Mermaids, Marriage and Mischief
Mermaids are to be found in folklore throughout the world, and have been a source of fascination and inspiration for centuries. In modern times, we mostly have the Disney-fied version of Ariel in the Little Mermaid - a far less brutal (spoiler alert!) retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s 1836 tale.
Mermaids are to be found in many forms across different cultures, from the human-fish hybrid, to the sirens of Greek mythology, and the Swan Maidens in Japanese, Germanic and Scandanavian tales. Irish folklore is no different - as an island nation, our stories are very much inspired by the sea, and we have not one, but two forms of mermaid like creature.
The selkie is part human, part seal. They appear as seals in the water, and once on land, they remove the skins to reveal their human-like form. It was said they could be seen dancing on the beaches at night. The selkie stories are more common in the northern coastal counties, as well as in Scottish and Icelandic folklore. If a person was to find the seal skin, the selkie was bound to stay with them, unable to return to the sea.
Women could attract a male selkie simply by shedding seven tears in to the sea, or he may even seduce human women of his own accord, usually the wives of fishermen thought to be in unhappy marriages. Selkie women in particular were said to make for loving caring wives, but they would always yearn for the sea. There are many versions of a story where the selkie woman retrieves her skin and returns to the sea, such as this version:
“A man was fishing one day and he caught a mermaid. It is said that if you take the comb from a mermaid she cannot go back to the sea again. The man was named Keane. He took the comb from her, and married her. The man hid the comb in the rafters. One night she set the house on fire, and down fell the comb, she got it, and went away again.”
The Merrow The stories of the merrow are often similar to those of the selkie, but the merrow features more prominently in the stories of the west coast. Again, the merrow is slightly different from the Disney version of the mermaid - and often looks very much like a human, with sea green hair, webbed fingers and large, flat flipper-like feet. However, the men aren’t always described so favorably, as WB Yeats in ‘The Soul Cages’ describes one as having a pig-face, with long razor sharp green teeth, and a bright red nose - due to his fondness for brandy. Along with their not-so-good looks, they had terrible tempers, so it’s little wonder that the women often searched for a human husband. They would bring gold from sunken ships to help them, and the descendants of these unions are said to have the telltale signs of their otherworldly heritage - such as webbed toes or scale on the skin. Though that might just be eczema… It is thought that certain family names in Ireland are another giveaway sign of merrow ancestors - O’Shea in Kerry, Conneely in Galway, O’Dowd in Mayo, O’Hara in Sligo and Gallagher in Donegal.
One of the best known stories of the merrow is The Lady of Gollerus - a story first recorded by Thomas Crofton Croker in 1825. This story is very much like those of the selkie, but rather than the seal skin, the merrow carries a ‘cohuleen druith’, a red cap covered in feathers which allows her to return to the water.
Sightings So other than crying into the sea or risking a house fire, how else might you encounter one of these sea people? The sightings are relatively recent.
At Killone Abbey, in Co. Clare, a merrow would swim up to the lake and enter the crypts of the abbey to steal wine from their cellars - and that’s a excuse you’re welcome to borrow. However, the merrow was caught and stabbed. Before she died, she dragged herself back to the lake. It is said that every 40 years, the water turns red with her blood. The lake has red clay and water with high iron levels which can give it a rusty red tinge, but that’s just coincidence, right?
Killone Abbey, Co. Clare
There are a number of reported sightings, particularly in the 1960s of merrow women at Kilconly point in Co. Kerry, where people remarked how she looked very much like a ‘normal human’, but let’s not allow the simplest explanation to get in the way of a good story. Then again, Kerry is home to Fungi the dolphin and crowning a goat as King, so safe to say they have seen stranger.
In Cork, one merrow person made a family promise to not kill a whale and to always be home before midnight. In return, they became incredibly wealthy. But of course, that’s never the end of these stories - nobody live happily ever after in Irish stories. One of the family kills a whale - the brother of the mermaid. She summons a white horse to come up out of the waves, and they return to the sea. From that day on, the whole family suffered poverty and misfortune.
Renvyle in Co. Galway has a number of sightings of the more elusive male merrow. In 1936, two fisherman named Martin Heanue and Thomas Regan were approached by him in a cove at Letterbeg, and the bearded creature grabbed at their currach. One of the men went to him the creature with the oar, but was stopped by the other - for superstition dictated that the man who struck a merrow with his oar would die within the year. And while it might seem questionable, local superstition also considers it bad luck to ‘belie the sea’. The same bearded creature was also seen by Laurence Henry of nearby Kylemore Castle in 1906. He also attempted to attack the merrow, though those sailing with him refused to harm this otherworldly being for fear of the consequences. There’s been sightings as recent as 1963, so he’s surely due a visit soon?
Letterbeg cove, where two fishermen encountered a male merrow
When we know more about outer space than we do of the ocean floor, its little wonder these stories remain so fascinating to us, because may - just maybe - they aren’t just stories.