A Mystery Solved.

By Cormac F. Lowth  

The Man O War Head

Man Of War in North County Dublin could be better described as a hamlet rather than a village. It consists today of a crossroads with a few houses and a pub, appropriately named the Man Of War Inn. The ruined remains of an earlier, and much larger inn, can be seen just up the road from the present establishment. The older building was a well-known coaching Inn on what was once one of the main roads leading northwards from Dublin just south of Balbriggan. There was a turnpike nearby and the Inn was a convenient hostelry for coach passengers and for the changing of teams of horses. The name would seem to imply some connection with a warship but a corruption of an old Gaelic place-name such as Meann Bharr or Meann Bhothair, meaning Middle Height and Middle Road respectively, would probably be a more likely explanation. There are many accounts in existence written by travelers who had stopped at the Inn, of the cuisine and the conditions to be encountered there and these vary greatly from high praise to scathing criticism. Some of the accounts are by well-known figures. John Wesley gave the place a favourable mention in his journal while Wolfe Tone had breakfast there in 1792.   Many descriptions have also been written of a mysterious wooden figure, known variously as the Man Of War head, The Turks Head, or The Magog’s Head, which once stood on a pillar outside the coaching inn. This is thought to have been in position from sometime early in the nineteenth century. The Head and the Man Of War Inn are depicted in a watercolour by John Nixon, who died in 1818. At some stage during the late nineteenth century it seems that the Head was taken down from the plinth and it was in the private ownership of Mrs. Maxwell of Corduff in 1947 when Mrs. Mullen presented a paper on the subject of the Man Of War Head to the Skerries Historical Society in which she gave the following description,   It is a man’s head carved from wood and painted. The paint is astonishingly fresh. It is about three times the size of a man’s head, with blue eyes, black hair, large black moustache, and a pink and white complexion. The Head is held in the open mouth of a dragon (or crocodile). The dragon’s teeth can be seen and also the eyes which are closed. An eagle is perched on the dragon’s head with its beak fixed in the nose, as if trying to rescue the man. Only the head and the hind quarters of the eagle remain, the rest has decayed away.   In 1999, the Head was in the possession of Mrs. Daphne Maxwell and her daughter Hillary of Rathmichael House near Shankhill in South County Dublin where it was examined by Mr. Jim Walsh, librarian of Balbriggan Library. The Head was given into the care of Mr. Walsh and The Balbriggan and District Historical Society of which he is a prominent member. In 1999, Mr. Walsh wrote an article entitled The Man Of War and The Turks Head for the Society’s publication, Balbriggan, A History For The Millennium. The article contained a photograph of the Head. What the Head was meant to represent became immediately clear to this author and he contacted Mr Jim Walsh who invited him to his house to inspect it. A number of interesting observations were made during this examination.  


It was obvious that the figure represents the Greek god Heracles or Hercules wearing the skin of the Nemean Lion and that it had been a ships figurehead. Various features on the figure allude to some of the Labours of Hercules. In ancient mythology, Hercules was renowned from an early age for his prodigious strength. He was the son of the god Zeus and the mortal Alcmene. Hera, the wife and sister of Zeus, was jealous of this relationship and sent two serpents to kill Hercules as a child, which he promptly strangled. The hostility shown by Hera towards Hercules throughout his life eventually brought about the madness that caused him to kill his wife Megara, and their children. After consulting the Oracle at Delphi, Hercules was given the celebrated Twelve Labours to perform in penance for his crime. The first of these was to kill the seemingly indestructible Nemean Lion whose skin was invulnerable to ordinary weapons. Hercules killed and skinned the lion using one of its own claws and ever after, he wore the skin as armour, which rendered him invincible. There are many depictions of Hercules wearing the skin to be seen on ancient pottery, statuary and frescoes and on coinage.  

Heracles killing the Stymphalian birds with his sling. Attic black-figured amphora, ca. 540 BC. Said to be from Vulci.

