Shaping the Shape-Shifter:
Cultural Revival, Spirituality & the Manx Manannan
Lecturer in Manx Studies, Centre for Manx Studies
Some years ago, the son of a friend of mine, aged around six, reached
the point where he needed to come to terms with concepts of heaven and
earth. After much time mulling it over, he announced that he had worked it
out. With a surety beyond his years, he declared to his strongly Methodist
grandparents that Jesus was for the English people and Manannan was for
the Manx. To complicate matters further, he thought the then Manx language
officer, Dr Brian Stowell, with his white beard and seeming omniscience,
to be an incarnation of Manannan himself!
The young boy's desire to make equivalent the concept of the Christian
god he knew from Sunday School with the god at the centre of stories and
songs told in his family home and at school is not altogether surprising.
For the Isle of Man has long been associated with Manannán-spelled and
pronounced without the fada in the Manx context-son of Lír, sea
god and ruler of the Otherworld and keeper of the magic tools of the
Tuatha dé Danann. Even today, when British monarchs visit the Island for
Tynwald Fair Day-the national holiday and open-air gathering of the Manx
Government held each year on held on 5 July-it is Manannan who is said to
wrap his cloak of mist around the Island to hide it from their view, to
complicate or prevent their travel. And he is not exclusively found within
the Gaelic continuum-his Welsh counterpart is Manawyddan fab Llyr.
This paper will look at the image of Manannan in Manx sources and will
briefly contextualise them in relation to the Irish canon. It will discuss
the development of Manannan as 'superhero' or champion for the Manx, as
well as patron for the arts. It will show how the Manannan 'brand' grew
during the 20th and 21st centuries through the working relationship of
cultural revivalist, Mona Douglas, and visual artist Eric Austwick. Their
work within the Ellynyn ny Gael (arts of the Gael) movement, which sought
to create new cultural expression and foster inter-Gaelic links, will
provide an important focus. Motives for the development and manipulation
of Manannan's image by those involved in cultural and national revival in
the Isle of Man will also be explored.
Modernists such as Benedict Anderson have argued that shared literature
is key to the development of national identity, to a collective
understanding and identification (Anderson 1991, 24-5). This is
particularly problematic for the Manx context, which tends to privilege
oral sources over written ones and which prompts Celticists such as
O'Rahilly to label Manx Gaelic somewhat unfairly as 'that Cinderella of
Gaelic tongues', as a language which 'deserved to die' (O'Rahilly 1932,
Preface). Because Manannan is not exclusive to Manx sources and because
surviving Manx literature only dates to the 16th century, it is necessary
to place the Manx situation within an Irish frame of reference before
moving to what are almost exclusively Manx sources in English dating to
the modern period.
In a journal such as this, it is necessary only to give a very brief
sketch of what is recorded of Manannan in Irish sources. The 1912
Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy include an article on
legendary islands which mentions Manannán:
To the early bards the waves were the white-maned horses,
the silver-horned stags, and the many-hued salmon of Manannan mac Lir, the
sea-god; they were, when calm, the flowery meads over which his chariot
sped with flashing, bounding coursers. Some, even in our time, saw them as
misty human forms-storm-spirits-before great gales (Westropp 1912,
Dáithí Ó hÓgáin's work (1990 & 1999) brings together many of the
theories of Manannán's emergence and development. Describing him as
'otherworld lord and mythical mariner' (1990, 286), he notes the
connections with Leinster lore, as well as with the notion of an
'otherworld island' (1999, 51).
More extensive, though, is Charles MacQuarrie's doctoral thesis for the
University of Washington: 'The Waves of Manannán: A Study of the Literary
Representations of Manannán mac Lir from Immram Brain (c.700) to Finnegans
Wake (1939)'. This study brings together for the first time all literary
sources mentioning Manannán from medieval Irish manuscripts to Anglo-Irish
texts up to 1939 in order to determine his attributes and to examine his
roles (MacQuarrie 1997, 3-4), in what he describes as a 'literary
"biography"' (MacQuarrie 1997, 13).
