[J Manx Museun vol V #65 pp42-45 Dec 1941]

The Name 'Man' in Gaelic Literature and Topography

by W.W. Gill


GAELIC literature in its various phases —legendary, imaginative, pseudo-historical—contains many references to the Isle of Man by its best-known name. Some of these are briefly noted hereunder.

‘ The Sons of Tuireanu' is one of the bardic tales in which the old mythology has been humanized and romanticized. A passage in it reminds us that the great Celtic deity Lug —worshipped in the British Isles as well as on the Continent—was believed to have dwelt in the Isle of Man under the aegis of Manannan ; though we must, I think, understand that ‘ Man ‘ here was a later substitution for one of the many appellations of the Celtic Paradise : Flathanas, perhaps, or Tir na nOg, the Country of the Young, or Tir na Sorcha, the Land of Brightness, or Tir Suthain, the Everlasting Land, or Tir Tairnngire, the Promised Land, or mis Subha, the Isle of Joy. Moreover, the place afterwards called Man was hallowed, in ancient tradition, by the presence of other deities. The tragic fate of the three heroic sorts of Tuireann, son of Ogma, is thus related in the metrical version of the story in the 12th-century Book of Leinster

Brian, Jucharba, and Tuchar too,
Three Gods of the Tuatha Dé Danann,
They were slain at Mana over the clear sea
By the hand of Lug, the son of Eithnenn.1

In later versions in prose they survive their wounds until they reach Ireland, having landed at Howth. With the Hill of Howth is also associated, in the 11th-century body of versified place-lore called the Dindshenchas,2 the name of Manannan ; for Etar, whose stronghold and burial-place Howth was, and from whom it was named Beann Edar, was ‘ of the kin of Manannan.’

A being even more shadow-like than Brian and his brethren, but who may perhaps be ranked near them as a demi-god, is Cairbre. Rhys3 calls him a great Culture Hero of the Celts, but very little of his legend has come down to us. That he was associated with the Island is seen in the ‘ Tain Bó Cuailgne,’ where one of the names of power invoked by Queen Maeve (Medh), when she makes her promises to Ferdiad to induce him to fight Cuchulain, is Cairbre Min. Atanand, Gentle Cairbre of Man. This obscure personage may be the same as Cairpre Cat-head. a companion of the Tuatha Dé Danann deities, and as the Cairpre described as ‘ the deity who carried the souls of those slain in battle to flathanas,’ in a Highland tradition which was on the point of perishing when it was rescued by the late Mrs. W. J. Watson.4 Flathanas, in modern Manx spelt Flaunys and used as an equivalent for the Christian Paradise, the place where the virtuous find their reward, signified in Gaelic paganism the happy kingdom of dead heroes. In some accounts of it Manannan was its ruler. A Manx song, taken down by Miss Mona Douglas5 in the Foxdale district about 1920, runs thus’ in English

‘Where is the King ?
He has come from Flaunys
Over the sea
To the top of Barrule.’

‘What is he doing?’
He is looking Westward, Under mist sitting
On top of Barrule.’

‘Who is the King?’
The King is Manannan,
A castle is his
On top of Barrule.’

‘ He is looking Westward ‘ might also be translated ‘ He is looking backwards ‘ ; but the Celtic Kingdom of the Dead lay under the sunset.

Keating, the 17th-century historian, quotes a rann which tells us the native country and the pedigree of the mother of the Munster demi-god or deified hero Curoi : —

‘ Morann of Mana, of honour pure,
Was the child of Ir, son of Uinnside;

The sister of Eochaid Echbel she,
And mother of Curoi, son of Dari.’

Eochaid Echbel was a Pict of Cantire. But according to another source6 this Morunn Mhannanach, Moran the Manxwoman, was a different person from the Moran who was Eochaid’s sister.

In either alternative the disputed question of Manx racial beginnings is involved.

