Celtic Sea Gods

Celtic Sea  GodsThe power of the sea to stimulate the creative imagination has many facets; it was seen as part of an otherworld peopled by gods, monsters and manystrange creatures. For the ancient Irish, Manannán Mac Lir dominated the mythological seascape to the extent that he can be considered to be the Irish Neptune or Poseidon,and he has strong associations with the north coast.

Tradition holds that he was born on the Tunns, the prominent sand bank immediately north of Magilligan, and that his otherworld residence was located under the waves of Lough Foyle. His name is, of course, perpetuated most famously in the Isle of Man, but also in the isolated rock of Carrickmannon, approximately 1 km offshore to the north east of Kinbane Head. At high tide this rock is submerged, while at low tide the breaking waves accentuate its visibility. For mariners in the past Carrickmannon was considered a dangerous hazard,as it was believed to possess powers of enchantment to lure vessels to destruction.

Stories and traditions of Manannán Mac Lir also link him with the Bann estuary, which, in early sources, was called Túag Inber. The name was derived from a beautiful maiden named Túag with whom Manannan fell in love and determined to make his bride. Manannán dispatched his druid to Tara, where Túag lived, with the purpose of luring her to Lough Foyle. The druid used magical means to cause Túag to fall into a deep  slumber, and brought her north to the Bann estuary.

He laid her sleeping body on the shore while he went off to find a boat to transport her to Manannán’s underwater abode in the sea nearby. Tragically, however, while he was gone the tide came in and drowned the sleeping girl. From this time on the Bann estuary was called Túag Inber in her memory.Furthermore, the waves which drowned her were henceforth called Tonn Tuaige (Túag’s Wave). These waves, which break over the Tunns, were one of the three magical waves of Ireland, the other two being those of Tonn Rudraige (Rudraige’s Wave)(Dundrum Bay, County Down) and Tonn Chlíodhna (Cliodhna’s Wave) in Glandore harbour in County Cork. Their roar was believed to portend events of great significance, like the death of a high king or some great calamity.

There is a reference in the early literature to Aenach Tuaigh, a great fair or assembly, which was held periodically somewhere in the Bann estuary, and it was obviously also named after Manannán’s beloved. In ancient Ireland these large gatherings were of great importance in the political, social and economic life of the times, and games were held there, trade carried out and political questions between tribes and territories settled.

It is tempting to suggest that Aenach Tuaigh may have taken place on Portstewart Strand. Possibly connected with Manannán is the 1st AD gold hoard discovered in Broighter townland, north of Limavady, in 1896. The find spot was located on reclaimed land which was formerly part of the foreshore of Lough Foyle and may have been deposited as a votive offering to the sea-god. The most exciting part of the hoard was a miniature gold sailing boat complete with mast, yard-arm, thwarts and oars. Manannán’s father, Lir, also has links with the north coast through the association of his children with the sea of Moyle.

The very popular late medieval tale of The Children of Lir concerns the four offspring of Lir who were turned into swans by their wicked stepmother and compelled to spend 900 hundred years in exile in that form. The first 300 years were spent on Lough Derravaragh in County Westmeath, the next 300 on the sea of Moyle, between Antrim and Scotland, and the last in the Atlantic off Erris, County Mayo. The Children of Lir are commemorated in Ballycastle’s
Four Swans Festival, held in May each year and now in its fifth year.