Manannan is important in the pantheon of Gaelic gods: he is the ruler
of the Blessed Isles of the Otherworld-the land of women, the land beneath
the wave, the land of promise and the land of youth, etc. In fact 'He
appears more often than almost any other character in Irish literature
except the heroes Finn and Cú Chulainn, and certainly more than any of the
(other) Irish Gods' (MacQuarrie 1997, 296). He is known as a god and as a
man; he is of this world and of the otherworld-an important characteristic
which will return in later discussions. He is a magician and a
shape-shifter; able to make one man appear as many; to travel over the sea
as others would over the land.
Within the Manx context, Manannan is located within the need for a
mythical origin (Hobsbawm and Ranger 2000). This is demonstrated clearly
in the work of Manx place-name scholars such as J J Kneen, an antiquarian
working on Manx Gaelic, place and personal names:
The late Prof. Rhys suggested that Mann may have taken its
name from Manannán, the Celtic Neptune, but it is much more
probable that Manannán took his name from the Island. The suffix
nán, conveyed the idea of 'littleness', which sometimes included
endearment; thus Manannán means 'little Manxman,' and in Manx
tradition he is called Manannán beg mac y lir, 'little Manannan
son of the sea,' showing that the idea of diminutiveness was associated
with him. (Kneen 1970, xxiv).
So Manannan becomes eponymous with Mannin, a factor which accounts for
the variation in spelling present within Manx sources. Those who choose
'Mann' over 'Man' will justify their choice by referring to 'Mannin', the
Manx Gaelic name for the island, or by claiming it to be an abbreviation
And place-name scholars are not alone. Folklorists, too, often start
their commentary with reference to Manannan Mac (y) Lir, the 'first ruler'
of Man (Moore 1891; Gill 1941). His presence is powerful enough for modern
symbols of national identity to be drawn under his cloak. Most notable of
these is the triskel or sunwheel at the centrepiece of the Manx flag,
often referred to as the 'three legs of Man', and described as
representing Manannan as he strides across the waves, or, according to
Manx legend, rolls down the hill, sometimes engulfed in flames, to warn
The Three Legs of Man
Not only does Manannan feature in visual symbols of Manx nationality,
he is fixed firmly to the page: the earliest datable text in Manx Gaelic
is the Manannan or Traditionary Ballad, which gives a
brief history of the Isle of Man. Recorded in two printed versions, 1778
(non-extant) and 1802, as well as in two manuscript versions from around
1770, the ballad offers an account of the history of the Island from the
earliest times through the introduction of Christianity to the arrival of
the Stanleys. It has been dated on internal evidence by R L Thomson to the
beginning of the 16th century, who argues that although the text mentions
1507, it actually refers to events in 1457. (Thomson, 1960-1; 1962).
The following version is taken from Harrison's Mona Miscellany
Little Manannan was son of Leirr,
He was the
first that ever had it;
It was not with his sword he kept it,
with arrows or bow;
But when he would see ships sailing,
cover it round with fog.
The rent each landholder paid to him was
bundle of coarse meadow grass yearly
Some would carry the grass up
To the great
mountain up at Barrool
It goes on to describe an idyllic existence-'without care and without
anxiety, / Or hard labour to cause weariness.' This idyll was devastated
by the arrival of St Patrick.
Then came Patrick into the midst of them;
a saint, and full of virtue;
He banished Mannanan on the wave,
his evil servants all dispersed.
So Manannan is firmly locked into the Manx psyche as the mythical
beginning to the Island, its first ruler, a noble and magical god. The
ballad explains how he was treated ruthlessly by Patrick, who showed
neither 'favour nor kindness', banishing all those associated with him.
Manannan's appearance at the beginning of the first text to survive in
Manx Gaelic is significant-in doing so, anchors the Manx language to the
page. This locates him within a complex system of values-he marks an
important starting point, the partial movement from oral to literary
culture, but he is also bound to the low status attached to Manx Gaelic
from outside the Island due to its very reliance on the oral tradition.
Manannan and Manx Gaelic become travelling companions.
One of the most accessible and readable collections of stories from the
oral tradition is Sophia Morrison's 1911 Manx Fairy Tales, which
gained popular appeal in its second edition in 1929 with illustrations by
Archibald Knox and which remains in print into the 21st century. It
collects together stories from at least four different male informants.
The stories are partly re-written in order to access the popular market
for 'fairylore' at the time-this is made explicit in the introduction.