One of the most beautiful wild-flowers of European literature is the romantic story of the Sons of Uisnech.7 In the various versions and the early commentaries on some of them there is much about the Isle of Man and its presiding genius. Incidentally, the love-story of Naoise and Deirdre casts, by its incongruous allusions to the conquest of Alba, a sidelight on the initial stage of a migration from Ireland to Scotland which the dawn of local history catches in full flow at the beginning of the 6th century. The train of events was started by Manannan himself, when he gave Deirdre, King Conchohar’s affianced bride, a magic potion which overcame Naoise’s reluctance to betray his King. Its success compelled them to flee with Naoise’s two brothers from Ulster to ‘ take possession of Alba from Manann Northward.’ The irish might be read as meaning that Man was a stage on their journey; or the other Manannland in the South of Scotland might possibly be intended. But it is the Isle of Man only which comes into other parts of the tale. During the sojourn of the outlaws in Scotland they were protected and assisted further by ‘ the King of the Isle of Man and the Hebrides,’ Manannan. One of his contributions towards their safety was an all-severing sword, ‘ the Retaliator,’ which he gave to Naoise. And when the party decided to leave Alba and return to Ulster they found a temporary refuge in ‘ an island of the sea.’ The island appears to be identified in a stanza interpolated into one of Deirdre’s laments for the beloved home she had left behind in Glen Etive ; for Naoise exhorts her to leave her troubles with ‘ the foreigners of the sea of Manann,’ or, in Keating’s translation, ‘ of Mann across the sea.’ After the three brothers had been assassinated by order of the jealous King Conchobar at Emhain Macha, and Deirdre had died of grief (or married the King, in another version), Manannan fostered the two children of Naoise and Deirdre in Emhain Abhlach, a poetic name for the Island. Later he suggested to Conchobar that the boy, Gaidar or Gaiar, 'Hound,’ should be awarded Man in compensation for the loss of his father, promising that friendly relations should thenceforward exist between Man and Ulster. Eventually Gaiar was given the tract of land now lying under the waters of Lough Neagh. This alternative is noteworthy in view of the myth that Man is the piece of ground which was scooped out of Ireland when Lough Neagh was formed. The theme of Manannan’s influence on the affairs of the Sons of Uisnech belongs mainly to a commentary which OCurry believed to have been a portion of a very early version of the tale. in accordance with it is a statement in the Scottish ‘Glenmasan' version,8 written in 1238, that one of the thirty battles fought by Fergus mac Roi in his revolt on account of the murder of Naoise was ‘ the battle of Mana against Conchobar and the Ultonians.’ Elsewhere it is Manannan himself who invades and ravages Ulster. Taking into consideration these mentions of Manann and Manannan, and others of Emhain Abhlach, it looks as though the Isle of Man had, at a previous stage in the tale’s development, been to some extent the scene of the action.

Another Ulster story, ‘The Elopement of Emer',9 depicts her as running away from her husband Cuchulain with Tuir Glesta, the son of the King of Norway. Evidently she took some of her husband’s belongings with her, and the pair hid themselves and the booty in Tuir’s ship, which was lying in Dundalk Harbour. From there they sailed to Manann, and afterwards went on to the Hebrides, having effected what used to be called in Manx phraseology ‘ a ship’s wedding.’ Emer was perhaps not greatly to blame, for Cuchulain had already abandoned her in favour of Fand, the bewitching yet neglected consort of Manannan mac Lir. Nevertheless, Cuchulain followed the couple to Dun Monaig (probably near the entrance to the Crinan Canal of to-day), killed Tuir Glesta, and took his wife home by the ear.

Some hundreds of years later, Man appears in an episode of a long satirical tale intended to ridicule the poets, most of the events of which take place at the court of King Guaire in Connaught. The Manx portion hinges on a literary quest. In the 7th century, the epoch of the tale, which was a time of re-awakening in Irish letters, it was found that no satisfactory version of the nation’s greatest epic, the Tain Bó Cuailgne, the Cattle-raid of Cooley, could be obtained from any of the poets and story-tellers. The Chief Bard, Senchan, after scouring the country in vain for the lost tale, crossed to Man with his brilliant retinue of pupils and hangers-on (and their dogs), at a time of pleasure,’ in the forlorn hope of finding it there. When they had drawn up their boats on the shore they noticed an old woman gathering seaweed (doubtless for medicinal purposes). with whom they exchanged impromptu verses. Some of the lines are still intelligible, others are not. but none are important here. unless by two of them we can identify the spot ‘ On top of the Great Rock of Manann much salt has been made.’ For she was a salt-maker and a physician year and year about, but a poetess always. After the visitors had made an excursion inland, of which no particulars are given, they launched their boats again and went back to Ireland, taking the lady-doctor with them. For she turned out to he a Munsterwornan, one of the O’Dulsaine clan of Muskery, Co. Limerick, who had been missing from home for many years.

So says the royal Bishop Cormac ;10 hut as Dul same means ‘ pleasant satire ‘ it may be a. name invented to fit her and the brother, a poet likewise, who had been looking for her.

