Note: This story is a transparent piece of propaganda written to encourage pagans to convert to Christianity. At the same time, the tale levels a number of criticisms at the new religion, mocking philosophies such as turning the other cheek. Indeed, in the end the hero uses magic to kill his enemy, hardly in line with the teachings of the bible. Acidic toward Paganism and other times sympathetic, there are more than one interesting issues in this tale that make it worth reading.
Island of the Ocean God
Mac Cuill, which mean “son of the hazel”, was, in fact, the son of the great god of eloquence and literacy, Ogma. He had so named his son, for the hazel is a mystical tree, and Ogma used it to signify the third letter of the alphabet which he had devised. And indeed, Mac Cuill was the third son of Ogma, for his brothers were Mac Gréine, “son of the sun”, and Mac Cécht, “son of the plough”. The three brothers were married to three sisters; Mac Gréine was married to the goddess Éire, while Mac Cécht was married to her sister Fótla, and Mac Cuill was married to the youngest sister, named Banba.
There came a time when the gods themselves fell from grace, when the sons of Mil conquered them. And it was said that Mac Gréine was slain by the great Druid Amairgen; that Mac Cécht met his end from the sword of Eremon; and that Mac Cuill was slain by the spear of Eber.
And when the gods were defeated by the sons of Mil, the wives of Mac Gréine, Mac Cécht and Mac Cuill – Éire, Fótla and Banba – went to greet the conquerors of the land of Inisfail, the island of Destiny.
“Welcome, warriors,” cried Éire. “To you who have come from afar, this island shall henceforth belong, and from the setting to the rising sun the is no better land. And your race will be the most perfect the world has ever seen.”
Amairgen the Druid asked her what she wanted in reward for this blessing.
“That you name this country after me,” replied Éire. But her sisters chimed in that the country should be named after them. So Amairgen promised the Éire would be the principal name for the country, while the poets of Mil would also hail the land by the names of Fótla and Banba, So it has been until this day.
Now the sons of Ogma were gods, and therefore “The Ever-Living Ones”. They could not die completely and so their souls were passed on through the aeons. And in the rebirths of Mac Cuill, he began to lament the lost days of powers, of the days he had been happy with Banba. He grew bitter and resentful with each rebirth until he was reborn as a petty thief in the kingdom of Ulaidh, which is one of the five provincial kingdoms of Éire. Each province was called cúige or a fifth, and the five made up the whole, and the whole, one and indivisible, was governed by the Ard-Righ, or High King. There was no better thief in all Ulaidh than Mac Cuill, and he became the terror of the land. His deeds came to the ears of the High King himself and he sent his personal Brehon, or judge, named Dubhtach, to the provincial king of Ulaidh, saying: “Mac Cuill must be captured and punished.”
Eventually, Mac Cuill the thief was caught, and he was taken before the High King’s Brehon. And there was a tall, white-haired man standing by the Brehon’s side. They called him by the name of an ancient god of war, which is Sucat.
“Why should we not kill you for your evil life, Mac Cuill?” demanded Dubhtach the Brehon.
Now Mac Cuill was full of guile and he smiled.
“Kill me now, Brehon. I have reached my last rebirth on this earth. I cannot descend lower than a thief. I will have been wiped from the Brandubh board of this world.”
Brandubh, which means “black raven”, was a wooden board game, which many compare to the eastern game of chess.
“Yet,” he added with evasive craft, “kill me now and there will be no hope of redemption, no hope of reparation for my sins. Spare me and perhaps there is still some goodness in my soul, whereby I might change my life for the better.”
Now Mac Cuill spoke with irony, in mocking tones, but his words held some truth. The Brehon pondered and could reach no decision. Finally, it was Sucat who said: “The decision is not for us to make, for man is often flawed in his perceptions of his fellows. What is justice for one is injustice for another. So let us leave it to the Creator to decide. You will have the judgment of the sea.”
Now the judgment of the sea can be a terrifying thing. But Mac Cuill, who had lived many lifetimes, was not afraid. And Sucat had the wrists of Mac Cuill bound in a chain of iron, which he fastened by a padlock with his own hand. And he flung the key into the waves of the sea, saying: “Loose not that chain until the key be found and brought to you.” The Brehon then had Mac Cuill taken to a boat, which is called a curragh. The boat was without oars and without a sail, and no food or drink was placed in it. This boat, containing Mac Cuill, was rowed several miles from the coast of Ulaidh and cast adrift. The fate of Mac Cuill was left to whichever way the winds and tides too him.
Now of all the ancient gods, one of the last to live upon the Earth with their ancient powers was Manannán Mac Lir, the tempestuous god of the oceans, who, with his angry breath, could raise large white-crested waves that could wreck entire fleets of ships. At the time of the fall of the gods, Manannán Mac Lir had retired to his favourite island, called Inis Falga, which lay between Inisfail and the Isle of the Mighty. Eventually, that island became called after the great Manannán and every Manxman is called, in his own tongue, Maninagh.
