excellence, to listen to the booming breakers and absorb the tingling fresh air that has crossed 5,000km of ocean.
Here the 'Kingdom of Manannan' recalls his association with the area. Historians believe that Mannin Bay takes its name from him and he is thought to be an ancestor of the Conmhaicne Mara, the people for whom Connemara is named.
On stormy days, the thick foamy waves known as his seahorses, caiple Mhanannain, can be seen. Local folklore says that one day Manannan's daughter was caught in a storm while boating in Kilkieran Bay in south-west Connemara. When he saw the danger she was in, he conjured up a small rock to rescue her. That rock, which measures just 21 by 15 metres, is known as Mann Island, or Oilean Mana. As a multi-purpose, shape-shifting god, Manannan was both trickster and magician. When he wasn't using magical powers to produce rocks, he was a philanderer and cunning opportunist, who moved by the heavens dominating the action. Legend has it that his crane bag contained the treasures of the Tuatha De Danann. These included knives, shields, shears and even bones; whoever has these is said to be safe from his enemies.
It is believed that the treasures can be seen in the sea, but at ebb tide they vanish. The bag also holds the source of inspiration for all the poets of the land - these days perhaps 50,000-strong.
The Burren in Co Clare throws up connections to him through a link with Slieve Elva, site of the legendary battles of Cormac mac Airt. In the best-known story, The Adventure of Cormac, the young king accepts a magical sleep-inducing bough from a mysterious warrior, later revealed to be Manannan. In return for this, he makes demands on Cormac, including the surrender of his wife, which the king cannot accept.
Cormac pursues the warrior and finds himself in a castle where Manannan presents him with a golden cup that can be split apart with lies and put together again only with truths.
Deeper in southwest Munster, if you follow the road that curls around Ballycrovane harbour to a remote headland at Kilcatherine Point on the northern side of the Beara peninsula, you will come upon the Hag of Beara, the Cailleach Bheara. A wise woman and influential fertility goddess, she stands on a commanding position with an unimpeded view of the wide arc of Coulagh Bay.
She has metamorphosed from a human figure to flaky conglomerate erratic, blotched with lichen and furred with moss.
The Hag has, in recent years, become a shrine, decorated with offerings, ranging from money to jewellery. She is surrounded by a mosaic of wild flowers such as bog asphodel, thyme, hawkweed and wild angelica.
From her commanding position, she is waiting for her consort Manannan to return. But in her case, it was not just Manannan, but many other gods and demigods that she had as a lover. She is said to have had seven lifetimes and is reputed to have had 55 children on Beara alone by all the various gods and warriors. Catch the right day and this dazzling area of west Cork, with its shape-shifting light, wide skies and seascapes in harmony, will live long in your memory. It is the final section of the Way and somewhere to reflect on the yarn spinning of mythology, folklore and legend in which the west coast indulges through its seanchaí or storytellers.
A star of his day, Manannan has now been returned to his elevated position on the Causeway coast. A new statue was sculpted by the artist John Darren Sutton and the seagod is once more in the pantheon and public spotlight.
At the end of February, with little fanfare, he was quietly re-erected in the same position at Gortmore viewing point on the Bishop's Road near Binevenagh mountain. The statue, a replica of the original, has been strengthened to protect it from possible future attack.
Raised again to his new height, a reinforced Manannan stands proud overlooking Donegal and now comes with 21st-century cheerleaders.
The return of the seagod has been welcomed by many and he is seen as having a pulling power to attract tourists to the area. With his reinstatement, his place as a swashbuckling figure in Irish mythological circles is once again assured.
Wandering Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way: From Banba's Crown to World's End by Paul Clements is published by the Collins Press (www.collinspress.ie). Paul's 1991 hitchhiking trip along the coastline of Ireland is recounted in Irish Shores, A Journey Round the Rim of Ireland and to mark its 25th anniversary it has just been reprinted by Clachan Publishing (www.clachan-publishing.com)