In a 14th-century elaboration of the story11 she occupied, while living on the Island, a stone dwelling-place near the shore, and in it was a chest full of treasure. At her house she enter-tamed the merry company of poets, and out of her hoard she generously defrayed the expenses of their next journey, which was to be to Scotland since the search in Man had proved unsuccessful. In the end, however, the Tam was recovered by invoking, at his tomb, the spirit of Fergus mac Rol, one of its chief characters, and persuading him to relate exactly what had happened — a method of textual restoration which has been neglected in modern times. The old woman has been subpoenaed as a witness that Irish was the language of Manann at that period. She was not Manx, however, but, as we have seen, of the same nationality as her visitors. Better evidence is that the party went to the Island ( at a time of pleasure ‘ there, which may be interpreted as meaning that they chose a period of national festivities, when the literary section of the community could be interviewed at some popular gathering.

One of the Seven Buadlia (translatable here as occult properties or virtues) which are specified as due annually to the High King of Ireland, was the right to receive meas Manand—Produce, or fruits, of the Isle of Man. This and the six accompanying tributes — fish from the Boyne, hazel-nuts from Cantire, and so forth — were delivered to him at Tat-a in the Calends of August, when he recruited his mystical relationship with the land and its products by partaking of all the offerings at a grand feast.12. The nature of the Manx contribution is not so clear as that of the others ( unless we read it as acorns ‘—one meaning of meas). but in view of the bardic name for the Island, ‘ the Isle of Apple-trees,’ possibly apples were regarded as a symbol of its traditional status as the Gaelic Avalon.

‘ Trefot, namely, Ireland, Manann and Scot-land ; whence it is said that three sods [ trI fóide] of ore were taken from each country of them for the close-compounding of a single fabric out of them by means of magic, etc.’13 This magical piece of smithwork was performed at a place near Drumshaughlin in Meath which was afterwards known as Trevot or Trevet because the object was fabricated and preserved there. Exactly what shape it was given is not explained ; but there are signs that something has been omitted from the text in the course of transcriptions.

The word translated ‘ fabric ‘ (aicde), has been rendered also as ‘ case,’ ‘ ring,’ and ‘ article.’ In later mentions of the place-name Trevot it is said to be due to the cutting of three sods there, in honour of the Trinity, at the burial of Art mac Conn in the 2nd century. He had directed that he should be laid there and not with his ancestors at Brugh na Bóinne, because he fore-knew that a Christian church would be built on the spot, which in his time was called Dumha Derg-luachra, the Burial-mound of the Red Rushes. 14

These latter fictions are obviously due to the ecclesiastical mind. Taking the Cormac statement at its face value, if the mysterious object wrought of three metals stood for a symbol or emblem of the unity of the three countries, as implied, it must be dated a long way back. When, in the 9th century, the Gaels first assumed the sovereignty of what then became Scotland, the Isle of Man was settled and governed by the Norsemen, so that the three countries were never Gaelic at the same time. Was the implied unity a much earlier and Pictish state of affairs, in which the lrish element was a Pictish Ulster extending as far south as Meath and allied racially to Scotland and Man ? Another and perhaps more plausible explanation suggests itself from the use of ‘ Alba.’ here translated ‘ Scotland,’ but in the older texts signifying Britain inclusive of what is now England. It is so used in the Cormac article Mug Einie, where Crimthann is described as King of Ireland and Alba — i.e., the west of England from Glastonbury to Cornwall. ‘ Great was the power of the Gael on Britain, they divided Alba among them into districts, and . . . not less did the Gael dwell on the East side of the sea than in Scotica —--i.e., Ireland. ‘ And their habitations and royal forts were built there by them ‘—as invaders. of course. Thus the Three Sods would be Ireland, Man, and the West of England. This state of affairs lasted, according to names in the Mug Fime article. from the 2nd century to the 5th or 6th.