In a collection of just over 50 stories, Manannan features in six. Just
as MacQuarrie notes for Irish texts (1997), Manannan's presence isn't
always made explicit-part of his continuing penchant for disguise,
perhaps. This is certainly true of Morrison's collection where it is
probable that he appears in the story 'The making of Man' as an
unnamed magician who raised a furious wind which tore pieces off the land
and cast them into the sea, becoming dangerous rocks (p.18). This story
mentions the underwater Ellan Sheeant (Manx Gaelic 'blessed island'), the
Isle of Peace, which is described as a paradise, and which is identified
as his place of retreat. He is named in the story 'The Coming of Saint
Patrick', transforming himself and his men into three-legged creatures,
whirling 'round like wheels before the swift wind which could not overtake
them' (p.22). Again, he retreats to Ellan Sheeant, the location of which
is given as fifteen miles south-west of the Calf of Man, the small island
to the south west of the Isle of Man.
'The Enchanted Isle' is the subject of its own short story, and a
version of the Traditionary Ballad is included, followed by a story
devoted to Manannan entirely, mentioning a prayer to him known by the
previous generation, which asks for his blessing on the fishing boats:
Manannan Beg Mac y Leirr-
Little Manannan Son of the
Who blessed our Island,
Bless us and our boat, going out
Coming in better, with living and dead in our boat. (Morrison
This song is still popular today in its Manx Gaelic version, especially
among children. The final line refers, of course, to the hope for plenty
of dead fish and a full and live crew. Within Morrison's collection,
Manannan receives his last mention in the story 'The Boyhood of Lugh'.
The Contemporary Experience of Manannan
If you ask children or adults who have lived in the Isle of Man for
longer than a few years about Manannan, some or all of the following are
likely to be mentioned:
his home is South Barrule
he is called a king, a god
he is paid a tribute of rushes-something which has been acted out
ceremonially at the annual Tynwald open-air parliament
transform himself into a fiery three legs-represented on the Manx flag
he hides the Island in his cloak of mist-a protector
retreated to an island beneath the sea with the little people-sometimes
called Ellan Sheeant
These observations are made on the basis of strong but anecdotal
evidence, in particular from my own experience of schools and of Manx
society over the past 30 years. And if you look around you in the Isle of
Man today, his image adorns festivals, foodstuffs and heritage centres.
His powers of shape-shifting enable him to be the guide around the House
of Manannan heritage interpretation centre in Peel, taking the visitor
through the various stages of the Island's history from a round house to
the kipper yards. As the text of Manx National Heritage's website reads,
'Manannan could appear in many guises and in his 'House' he himself acts
as the visitor's guide sometimes a god, sometimes a sailor, sometimes in
other forms.' In other words, he presents a degree of flexibility which is
both attractive and marketable.
But it isn't just within the Island's internationally-renowned heritage
industry that he makes an appearance. In cultural circles, too, he often
occupies centre stage. The most important cultural award is awarded by the
Manx Heritage Foundation, and named the 'Reih Bleeaney Vanannan'-literally
'Manannan's choice of the year', itself developing out of the rather more
explicitly entitled Mananan Trophy. An elaborate Manannan head is also
used as the symbol to an international classical music festival at the Erin Arts
Centre in Port Erin:
Manannan by Eric Austwick
And with only two breweries on the Island, it is curious that each has
developed a beer with his name on it: Okell's Mac y
Lir and Bushy's
Manannan's Cloak. He has moved beyond the realm of cultural revival
not only to become a strong national symbol, but also one which is readily
The question is how this image has been created, how has Manannan
emerged from the mist? How has he survived and changed sufficiently to
remain relevant to contemporary folklore? Much seems to lie with one
figure. In Annie Gilchrist's collection of Manx songs and music which
appeared as three issues of the Journal of the Folksong Society
in 1924, there is an appendix referring to the sea god of Mann:
Familiar to the Manx people, educated and otherwise, it is
to the effect that Mananan was the first king of Man, and in ancient times
had his dwelling-place on the summit of South Barrule. The only tribute he
exacted from the people was a yearly load of green rushes, which had to be
carried up the mountain for use in his Druidical fire; the fire that was
in some mysterious way the veil and protection of the Island against alien
powers. The strewing of green rushes in St. John's Chapel and on Tynwald
Hill for the Tynwald ceremony on July 5th is popularly supposed to have
some connection with the old Barrule ceremonies-though it is all very
vague. Nine people out of ten would tell you that excepting for this
fragment Mananan is forgotten, and that in the living folk-tradition he
has no place (Douglas, in Gilchrist 1924, 195).
