Tourist boom thanks to sea-god sculpture theft

The statue of Manannan Mac Lir back up on Binevenagh. INLV0916-659KDR
The statue of Manannan Mac Lir back up on Binevenagh. INLV0916-659KDR

An Irish sea-god sculpture stolen and vandalised by religious extremists has proven to be a huge draw for tourists since being replaced at Binevenagh.

East Londonderry MLA Gerry Mullan, who was Mayor when the old Limavady Borough Council decided to commission the sculpture, is hoping the large crowds travelling to view the famous sculpture will ‘branch out’ and take in some of the other works of art originally commissioned as part of a ‘myths and legends’ sculpture trail.

Mr Mullan said large numbers of visitors can frequently be seen travelling up to the summit of Binevenagh to view the depiction of the old Irish god of the sea, Manannán Mac Lir. The sculpture depicts the old pagan god, who gives his name to the Isle of Man, with arms outstretched overlooking the mouth of the Atlantic from his mythical boat high above the ocean at Binevenagh.

Created by Dungannon man Darren Sutton, whose work has featured on the hit cinematic TV series Game of Thrones, the Manannán Mac Lir sculpture was created as part of a series from a range of internationally renowned artists including Maurice Harron, who also created the iconic ‘hands across the divide’ sculpture in Londonderry.

It is one of a series of sculptures based on local folklore and history scattered throughout the Roe Valley area.

The others forming ‘myths and legends’ trail depict the murderous highwayman Cushy Glen, the tragic Finvola Gem of the Roe, the ‘leap of the dog’ from which Limavady gets takes name, and the mythical creature Lig na Paiste, the last snake in Ireland.

The theft of the Manannán Mac Lír sculpture by apparent Christian extremists made headlines all over the world, with articles about the bizarre incident appearing in publications such as the New York Times and Russia Today.

The sculpture is now famous thanks to the worldwide press coverage and SDLP man Gerry Mullan is delighted with the resulting increase in tourists coming to get their pictures taken with the Irish sea-god, now returned to the top of Binevenagh.

Mr Mullan is hoping the fame of the Manannán Mac Lír statue will spill over to the others dotted throughout the Roe Valley area.

He said: “We were all aghast at the fact that it had happened but I think the fact that it did happen and the attention that was brought to it, all over the world, and the fact that it was replaced by one that was identical makes it all the more valuable as a tourist attraction.

“As a tourist product, it is something that I am very proud to have helped bring into this area.

“I would encourage anyone who is planning to go up and see it to maybe branch out and go and see each of the rest of them.

“It is a trail and it was designed to bring people all over the Roe Valley area. I would encourage people to go and see each one of them.”

He continued: “The sculpture trail was a relatively cheap exercise in terms of the financial rewards it brings to the local economy.

“They are exceptionally fine pieces of sculpture by internationally acclaimed artists. Darren Sutton is now working on Game of Thrones and he has done some incredible stuff. Likewise Maurice Harron has maybe 60 to 70 pieces worldwide and they are very important pieces, globally recognised.

“They are world class and internationally acclaimed artists so what we got from that was exceptional in terms of what it can do for this area and the tourist potential that it has for the local economy.

“I think we have reaped the benefits from it already and it will play an ever increasing part in the prosperity of this area.”

Mr Mullan highlighted the rich folklore and heritage that the series of sculptures represent. He pointed in particular to the depiction Cushy Glen, a notorious 19th century highwayman famous for murdering his victims as they travelled over the Windyhill Road between Coleraine and Limavady. Such was the cut-throat’s notoriety, the route was known as the Murderhole Road for over 100 years before it was changed to the more gentle sounding Windyhill Road in the 1970s.

Gerry Mullan said the sculpture perfectly encapsulates the local folklore surrounding the area: “Particularly in terms of the Cushy Glen sculpture, it encapsulates the whole background and history surrounding the legend in that area.

“You can see the impending sense of foreboding and doom that the people would have had in those times.

“He apparently would have sat in pubs and skulked in the corner, in the darkness, as I’m sure you can imagine the pubs in those times wouldn’t have had very much light. He would have been sitting there listening to all those conversations and trying to find out who was going to be travelling over that hill and at what time, waiting to try and find out if they might have money on them or whatever.

“He would have left in advance and he would have been waiting on them. Apparently when he heard the horses coming over the windy hill, he would have stayed alongside and slashed the horse’s belly and brought the horse down and the carriages. He was eventually brought down himself when he was trying to murder someone.

“Sometimes when you’re heading over that hill and you see the sculpture appear over the distance it brings your mind right there to it and it makes your skin crawl.

“I think it emphasises just how good the pieces are and it is a testament to the myths and legends that they are supposed to represent. They are incredibly well done and they replicate exactly what the myths and legends are about.”

The former Mayor of Limavady continued, referring to the famous sea-god sculpture. “It shows you exactly how rich the myths and legends are themselves too”, he said.

“This area is steeped in folklore. You could look in particular at the Manannán Mac Lir sculpture and how it is tied in with the Broighter Gold.

“Some would say that it was a votive offering that was supposed to be made to him. In those ancient times much of that particular area where the Broighter Gold was found would have been underwater and people say that it might have been dropped off the side of a boat as an offering.

“There is a lot of interesting history and culture behind it and that is shown by the fact that it is in the museum in Dublin, and it features on the very front page of their literature. That is how important it is. It is one of the most important artefacts in all of Europe, as far as I am aware. That goes to show just how rich the culture is in this area and sometimes when it is on your doorstep you don’t appreciate it.

“This was initially a part of a project called ‘Explore, See, Do’ but now that we have moved into the bigger Causeway Coast and Glens council, it is one of the main attractions for that whole area - which is in itself probably the single area with the greatest tourist potential.

“Now that the ferry is back up and running, we are linking north Donegal in the south of Ireland with the North Coast and the wider North West area.

“The Manannan Mac Lir sculpture and all the others in the trail are now linked directly with the Wild Atlantic Way. When you come across in the ferry you are facing it, directly. It has become a major, major tourist attraction and there are bus loads of tourists coming to see that now.

“That road is choc-a-block with cars full of people going to see it. It has become an ever increasing attraction for people coming to get photos taken with it. At the time of the European football championship, there were photographs doing the rounds of Manannan Mac Lir wearing the Northern Ireland top and people getting their pictures taken beside it. It has become a must-do thing now, especially for young people. They have to be photographed at the sculpture. I think it has become clear to people that it has great value as a piece of sculpture and a work of art, rather than as a religious object as some people have done. I do believe that because of the furore that arose over it at the time that the people who did cut it down have realised their error. I think that if they hadn’t realised their mistake, it would never have been found.

“I certainly hope that the increasing number of tourists coming to see Manannán Mac Lir also decide to go and see some of the others.”