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.

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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,
        Mananaun:
        Lord of ocean!
In the first performance of his play in 1902, Russell played the part of Cathvah.

In Circe, Mananaun MacLir (spelled as in Russell's play) rises from behind a coalscuttle. "A cold seawind blows from his druid mouth. About his head writhe eels and elvers. He is encrusted with weeds and shells. His right hand holds a bicycle pump. His left hand grasps a huge crayfish by its two talons." He speaks with "a voice of waves."

JH 2014
Painting or altered digital photograph of The Horses of Manannán Mac Lir, artist unknown. Source: www.coloradohummingbird.com.
An actual sea-horse photographed leaping over the Cobb Wall at Lyme Regis in Dorset, southern England. Source: www.dailymail.co.uk.