So how do we move from a time when nine people out of ten would think
Manannan forgotten to a position where he is enmeshed in the very fabric
of contemporary Manx society?
Mona Douglas & the Manannan Vision
The writer of that passage in Gilchrist's edition was none other than
Mona Douglas (1898-1987), an extraordinarily energetic figure whose work
was pivotal to Manx cultural and national revival throughout the 20th
century. Of all of Douglas' activities, her poetry is perhaps the least
well known. Nonetheless, it provides much important material essential to
an understanding of her Manannan vision. Much of her work is rooted firmly
in what has been described as the 'Celtic Twilight', a setting which suits
her exaltation of Manannan as king. This predilection for the spiritual
distances her from Irish contemporaries such as Katharine Tynan and Eva
Gore-Booth, however. Douglas' poetical landscapes are virtually devoid of
the domesticity, the inter-personal contact for which their work has more
recently been championed-for an extended commentary and selected examples,
see Ní Dhuibhne (1995). Sometimes political, sometimes humorous, the
feelings conveyed are altogether more lonely, more isolated. The only
intimacy which is expressed is not with other humans, but rather with
Nature; with the landscapes and seascapes. Within this relationship,
Manannan often inhabits and even embodies the seascapes in order to
provide a counterpart to her own presence in the landscape-he is an
essential part of her spirituality.
In order to understand why Manannan became such a powerful force in
Douglas' work and what effect this had on the Manx population, it is
necessary to briefly consider her contribution to cultural development.
Above all, Mona Douglas is impossible to pigeonhole, almost to define. She
was active as a collector, journalist, published author, singer, dancer
and teacher: in short, she provided inspiration, motivation and direction
to her own and future generations. She was dedicated to the political and
cultural ideals of pan-Celticism, acting as mainstay for the Celtic
Congress for many years, and seeking ideas from without the Island in
order to motivate and develop cultural awareness and activity within. In
this way, she was responsible for promoting Manx culture on the Celtic and
international stage and, crucially, keeping the Isle of Man in touch with
developments in other countries.
Something has already been said of the difficulty in describing
Douglas' holistic approach to cultural promotion and revival. From her
autobiographical writings, it seems that the seeds for this approach were
sown during her unconventional childhood. Suffering from ill-health, she
was allowed to return to the Isle of Man to live with her grandparents,
where she roamed the hills and, quite naturally and informally, started
collecting folklore, music and dance (see also Bazin 1998). Even though
she did not attend school formally, her literacy did not suffer, becoming
an avid reader of W B Yeats from the age of ten. Yeats in particular was
the catalyst for her lifelong relationship with Ireland. She spent time in
Dublin at the time of the Rising, allegedly hiding de Valera in a
wardrobe, and studying Irish literature with Agnes O'Farrelly at
University College Dublin. Drawn into literary circles there, she became a
regular visitor to Rathgar, where she met George Russell, 'AE', and was
inspired by his interest in theosophy (Bazin 1998, 222).
One of those who would have been able to gain her access to such
circles was the indefatigable pan-Celt, A P Graves, who had strong Manx
connections. Indeed, Douglas later became his secretary when he was
writing his autobiography. On his recommendation, she moved to London to
expand her range of contacts, before returning to the Island, where she
ran a farm whilst working full-time at the rural library. Once back on the
Island, she gravitated towards the centre of cultural and linguistic
revival. Her belief that cultural work should focus on preparing the next
generation resulted in her founding a national youth group, Aeglagh
Vannin (lit. 'youth of Mann'). Closely linked to it were the
inter-Gaelic arts movement, Ellynyn ny Gael, and her most
enduring success, Yn
Chruinnaght Inter-Celtic Festival. She collaborated closely with
those reviving dance (Philip Leighton Stowell), composers interested in
setting Manx music and poetry (Arnold Foster, Peter Crossley-Holland, E L
M Prichard) and artists keen to use Manx material in their designs (Eric
We are fortunate in that Douglas left behind her a wide range of
texts-from personal papers and unpublished work to published poetry,
plays, prose-a short story collection and two novels-and many non-fiction
articles, as well as translations of Manx Gaelic song lyrics. What has
proved problematic for previous commentators on her work is her ability to
write and re-write herself; to present shifting landscapes of memory.
