Shaping the Shape-Shifter:

Cultural Revival, Spirituality & the Manx Manannan

Breesha Maddrell

Lecturer in Manx Studies, Centre for Manx Studies
University of Liverpool, England


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.

Literary Sources

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, 224-5).

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 of 'Mannanan'.

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 off invaders:

The Three Legs of Man

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 (1873):

Little Manannan was son of Leirr,
He was the first that ever had it;

It was not with his sword he kept it,
Neither with arrows or bow;
But when he would see ships sailing,
He would cover it round with fog.

The rent each landholder paid to him was
A 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;
He was a saint, and full of virtue;
He banished Mannanan on the wave,
And 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 Sea,
Who blessed our Island,
Bless us and our boat, going out well,
Coming in better, with living and dead in our boat. (Morrison 1911, 183).

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
he can transform himself into a fiery three legs-represented on the Manx flag
he hides the Island in his cloak of mist-a protector
that he 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

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 consumable.

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 Austwick).

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:


I know a distant land
Over the sea-
Green hill and cloudy strand
And windy lea;
The White host their banquet keep
There, and desire is rocked asleep
In that hidden Island
Of seas beyond the world.

I know a secret land
Where the gods roam,
Dancing, a joyous band,
Through shining foam,
While hills wrapped in mist and flame
Breathe forth the mighty name
Of Mananan, Ruler
Of seas beyond the world.

I know a lonely land
Where dreams unfold;
There, up dim lengths of sand,
Strange tides are rolled
From seas more deep and vast
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 tradition.

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 Sheeant:

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 Mananan Trophy

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, Ballaragh, Lonan:

Manannan Head in Plaster Relief, Thie ny Garee (Photo by Bob Carswell)

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 Austwick)

Letter-head for Ellynyn ny Gael
(Image by Eric Austwick)

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 responding:

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 Yn Chruinnaght Inter-Celtic Festival with Mona Douglas

John Kaneen as Manannan at
Yn Chruinnaght 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.

Closing Thoughts

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 Douglas say:

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, 353).

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, 94).

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 figure.

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, 131).


MNHL9545 Mona Douglas Bequest-c.35 boxes of uncatalogued papers.
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.

Anderson, Benedict 1991. Imagined Communities. 1983; repr. London & New York: Verso.

Bazin, Fenella 1998. Mona Douglas, a Tribute. Douglas, Isle of Man: Manx Heritage Foundation.

Bohlmann, Philip 1988. The Study of Folk Music in the Modern World. Bloomington & Indianapolis.

Boyes, Georgina 1993. The Imagined Village. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Douglas, Mona 1943. The Secret Island, Douglas. Isle of Man: Victoria Press.

Douglas, Mona 1965. Christian Tradition in Mannin. Douglas, Isle of Man: Times Longbooks.

Douglas, Mona n.d. (pre-1966). This is Ellan Vannin. Douglas, Isle of Man: Times Longbooks.

Douglas, Mona 1966. This is Ellan Vannin Again: Folklore. Douglas, Isle of Man: Times Press.

Douglas, Mona 1968. They lived in Ellan Vannin. Douglas, Isle of Man: Times Press.

Douglas, Mona 1970. We call it Ellan Vannin. Douglas, Isle of Man: Times Press.

Fishman, Joshua 1972. Language and Nationalism: Two Integrative Essays. Rowley, Massachussets: Newbury House Publications.

Furness, Raymond 1982. Wagner and Literature. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Gellner, Ernest 1983. Nations and Nationalism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Gilchrist, Annie (ed.) 1924-26. Journal of the Folk-Song Society, No.s 28-30.

Guard, Charles 1993. The Secret Island: The Music of Manx Legend. Manannan Music MMC4.

Harrison, W. (ed.) 1873. Mona Miscellany 2nd series, vol.xxi.

Hobsbawm, Eric & Ranger, Terence (ed.) 1989. The Invention of Tradition. Cambridge: CUP.

King, Bruce, 1980. The New English Literatures. London: Macmillan.

Kneen, J.J. 1970. Place-names of the Isle of Man. Reprint of 1925 edition, Douglas, Isle of Man: Yn Cheshaght Ghailckagh.

MacQuarrie, Charles 1997. The Waves of Manannán: A Study of the Literary Representations of Manannán mac Lir from Immram Brain (c.700) to Finnegans Wake (1939). Unpublished PhD, University of Washington.

MacQuarrie, Charles 2003. "From Manannán to Bercilak: The Green Knight and the Gaelic Otherworld-god-in-disguise." Studeyrys Manninagh 1.3, Centre for Manx Studies.

Morrison, Sophia 1994. Manx Fairy Tales. Reprint of 1929 2nd edition; Douglas, Isle of Man: The Manx Experience.

Ní Dhuibhne, Eilís (ed.) 1995. Voices on the Wind: Women Poets of the Celtic Twilight. Dublin: New Island Books.

Ó hÓgáin, Dáithí 1990. Myth, Legend and Romance: An Encyclopaedia of the Irish Folk Tradition. London: Ryan Publishing, 286-289.

Ó hÓgáin, Dáithí 1999. The Sacred Isle. Belief and Religion in pre-Christian Ireland. Cork: The Collins Press, 50-52.

O'Rahilly, T.F. 1932. Irish Dialects Past and Present. Dublin: Browne and Nolan.

Thomson, R.L. 1962. "The Manx Traditionary Ballad", études Celtiques 9, 521-48; 10, 60-87.

Trevor-Roper, Hugh 1989. "The Invention of Tradition: The Highland Tradition of Scotland" in The Invention of Tradition, ed. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, Cambridge: CUP, 15-41.

Westropp, Thomas Johnson 1912. "Brasil and the Legendary Islands of the North Atlantic: their history and fable. A contribution to the 'Atlantis' problem" in: Royal Irish Academy Proceedings, vol XXX, Section C, No.8.

Woolley, Chloë, 2003. The Revival of Manx Traditional Music: From the 1970s to the Present Day. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Edinburgh.

Copyright © Breesha Maddrell, 2006
This edition copyright © Celtic Cultural Studies, 2006
ISSN 1468-6074

The moral, intellectual, and other universally-recognised copy rights
of the author are hereby registered and asserted under the terms of
UK, European Union, and other internationally valid copyright laws.
All rights reserved.