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  • The forgotten kingdom of Mannau November 24, 2010

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback

    It is difficult to not to get all lyrical when looking at the early history of Man, the tiny island that stands halfway between the UK and Ireland, not least because that history is so obscure.

    Beachcombing is not referring to the later Norse destinyof the island, when Man was a pirate base for several thousand frightful Norwegians and Danes operating in the Irish Sea. No, rather he is thinking back to the older Celtic kingdom that preceded the Vikings.

    The problem is – and isn’t there always a problem? – that the Viking attacks that destroyed the Celtic Kingdom of Man in the ninth century were so fierce that they destroyed too most of the proof of its earlier history. However, here and there, in medieval manuscripts and archaeological digs there are hints of a proud and independent realm.

    Mannau, as its Celtic inhabitants called it, was first mentioned in the early fifth century when the Latin author Orosius wrote that the Scotti – Gael raiders – had possession of the island. We are under no obligation to believe him: Orosius, also insisted that a lighthouse on the Shannon could be clearly seen on the coast of northern Spain almost a thousand miles away – another post another day. However, this curious mix of history and legend is a fine introduction to the kingdom: for most early Manx ‘facts’ are served up in just this kind of legendary gravy.

    Take the story of Maccuil who began his life as a priest-hating ogre in Ireland, saw the error of his ways and then as a penance was set adrift handcuffed to his boat, coming ashore on Man where he morphed into the island’s first bishop (as you do).

    Or what about canny Aidan Mac Gabran,  semi-mythic lord of the Hebrides who led, it is said, an invasion of Man in the sixth century.

    To come to the reality of life in the kingdom, we have to turn, instead, to physical relics. A rock with the name ‘Guriat’ carved upon it, for example – the only Celtic Manx king whose name is certainly known. Or the Celtic cross on the northern tip of the island where pilgrims scratched their names – pilgrims these crossing from Ireland to Galloway. Or even the Byzantine crucifix from the Calf of Man (a satellite isle), brought perhaps by a Syrian hermit to the cold north, one who was mindful of Jerome’s injunction that a good Christian can enter  heaven as easily from Britain as from Jerusalem.

    The kingdom of Man crumbled in the mid-ninth century as the volume of Viking long boats in the Irish Sea reached intolerable levels. Guriat’s descendants, the royal dynasty of Man knew that their time was up and a group of them broke out and settled in Gwynedd in north-western Wales, where they thought that the dragon ships could no longer reach them – vain hope…

    The language of Man into the modern period was Manx, a peculiar hybrid of Gaelic and Norse. Linguists have always been confused by this Celto-Viking tongue that died out in the 1970s. Some believe that the ‘Gaelic’ in it was the remnants of the language of the original pre-Viking inhabitants, others that the Gaelic element was carried across from Ireland by the Hiberno-Vikings and their slaves and that the original Manx was wiped out with the earlier population.

    Beachcombing who is always open to apocalyptic scenarios prefers the second explanation. Certainly, Viking settlement on the island – wherever the hell the Manx pointy-hats came from – was dense: taking in even marginal land – suggesting that nothing would have been left for the natives. And the beaten in skulls of the sacrificed, indigenous women found in Viking graves on Man are as eloquent an obituary for Mannau as any other.

    Beachcombing is always on the look out for forgotten kingdoms: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


    1 Dec 2010: With great kindness Jonathan Jarrett – writer of the legendary A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe blog – has given Beachcombing permission to quote this passage from some of Jonathan’s juvenilia. The young Jonathan made the important point that Aedan’s attack on Man may have been Manau, a region of what is today south-western Scotland.  The full paper is here, while the extraordinary description of its struggle into print can be found here – Beachcombing does not know which he enjoys more: ‘In 581, and possibly again in 582, Áedán is recorded to have won the battle of ‘Manau’. As was set out by Watson, this could mean either the Isle of Man or a region of the same name in the Forth area (Watson 1926 pp. 103- 104). Philologically, there is no distinction between the names. In default of any more help from the evidence, one must attempt to evaluate the alternatives in their historical context, and the trouble here is that both are plausible. In 577 the Ulaid attacked Manau, and this at least must have been the island (AU s.a. 576). However, for 578, the Annals of Ulster record, ‘The retreat of the Ulaid from Man’ (s.a. 577, trans. Mac Niociall). No hint of a battle is given, but in a record so bald as that of the Chronicles argument e silentio is risky. It is best to say that we simply cannot tell what occurred. Then, in 581 and 582, it is recorded that Áedán won this ‘Battle of Manau’ (AU s.aa. 580, 581; cf. AI s.a. 583). It is noticeable that AT uses different languages for the Ulaid’s attacks on Man, and Áedán’s fight or fights at Manau. The former are recorded in Latin and the latter in Irish, suggesting the use of two different sources (cf. Dumville 1982, 1984a p. 119). This battle is also recorded in the Annales Cambriæ, sub anno 584, without a victor, but at this period their record is of no independent value for events recorded in the Irish Annals (Hughes 1973 pp. 69-72; Dumville 1984c). It is also the only mention of Áedán made by the Fragmentary Annals (FA I 3), but they appear to be related to the same Clonmacnoise-group text as AT (Radner 1978 p. xviii), so this must be the focus of a later editor, not the original text. Which Manau Áedán was fighting in is unclear. As will be seen, he certainly had interests in the area of the British province, and Welsh sources do not remember him kindly, though they do so very vaguely. It is certainly not impossible that he could have been fighting there, it is even plausible, but it is equally so for a battle on the Isle. The control over the sea between Áedán’s two provinces that could be asserted from Man is obvious, and Báetán’s Ulaid were certainly active there, possibly even settling there, and linguistic evidence from Man suggests a lasting Irish settlement on the Isle (Cubbon 1982 pp. 259-260). It may therefore be imagined that Áedán might have wished to take control there to prevent the link between his provinces being broken. He might also have seized the opportunity presented by Báetán’s death to do so. The Orkneys campaign and the Senchús fer nAlban illustrate the ability of Dál Riata to carry out naval operations, which is also implied in the Triad of the Faithful Warbands. Furthermore, though it is late, the statement of the genealogy in the Book of Leinster which records Áedán’s submission is of interest. It says of Baetán, ‘It was by him that Manu was cleared; and in the second year after his death the Irish abandoned Manua.’ (LL 330ab 45, trans. O’Rahilly 1946 p. 504; see also Dobbs 1921 pp. 324, 328). That there was another ‘venture’ into Man by the Ulaid is implied by the Chronicles’ description of the 577 endeavour as the first. It seems clear that here at least the relevant Chronicles were being recorded some time after the events,21 and possibly the compiler never managed to record the ‘second venture’. The date implied for the following evacuation would moreover be 582 or 583, which coincides nicely with Áedán’s victory. However, evidence of the twelfth century should not be allowed to close the debate.’ Thanks a million to Jonathan!