Rather than viewing this as a problem, the present author proposes that
this ability to constantly be 'on the move', even when fixed on the page,
is key to accessing her dynamic, evolving understanding of her worlds.
A complex spiritual system is reflected in Douglas' writings. Equally
at home in a Catholic church or a Methodist chapel, she appears to have
viewed Manannan as just another part of the continuum of belief. Accessing
her own thoughts on her place in the world is useful here. She always
claimed to have been born on an Isle of Man Steam Packet boat at
twilight-two distinct liminal spaces: a boat travelling between two
countries and a time between day and night. A typed manuscript in her
personal papers entitled 'Islandwoman'-part of her planned autobiography,
it seems-explains how the midwife attending her mother feared for the fate
of a child born in that space between:
I was born just before sunset, & upon an ebbing tide,
wherefore the old nurse who attended my mother believed, & declared
her belief to the household, that I should always in this life be able to
pass at will through the curtain that divides the world of the bodily
senses from the freer & lighter worlds that are within & about
it... I have always been conscious of living more than one life, or
perhaps it would be truer to say that different facets of that timeless
life which dwells awhile in this my body & brain appear &
disappear in my consciousness like waves on the surface of the sea (MNHL
9545, Box 4).
But Douglas, far from being fearful of this 'space between', identified
this space is a place of great possibility and creativity:
To approach our Island over a calm sea at sunset; to watch
the dawn breaking over Cronk-yn-Irree-Lhaa from the ancient keeill chapel
on its western slopes, or to walk on the lonely northern mountains under
the stars, is to feel that atmosphere at its strongest, and to become one
in spirit with the pilgrims of old... (Douglas 1965, 13).
It was within these liminal spaces-exemplified here by sunset and
sunrise-that Douglas identified the potential to change the relationship
between the past, present and future. This fits well with Bohlman's
definition of revival as the 'ultimate collapse of time and space'
(Bohlman 1988, 131), but identifies such as collapse as a 'big bang'
moment in terms of creating material.
Douglas' own writings, together with recollections from her friends and
colleagues, demonstrate a strong and defiant belief in other worlds, both
spatially and temporally, as well as an ability to access them. The first
part of her Secret Island collection of poems and plays acts as
an introduction to this:
A SINGER TELLS OF A STRANGE LAND
I know a distant land
Over the sea-
Green hill and
And windy lea;
The White host their banquet keep
There, and desire is rocked asleep
In that hidden Island
seas beyond the world.
I know a secret land
Where the gods roam,
a joyous band,
Through shining foam,
While hills wrapped in mist
Breathe forth the mighty name
Of Mananan, Ruler
seas beyond the world.
I know a lonely land
Where dreams unfold;
dim lengths of sand,
Strange tides are rolled
From seas more deep
Where life is but foam upcast:
The grey Secret Island
Of seas beyond the world (Douglas 1943, 1).
This part of the poem shows the Isle of Man as hidden or obscured from
view, elementally 'wrapped in mist and flame', setting it apart from the
world; it is in the space beyond. The composer and harpist, Charles Guard,
set much of the material from The Secret Island to music,
releasing it as a cassette of the same name, in effect popularising
Douglas' work without it losing its integrity.
Music carries the vision of Manannan particularly well. The song
'Manannan beg mac y lir' which was mentioned as appearing in Manx
Fairy Tales in English, was collected by Morrison, whose informant
substituted Patrick for Manannan at first telling, in order to appear to
fit in with the Christian faith (Gilchrist 1924, 100)-yet another
interesting example of the continuum of belief not alien to theosophy.