In an early 13th-century panegyric on Reginald Son of Godred, who became King of Man and the Western Isles in 1188 and was slain at Tynwald Hill in 1228, the poet apostrophises the royal stronghold as ‘the Tara of Manann,’ and declares that he will approach by an under-sea passage from Ireland the apple-bearing Island whose praise he sings—’ this Manann with its smooth plain, which Ragnall will divide into two parts for his many ships and his levies of men ‘ ;15 a division which has been continued ever since. O’Curry alludes to this spirited eulogy as anonymous, but his predecessor Colgan, who says he has the poem in his possession, gives the author’s name as ‘ Arthulius.’16


Besides the association of our Manann with characters and events in the great bardic romances, and with the Gaelic divinifies looming behind these, ‘ Manann ‘ is found in historic times as a local name in Ireland and Scotland. At Fermoy in the 15th century there was a small tract of land recorded under this name. It was inhabited by a clan called the Hy Britain, whose neighbours were the clan Hy Manóg.17 Going much further back, an Irish tradition avers that Manannan had a fort or castle called Dun Manann in or beside a certain lake near Fermoy. Possibly there was some confusion between him and Mogh Ruith, . Servitor of the Wheel,’ an archdruid or powerful magician from another island, Valencia in Kerry, who was granted land hereabouts as a reward for his prowess in the King’s service. In the name Shevannan, Co. Roscomnion, we have, probably, another shortening of ‘ Manannan,’ the meaning being ‘ the Fairy Hill of Manannan.’ There is also a Cashel Vanannain, an extensive earthwork, in the same county, and a Cam Manannain is mentioned in ‘ The Colloquy of the Ancients,"18 where the locality is not stated.

In old Irish literature occur scattered allusions to a Manann as being the home of different men and women of importance, but how far historical these are and how far fabulous would be difficult to decide. In each instance the person is said to belong to the Britons (or sometimes the Picts) of Manann, by which term some other place than the Isle of Man appears to be meant. Certain other places in Ireland called Mannan or Mannin are due to personal or other names not connected with that of the Island.

In what is now Scotland there once lay between the lower Forth and the upper Clyde an extensive British territory, the boundary of which has been obliterated for more than a thousand years. Its inhabitants called it Manaw, the Gaels called it Manann ; Campus Manand, ‘ Plain of Man,’ was the Latin form. The first mention of it occurs in the chronicle of Tighernach in the 6th century. From it issued the migrating body of Britons known to history as the Sons of Cunedda, who, perhaps disturbed by Scotic invaders from Ireland, moved South in the 6th century and took possession of North Wales. In the 7th-century Ravenna Geography it is recognizable as ‘ Manavi.’ In the 9th century it sent out Merfyn Frych to rule over Anglesey.* The name of this Northern Manann has survived in a few places which lie within its former boundary.

(The foregoing paper is an abridgement of a section in a much fuller discussion of the names of the Isle of Man, as yet unpublished).

1. Keating, I. T. S. edn., i, 214 ; O’Curry, ‘ Atlantis,’ iii, 395.

2.‘ Metrical Dindsenchas,’ ed. Gwynn, s.v. ‘ Ben Etar.’

3. Rhys, ‘ Hibbert Lectures,’ p. 323.

4. Mrs. W. J. Watson, ‘ Celtic Review,’ v, 65.

5. Mona Douglas, ‘ Journal of the Folk-Song Soc.,’ vii, 101.

6, O’Grady, ‘ Silva Gadelica,’ ii, 530.

7. ‘ Atlantis,’ iii, passim.

8. ‘ Celtic Review,’ ii, 21.

9.Transcribed by Kuno Meyer from a 14th cent. vellum (Stowe MS. No. 992), in his ‘ Addenda to d’Arbois ‘ ‘ Essai dun Catalogue Raisonné.’

10. O’Donovan’s trans. of Cormac’s Glossary, ed. Stokes, s.v. ‘ Prull.’

11. ‘ Transactions of the Ossianic Soc.,’ vol. v.

12, ‘ Book of Rights,’ ed. O’Donovan, pp. 3 and 9. See also ‘ Trans. of Ossianic Soc.,’ i, 119.

13. Cormac’s Glossary, ed. Stokes, Additional Articles, s.v. ‘ Trefot.’

14. ‘ Senchus na Relec ‘ and ‘ O’Clery’s Calendar,’ quoted by Joyce, ‘ Irish Names,’ I, 133.

15. Skene, ‘ Celtic Scotland,’ ill, Appendix II.

16. Colgan, ‘ Acta Sanctorum ‘ (1646), p- 60, note 4.

17. Archdall, ‘ Ancient Monasteries of Ireland,’ i, 129ff.

18. O’Grady, ‘ Silva Gadelica,’ ii, 196.

*There is an estate in Anglesey called by the Welsh name for the Isle of Man, viz., Manau, which is a survival from the old name of the parish In which the estate stands. How it came to be given I do not know.

(c) Estate W.W.Gill

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