The presence of the evil looking bird on the top of the figure can be explained by the sixth labour of Hercules. A great flock of man-eating predatory birds had descended upon the town of Stymphalos. These were equipped with huge beaks, which were capable of penetrating any armour. The birds were wreaking havoc among the citizens of the town and the task of destroying them fell to Hercules as one of his labours. Using a pair of bronze Krotola or clappers provided by Athena, Hercules made the birds take flight from the trees in which they were perched beside a lake and he was able to kill them at his leisure while all of the time being impervious to their sharp beaks by virtue of the protective qualities of the skin of the Nemean lion. The Stymphalian bird can be seen vainly trying to peck through the skin while the smug countenance of Hercules below denotes his knowledge of his invincibility. A large wooden pipe once adorned the mouth of the figure, which, although it must have been an addition, would have sat well with the general tenor of the carving.   The timber used in the carving, which was visible at the rear where some parts had broken off, looked like yellow pine and, if so, it might denote a North American origin. Here also could be detected a clue to the probable maritime origin of the figure. At some stage in its existence an infestation of Gribble had occurred. This is a marine boring organism, Limnoria Lignorum, which bores longitudinally through timber in seawater. The holes are similar to woodworm but are easily distinguishable. Continual exposure to these tiny creatures can reduce ships timbers to a shell.   It can be deduced from this that it must have been immersed in seawater for a considerable period. This can only mean that it was a figurehead, possibly from a wrecked ship which had spent some time, either in the inter-tidal zone from where it could have been salvaged with relative ease, or in deep water from where it had been trawled up from the remains of a ship that had sank. There are several examples of similar figureheads depicting Hercules in various maritime collections throughout the World.   In her paper, Mrs. Mullen stated that the figure had come from a wreck at Mornington, near Drogheda sometime before 1832. In two of the volumes of his Shipwrecks Of The Irish Coast, Edward J. Bourke mentions ships named Hercules being wrecked in various places around Ireland. All occurred too late to be of interest except one which, ‘foundered off the coast of Ireland on 22-3-1799. She was from Wiscasset for Liverpool’. Unfortunately no specific location is given. Wiscasset is in the State of Maine.   In common with most wooden figureheads, this figure would probably have been carved with a torso and arms, all of which have long since disappeared. While only the front and top features of the head portion of the figure are still in existence, it is rather remarkable that even a part of a carved wooden figure, which had spent some time in the sea and had been exposed to the elements while mounted on a plinth outside the Man Of War Inn, should survive at all. There is, however, a good thickness built up from successive layers of paint over the years and this must have contributed to its preservation. It is also rather strange that none of the many writers, who have described the Head over the years, seem to have deduced the fact that the figure represented Hercules. The origins of figureheads on ships are to be found in antiquity when votive figures were placed on ships bows to appease the gods. Following the renaissance, elaborately carved and gilded figures were to be seen on warships symbolising the grandeur and power of the State. The use of figureheads on merchant ships reached its zenith in the nineteenth century with the proliferation of sailing ships that occurred with industrial expansion. Their numbers eventually declined as steel hulled steamers made inroads into the trades which were formerly the preserve of the sailing ship. Many ships were named after heroic figures and the figureheads usually reflected the name of the ship. Ships crews generally took great pride in their figurehead and they were usually kept well decorated.   The remaining portions of the Man Of War Head are badly in need of conservation to prevent further deterioration. Stabilisation might possibly be carried out by the use of a wax saturation method such as Polyethylene Glycol but this is an expensive and lengthy process. It is to be hoped that it will eventually be placed on display in some suitable venue where all can admire the once enigmatic figure that gazed down from the plinth outside the Man Of War Inn.   References.
  • Balbriggan, A History For The Millennium, Jim Walsh, The Man Of War and the Turk’s Head.
  • Shipwrecks of the Irish Coast, Vols. 1&2. Edward J. Bourke.
  • Dictionary of Classical and Literary Allusion, Wordsworth Reference.
  • The Seashore Naturalists Handbook. Leslie Jackman.
  • Dublin Historical Record, Vol LIV. No. 1, spring 2001. Colin Scudds, Old Coach Roads From Dublin, 1754 – 1821.
  • Ships Figureheads, Mike Stammers.
Cormac Lowth cormaclowth at utvinternet dot com