Douglas' notes within the Manx issues of the Journal of the
Folk-Song Society explain that, in order to supplement the stories
from her childhood, she 'determined some years ago to try to gather and
note down all the matter relating to Mananan that I could find or
remember, in the hope of being some day able to piece it together into a
more or less coherent whole' (Douglas in Gilchrist 1924, 195-6). This
process would have been formalised through her studies with Professor
O'Farrelly, but it would have also been supplemented by her collecting
activities. 'C'raad ta'n Ree?', a song which describes who Manannan was,
was collected by Mona Douglas from Mrs Shimmin of Foxdale in 1921. Both
this song and 'Manannan beg mac y lir' are sung frequently by children and
adults as part of the living
The Need for Spiritual Revival:
AE, Theosophy & Manannan
In Georgina Boyes' 1993 work The Imagined Village, she
comments how the 'folk' came to be idolised, partly because they brought
with them a spirituality. She describes:
an intellectual climate in which the countryside and its
workers were presented as a locus of spiritual values in a rapidly
industrialising, urban age. The common people were increasingly divided
into 'the mob of the streets...' and the simple, untainted,
country-dwelling peasants-'the Folk' (Boyes 1993, 7).
Other studies of the Manx revival have failed to identify the
importance of spirituality. The importance of theosophy to folklore, too,
has been under-explored, something which Juliet Wood is currently working
to rectify. The role of George Russell, 'AE', is crucial here. Well-known
as a mystic as well as a poet, he was instrumental in bringing the
Manannan legend into focus for Douglas (see Bazin 1998, 222). As she
writes in the Foreword to The Secret Island:
Some modern writers on Celtic mythology have called the
Secret Island "The Gaelic heaven-world"; but it is more than that. It is a
place or state of being known to all mystics and spoken of, though by
different names, in all the sacred books of the world: that region of
ecstasy on the brink of the final, formless Deep which is the source and
end of all things.
Manannan offered a solution for what she saw as a spiritually-lacking
age. In a letter to her friend, Joe Woods, Douglas wrote:
The deepest need of our world is its spiritual need and
this is all the greater for being unconscious or at most sub-conscious. We
keep on doing things feverishly in these days because we dare not stop to
think or to feel over-much. We concentrate on the physical side of
everything because we are so very uncertain as to whether or not any other
side really exists...and yet it is surely that we need a sense of the
eternal verities; a way of escape, continually open, to the beauty and
wisdom and peace at the heart of being; a living dynamic knowledge of the
unity of all things... (Bazin 1998, 122-3).
This desire for spiritual revival belongs to the anti-materialist
stance of cultural revival-the need for something more noble, more pure,
more true, what Trevor-Roper describes as 'a golden age in the past'
(Trevor-Roper in Hobsbawm & Ranger, 41). Douglas' Christian
Tradition in Mannin (1965) manages to present theosophical views
before it moves to a more Christian focus. It emphasises the difference
between the motorcycle races of the Tourist Trophy and modern industry as
compared to the 'real' Isle of Man symbolised by Manannan's Ellan
The clamour and crowds of the "T.T.'s," the seasonal bustle
of hotels and boarding-houses, the new industries springing up, the
continual increase of cars and farm mechanisation and new housing
estates-all these are but surface matters; the essential atmosphere of
Ellan Vannin is, even yet, one of peace, and of a beauty that lifts men's
thoughts beyond mortal life, the atmosphere that has inspired men to
salute it, from time immemorial, as a Sacred Isle (Douglas 1965, 13).
That opening chapter explains her understanding of 'Ellan Sheeant', and
presents Manannan as part of a Gaelic trinity:
The old Gaelic pantheon, although pre-Christian and having
no traceable connection with Judaism, had a conception of something very
like the Trinity: Leirr, the unknowable source and sustainer of all being,
the ultimate abyss; Mananan, Lord of Wisdom, mediator between humanity and
the Unknowable: and Aengus the Ever-Young, symbol of the creative love
which is life in action (Douglas 1965, 10).
Manannan is clearly presented here as the Jesus figure, occupying the
space 'between', the role of a mediator.
