Manannán mac Lir was the Celtic god characterized as a prankster and the original “Old Man of the Sea.” Lir is Gaelic for sea. He was often described as white haired and sea weed being visible through his skin. His hair and feet were always dripping wet. He would appear suddenly out of the mists and disappear as quickly. He was the guardian of those who ventured upon his relm, the sea. He was often seen riding a chariot upon the waves as if they were dry land.
Manannán was said to have tempted the Ard Ri Cormac mac Airt with a great treasure if he would just promise to give him what ever he asked of him three times. Since we are descended from Cormac mac Airt this tale is significant to Clan Donald. Cormac agreed and received the silver branch with solid gold apples from Manannán. In return for receiving the gold apples Manannán first asked for Cormac’s only daughter, then his only son, and finally Cormac’s wife! Cormac finally realized he had lost his entire family for silver & gold and frantically he pursued Manannán with an army.
Manannán led Cormac through a thick mist where all his companions were lost and he found himself alone in Tir na N’og (Gaelic meaning “the land of perpetual youth”). Here he was taught a harsh lesson, but in the end his wife and children were restored to him. Manannán showed him the five streams of knowledge filled with Salmon who ate of hazelnuts. He told him true wisdom and knowledge comes from the land of Tir na N’Og. He rewarded him with a magic cup which would break if three lies were spoken over it and made whole again if three truths were spoken over it. The reign of Cormac mac Airt is known as one of wisdom and justice. He is known in Ireland as the law giver and one of Eire’s greatest Ard Ri (High Kings). According to Celtic mythology Cormac was taught wisdom by Manannan, but Christian chroniclers attributed the wisdom of his reign to his accepting Christianity. The Annals of Ulster attribute Cormac’s death to a Druid curse because he had turned from the Druid way to the One True God.
Manannán was said to have often appeared as an old fool dressed as a beggar. He would play tricks by claiming magical powers and demonstrating simple feats such as claiming he could wiggle one ear while the other remained still. When asked to demonstrate his unique skill he would use one hand to wiggle his one ear! Then if he was mocked he would show tremendous ability to take a life and then restore it. He also played the clarsach (Gaelic harp) so beautifully it sounded as rushing waters. The Serglige con Culainn (“The Sickbed of Cú chulainn“) tells of Manannán‘s beautiful wife, Fand, having an adultrous affair with Cúchulainn. When Fand sees that Emer, Cúchulainn’s jealous wife, is also an accomplished warrior who approaches with an army of fighting women Faud quickly returns to the safety of Manannán pleading for his protection. Manannán shook his magical cloak of mists between Fand and Cú chulainn and they never met again.Manannán has strong ties to the Isle of Man, where he is referenced in a traditional ballad as having been the nation’s first ruler. Each midsummer night the Manx people offered bundles of reeds, meadow grasses and yellow flowers to Manannán in a ritual “paying of the rent”. The offerings were accompanied by prayers for his aid and protection in mist filled winds for farming and fair weather for fishing. It is said he produced a magical vessel to aid Fionne and the Fennians recover a kidnapped prince from Roman Britain. They also confiscated a herd of horses to disuade further ventures into Ireland by the Romans.
The often repeated tale Manannán and Còllum Cille’s broken chalice reveals a great deal about the transition from Celtic druid beliefs to Christianity. Còllum Cille had a broken chalice he sent with a servant to be repaired. The servant was met on the road by Manannán who asked if there was anything the servant had need of ( Manannánwas known for his benevolence as well as his pranks). The servant showed Manannán the broken chalice which was mended with one mist filled breath from Manannán’s lips. Manannán instructed the servant to return to Còllum Cille, tell him what he had done, and ask if there was a place for someone with his abilities in the Christian kingdom. Còllum Cille immediately denounced the act as sorcery and demanded the servant go throughout the land proclaiming Manannán was a demon who would spend eternity in hell. When Manannán heard that his acts of kindness were not acceptable he proclaimed, “I have watched over Eire from the time of the Tuatha de Danaan.I have protected those on the seas and those of the Isles. If I am no longer welcome I will go to the Isles off Scotland where I am welcome.” And it is so today that those who look to Manannán for protection are no longer found in Eire or Mann, but those of the outer islands off Scotland still speak of Manannán.