Now Manannán, seeing the plight of Mac Cuill, reborn in a weak human body, was moved to compassion. He remembered the ancient times when he and Mac Cuill and the other Children of Danu had fought the evil Fomorii on the Plain of the Towers to claim the Island of Destiny. So Manannán breathed gently on the ship and sent a current which turned is bows towards his own mist-shrouded island of Inis Falga.
But even Manannán’s breath could not break the lock of the chain which bound Mac Cuill’s wrists.
After several days, the little boat, without oars or sails, and with Mac Cuill more dead than alive, bumped against a rocky shore.
Now on the island there were living two wise men named Conindri and Romuil. Both had heard the word of the Son of God, and preached the new religion of love and forgiveness. They saw the half-dead Mac Cuill and realized that his crimes must be great for him to have been cast into the sea in such a fashion. Yet they took his from the boat and laid him in their own beds and nursed him until he recovered his wit and strength.
As Mac Cuill was recovering, Conindri and Romuil spoke to him of the Creator and His Son and the new religion of love and brotherhood. And as they spoke, they did their best to unfasten the chain about Mac Cuill’s wrists. But they could not do so, no matter how hard they tried.
Mac Cuill laughed. “In a previous life, I was a god. As I was once, so will your new God and His Son become – cast out and forgotten when they no longer serve the needs of the people.”
“You are so proud, Mac Cuill. Our Lord taught: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ ”
Mac Cuill laughed again. “If poverty in spirit is a virtue, then it does a man little good. When men are poor in spirit, then the proud and haughty oppress them. When I was a god, men were true and determined in spirit and resisted oppression.”
“But to him that smiteth thee on the one cheek, offer also the other.”
Mac Cuill sneered. “He who courts oppression shares the crime. If that is the teaching, then you are inviting further injury at the hand of the oppressor and thief.”
“Him that taketh away thy cloak, forbid not to take thy coat also. Give to every man that asketh of thee…Blessed be the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Mac Cuill chuckled deeply, shaking his head. “Now this new religion is ideal for a thief such as me. It tells people to accept with good grace when I rob them, The poor in spirit will not fight me. This is a good land and here I will prosper as a thief, is all believe as you do. I will set forth to find a smithy to break my chains asunder.”
Mac Cuill set out and walked along the sea-shore, leaving the wise good men, Conindri and Romuil, in sorrow behind him.
As he walked on the foreshore, he heard a gentle singing and around a headland of rocks he came across a beautiful woman. The spot was called Langness in the parish of Kirk Malew. The girl sang sweetly.
Come to our rich and starry caves
Mac Cuill stopped and gazed upon the beautiful sad face. It reminded him of the one whom he had loved so long ago – the face of his wife in a former life – of Banba.
“Who are you, young maiden?” he demanded."
The young girl started and looked upon Mac Cuill and her eyes lit up in a smile of happiness. “I am for you, son of the hazel,” she said.
“That cannot be. Nothing is for me unless I steal it. I am a thief and will take what I want.”
“I am Blaanid,” went on the girl and, reaching down beside the rock on which she sat, she drew forth a basket filled with coral and precious stones and other fabulous metal garnered from the ocean bed. “You may have these, for we are all thieves now.”
“I will not accept that which is given when it is my place to take,” cried Mac Cuill in disgust. “But if you can break the chains on my wrists, I will accept your gifts.”
Suddenly, Blaanid threw her arms around Mac Cuill and so surprised was he, and so great her strength, that she dragged him to the edge of the sea and plunged in. Though he struggled, she drew him downwards to the dwellings of the merfolk that lived beneath the waves. And Blaanid took Mac Cuill to a beautiful city under the sea.
It was a place of many towers and gilded minarets and stood in all magnificence. It was deep down, beyond the region of the fishes, where there was air which was strangely clear and the atmosphere serene. The streets were paved in coral and a shining kind of pebble which glittered like the sunbeams reflecting on glass. Streets and squares were on every side. Buildings were embossed with mother-of-pearl and shells of numerous colours and there were flashing crystals to decorate their walls.
But around the circle perimeter were countless wrecks of ships. Fearful wrecks, strewn on the slimy bottom, yet the city was protected from the, And among the wrecks, Mac Cuill saw the decomposing bodies of men, women and children. There were countless eyeless skeletons, all scattered and on which the fishes gnawed. And from the dead people’s skull, which worms and fish inhabited, there arose a fearful wailing sound. The noise was so penetrating that Mac Cuill had to stop his ears.
“What manner of place is this?” he gasped.
Blaanid smiled and pointed. He could see people moving through the streets. He gasped, for he recognized his brothers and the other Children of Danu.
“This is our home now, and this could be your home. For you wish to exist by what you steal. The gods and goddesses are only left with theft in this new world. We have built our city from the ships that we entice to our mist-shrouded island and wreck upon the rocks above. Each ship comes tumbling though the seas to our city and we may take from them great heaps of pearl, wedges of gold, inestimable stones, unvalued jewels … thus our city prospers.”
Mac Cuill swallowed hard. “And the souls of the dead sailors? Look at the bodies of the dead, of the drowned woman and the children! Do you not hear their cries?”
“They are but poor in spirit,” Blaanid said. “We grow accustomed to their wailing and take what we must.”