The Development of a Manannan Image:
Ellynyn ny Gael & the
Douglas' 'vision of the king' (Douglas 1920, 16) was realised through
the development of an arts movement, Ellynyn ny Gael, and her
collaboration with the visual artist, Eric Austwick. There are
approximately 70 letters between the two within the Mona Douglas Bequest,
stretching over a period of over 20 years (1949-1973). They reveal a close
working relationship, and a desire to develop new Manx art with a new Manx
spirituality at its core. One of Austwick's plaster casts of the Manannan
head still adorns the side of what was Douglas' home, Thie ny Garee,
Manannan Head in Plaster Relief,
Thie ny Garee (Photo
by Bob Carswell)
Whilst more research needs to be undertaken into Austwick's work, we do
know that he was an illustrator with the Manchester Guardian, and
that he considered the Isle of Man his adopted home for many years. He
produced sculptures of Manx dancers and of figures from Manx folklore, as
well as developing a series of Interlace designs, many of which used
Manannan imagery. His 'Mananan the Wise' image was used for the
letter-head for Ellynyn ny Gael:
Letter-head for Ellynyn ny Gael
(Image by Eric
In a letter to Ken Quayle about Ellynyn ny Gael, Douglas writes of the
concept of the Mananan Trophy:
to be awarded annually to a person who had in some way
enriched the quality of life in the Island, consistently displayed loyalty
and a positive interest in the Manx Cultural heritage, and worked to
conserve and develop it in one or more of its forms. (MNHL 9545, Box 12,
letter from Douglas to Quayle, n.d.).
From correspondence between Austwick and Douglas, it seems that the
Mananan Trophy was originally planned to represent a prominent Manx dance
known as the 'Dirk Dance', and that it was to depict a solo male dancer
and a female singer. This proved problematic to realise, however, with
Austwick explaining the impossibility of providing unity to the piece, and
declaring he was going to withdraw from the project. In an attempt at
reconciliation, Douglas proposed:
another suggestion altogether, and can only hope it may
find more favour with you. It is this: we have already adopted as the
society's symbol your "Mananan the Wise" design, so what about cutting out
both singer and dancer, and adapting Mananan to be cast in bronze and
mounted on a block of Manx quartz or granite? (MNHL 9495, Box 21, letter
from Douglas to Austwick, 08/09/1959).
This suggestion appears to have pleased Austwick, who set to work that
November (MNHL9495, Box 21, letter from Austwick to Douglas, 25/11/1959).
His letters soon requested details of Manannan's appearance, with Douglas
The earliest form of Celtic dress recorded, which would
certainly be the period for Mananan (if he had a period) consisted of two
main garments: the leine, or tunic, and the Brat, or cloak. In the O.I.
story of Fand Mananan's cloak is an important feature, and is described as
dark-green interwoven with silver and blue and purple (MNHL 9545, Box 21,
letter from Douglas to Austwick, 30/11/1959).
She went on to detail descriptions of Conchubar and his son, as well as
Loegaire and Amargin from the 'Táin BÓ Cúalgne', before adding what she
considered the useful suggestion:
About the sea-link, some of the folk-tales of appearances
of Mananan say that he appeared "With waves breaking into little blue
flames under his feet, and birds of the sea wheeling about his head"-could
that idea be worked in, or is it too elaborate? (MNHL 9545, Box 21, letter
from Douglas to Austwick, 30/11/1959).
Why Choose Manannan as a Cultural Focus?
Douglas justified the selection of Manannan for such cultural
representation as follows:
it is generally felt that Mananan as the recognised Patron
of the Arts in all Celtic countries, and especially associated with
Mannin, is the only suitable figure to be claimed as the supreme Patron of
Yn Chruinnaght (MNHL 9545, Box 12, undated letter).
Yn Chruinnaght inter-Celtic festival is the Island's main national
festival. Based on earlier festivals, it was revived by Mona Douglas
around 1977-8 (Woolley 2003, pp.81-2). One of the Island's best-known
traditional musicians and radio presenters, John Kaneen, known
affectionately as Big John, was dressed in a flowing gown with a
magnificent head-dress and placed close to a large bonfire.
John Kaneen as Manannan at
Inter-Celtic Festival with Mona Douglas
His own recollections of the occasion are that he was nearly set on
fire (personal communication). But this is an important example of
Douglas' attempt to bring the myth to life, to use folklore as a means of
inspiring cultural revival.
If we return to the opening of this paper, and to the idea that
Manannan is the Jesus equivalent for the Manx, it is interesting to hear
Old people that I have known believed that this Island is
still his kingdom and that some day he will return and lead his people
through the shining sea to his Secret Island, the Land of the Living Heart
in the ocean of his father Leirr that lies beyond the rim of the world.
