Mananaan MacLir

Mananaan MacLir

In Brief

In keeping with the Homeric analogue of Proteus, a god changing into animal shapes on the seashore, Stephen looks out on the ocean and thinks, "They are coming, waves. The whitemaned seahorses, champing, brightwindbridled, the steeds of Mananaan." Manannán Mac Lir is an Irish god of the sea who is sometimes depicted Poseidon-like driving a horsedrawn chariot (or riding a single horse named Enbarr) over the waves. Stephen thinks of him again in Scylla and Charybdis in connection with a play by George Russell, "A.E." In Circe Russell and Manannán fuse.

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Manannán is strongly associated with the Isle of Man, which lies northeast of Dublin in the Irish Sea. His Irish name comes from an old version of Man, and in many stories he provides protection and good fishing to the Manx people. It seems possible that Stephen is thinking of this connection as he looks out to the sea and sees the waves rolling in from the east.

In Scylla and Charybdis, George Russell's otherworldly speech triggers Stephen's memory of his play Deirdre: "Flow over them with your waves and with your waters, Mananaan, / Mananaan MacLir ..." Gifford observes that lines like these, chanted by the druid Cathvah in act 3, call down "a druid curse, the Faed Fia (which Russell took to mean the last flood, the end of the heroic age), on the Red Branch Knights just before those heroes begin to quarrel among themselves and destroy a comradeship-in-arms comparable to that of the Arthurian Round Table":

        Let thy Faed Fia fall,
        Mananaun MacLir
        Let thy waters rise,
        Mananaun MacLir
        Let the earth fail
        Beneath their feet,
        Let thy waves flow over them,
        Lord of ocean!

In 1902 Russell and William Butler Yeats co-founded the Irish National Theatre, which produced Deirdre in that year with Russell playing the part of Cathvah. Circe evokes this performance when, "In the cone of the searchlight behind the coalscuttle, ollave, holyeyed, the bearded figure of Mananaun Maclir broods, chin on knees. He rises slowly. A cold seawind blows from his druid mouth. About his head writhe eels and elvers. He is encrusted with weeds and shells" and speaks "With a voice of waves." The name of the god is spelled as in Russell's play and he first appears as Russell does in Scylla: seated in the shadow of a library lamp, bearded, brooding, an "ollave, holyeyed." When Russell stands up, he is transformed into the god and his oceanic character emerges.

JH 2014
Digitally altered photograph of The Horses of Manannán Mac Lir, artist unknown. Source:
An actual sea-horse photographed leaping over the Cobb Wall at Lyme Regis in Dorset, southern England. Source:
Kenneth Allen's 2014 photograph of John Sutton's bronze statue of Manannán mac Lir at Gortmore, County Londonderry. Source: Wikimedia Commons.