Mac Cuill grew sick in his soul. He stared into the face of Blaanid and he saw in it the face of Banba. “Is this what we are reduced to?” he whispered.
Where once the Children of Danu had bestrode the earth in goodness and strength of spirit, Mac Cuill realised they had descended to thieves who preyed on the spiritual tragedy of others.
“This is but a shadow-show of the choice you can make,” replied Blaanid.
“If there are choices still, then I shall choose to be released from my purgatory,” cried Mac Cuill. And he held out his chained wrists.
“Alas, wealth and prosperity can be yours, but we cannot unchain your wrists,” replied Blaanid. “You may remain in the realm of the Ocean God as you are, or you may be reborn in the new religion and release your soul from its eternal bitterness. Here we have only illusions of the past.”
With that, he found himself back on the headland of Langness in Kirk Malew.
He found himself staring at the grey seas and thought that he heard a whispering sound.
Come to our rich and starry caves
Slowly he retraced his footsteps to where he had left Conindri and Romuil. They were standing as he had left them, for in earthly time he had not been long gone from their sight.
They smiled joyfully at his return.
“Tell me more about your God and his Son.”
And so they taught him. And he came to believe with a passion and they called him Maccaldus, for that was the form of his name in the language of the new religion. So Maccaldus, who had been the foremost thief of Ulaidh, felt repentance for his past lives and Conindri and Romuil took him to a stream and poured water over his head and confirmed him in the new religion.
That evening, Conindri was cooking a fish that he had caught and he brought it to the table to divide between the three of them. As he cut open the fish, they saw a key in its belly and Mac Cuill recognised it as the same one with which Sucat had locked the chains about his wrist. When he told Conindri and Romuil, they were astounded.
“Sucat Mac Calphurn is the foremost preacher of our faith, which is why we call him Patricus – father of citizens.”j
Conindri immediately unlocked the chains and they fell at Mac Cuill’s feet.
The very next day, Mac Cuill went out into the island of Inis Falga and began to preach the new religion. And he went up to the Lonan stone circle, near Baldrine, where he found the Druids, set in the ancient ways, about to sacrifice a human child. A stone alter had been heated by fire and it was proposed to throw the child upon it. As the child was being flung forward, Mac Cuill threw a phial of water that had been blessed by the saints and it landed on the stone before the child and split asunder. And the child was not harmed.
Straightaway the Druids fled, but Mac Cuill called them back and he also called before him the King of Inis Falga and told them henceforth to worship in the new religion.
One chieftain refused, and this was GilColumb, whose name meant “servant of the dove”. But he was named with irony, for he was no follower of the peaceful path. And this GilColumb and his three sons desired to kill Mac Cuill, and one night they slunk stealthily to the church which Mac Cuill had built. Mac Cuill and his followers, hearing that his enemies were approaching, guided his people into the subterranean caverns beneath his church.
With loud shrieks, GilColumb and his three sons, and his followers, burst into the church.
“Where are you departed?” yelled GilColumb in anger, finding no one there.
And Mac Cuill appeared before him with his pastoral staff. GilColumb’s followers stepped back in awe.
“What have you against me, GilColumb?” Why have I offended you, that you should attack my sanctuary with slaughter in mind?”
“Are you Mac Cuill, the former thief?” sneered GilColumb, braver than his band of men.
“I am Maccaldus, the bishop of this land,” replied Mac Cuill solemnly. “I am the servant of Christ.”
GilColumb laughed and raised his sword to smite him.
Mac Cuill, however, leant forward and tapped GilColumb over the heart with his pastoral staff. The impious chieftain uttered an horrendous shriek and then his tongue clove to his mouth. After six hours, GilColumb died in agony and all those who lived on Inis Falga realised that Mac Cuill was the one chose to bring them to the new religion.
Therefore, one evening, Manannán Mac Lir himself appeared before Mac Cuill on the foreshore.
“So it has come to this,” the old god said. “We who were young together on the Isle of Destiny are gods no longer. Bitterness and rebirth have brought you to the human state, where you now preach a new philosophy. Our journeys through life no longer converge nor even go in parallel direction. The people no longer need the gods of their forefathers and mothers.”
Mac Cuill was sad. “There is no returning. This is the destiny of the world. No footsteps back.”
Manannán shook his head. “Perhaps I could have prevented this, had I not blown you to this island, which was my last refuge.”
“But that was written in the book of destiny, Manannán son of Lir. Even before Danu, the divine waters, first moistened this earth.”
“People no longer believe in me and so I am reduced to a shadow and like a shadow I will be extinguished in the light of the new learning.”
“Your spirit shall abide among the grey seas and the misty mountains of this island, so long as one person remembers you,” replied Mac Cuill.
“One person?” mused the ocean god. “Where would I find that one?”
“I shall remember you,” replied Mac Cuill softly.
Henceforth, Inis Falga was known as Ellan Vannin, the Island of Manannán Mac Lir, which today is still known by the shortened version of the Isle of Man. Mac Cuill himself was known first as Maccaldus and then as Maughold and it is as St Maughold that he is still venerated in the Island of the Ocean God.