(Douglas, in Gilchrist, 198).
Here we have concepts of resurrection and afterlife, with Manannan as
the mediator, the path. Douglas is careful to craft him so as to appeal to
Christians. But more than this, she moves Manannan to the centre of
spirituality to become a many-faced god, ensuring universal appeal. To
return to MacQuarrie's text:
Partly, I think, Manannán survived because he was designed
to straddle the divide between traditions. He began as a synthesis of the
Christian, classical, and native Irish traditions and, being located in a
timeless Otherworld, he was able to appear in any tale, at any time,
without violating laws of fictional verisimilitude (MacQuarrie 1997,
It is this ability to dwell in the space between traditions and times
which makes Manannan so interesting. He acts as a powerful connection to
the past. Fishman points out that if national revival is to succeed, not
only is rediscovery necessary, but its partial reinvention can prove
essential to its success. 'The past is being mined, ideologized, and
symbolically elaborated in order to provide determination, even more than
direction, with respect to current and future challenges' (Fishman 1972,
9). Thomson, too, writes, 'Manannan is a traditional figure in the island
and it seems reasonable to assume that the traditions about him are
independent of the poem and reflected in it' (Thomson 1962, 83). It is
because the dating is inexact that Manannan can be considered truly part
of the Island's mythology. Revival uses the power of myth in its
authentication processes, because: 'The unique thing about myth is that it
is true for all time and that its content, condensed to the utmost
intensity, is inexhaustible for all time (Wagner, in Furness 1982,
Manannan is successful because he doesn't stay the distant mythical
god-like figure. He evens transcends the role of folk hero, the Romantic
figure. He is able to do this because he is constantly changing and
adapting, he is part of a dynamic system. His ability to defy time and
space even extends to the spelling of his name, which is constantly
shifting. In the two manuscript sources of the Traditionary Ballad, he
appears as Mananan (Kelly) and as Mannanyn (Kewley). The first spelling is
that favoured by Douglas in her writings. It pushes Manannan further into
liminal space in that it obscures the pronunciation, making it unclear
where the stress should lie. It also presents three equal units within his
name, three equal 'an' segments after the initial M.
Mona Douglas wrote about Manannan that:
he does not appear on the surface of things. You have to
probe deep, deep into the tangle of stories and lore before you find him,
and seize on the most casual references, and learn that even where he is
most certainly present he is not always recognised by the teller of the
tale in which he figures (Douglas, in Gilchrist 1924, 196).
At the beginning of the 21st century, the Isle of Man Government
decided to pursue a 'nation branding' exercise. It is no coincidence that
early discussions among marketing consultants referred to 'the Enbar
initiative'-naming Manannan's steed. What they did not realise, though,
was that Mona Douglas and Eric Austwick had already beaten them to it, and
at a fraction of the cost. Manannan has found his way into many parts of
Manx life and into the Manx psyche in a fairly successful branding
exercise by anybody's standards. His identification with the Isle of Man
is such that he has even made it into the world of role-playing as a warrior
Manannan suits the Isle of Man because the shape-shifting, the fluidity
of form-what MacQuarrie terms a 'volatility and unpredictability' (1997,
353-4)-reflects the fluidity of identity necessary for a small nation in
the middle of the Irish Sea. The Isle of Man has been an object of
interest to those surrounding it for centuries, it is a place which has a
tradition of holding multiplicities of meaning, of not replacing one
element with another, but rather collecting them. This is evidenced in the
Manx Gaelic language, which collects together many ways of expressing the
same concept, seemingly unwilling to discard elements which could be
considered to have been superseded (personal communication with Adrian
Pilgrim). Manannan also presents an ideal for the revivalist in that his
shape-shifting, his ability to be a god at some times, a man at others,
establishes the much sought after continuity (Hobsbawm and Ranger 2000, 1)
necessary to repair Bohlman's 'collapse of time and space' (1988,
MNHL9545 Mona Douglas Bequest-c.35 boxes of uncatalogued
My thanks to the Director and Trustees of Manx National
Heritage, under whose protection the papers are held on behalf of the Manx
nation. The extract from Douglas' poem "A Singer tells of a Strange Land"
appears with their permission.
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© Breesha Maddrell, 2006
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