Selkie

Selkies or “Seal Folk” are mythological beings capable of changing from seal to human form by shedding their skin. These selkie folk are recounted in both Irish and Scottish mythology with  folk-tales frequently revolving around female selkies being coerced into relationships with humans by someone stealing and hiding their sealskin. While “selkies” is the proper term for such shapeshifters many refer to them merely as mermen or mermaids (Merrow), which in Ireland regarded as a half-seal, half-human being.

Selkie

The Mermaids (Merrow)  in Irish folklore have been regarded as seal-women in some instances. In a certain collection of lore in County Kerry, there is a tale from Tralee, which claimed that the ‘Lee’ family was descended from a man who took a mermaid for a wife, but she later escaped and joined her seal-husband, suggesting she was of the seal-folk kind.

There is also the tradition that the ‘Conneely Clan’ of Connemara was descended from seals, and it was taboo for them to kill the animals because it would bring ill luck to them. And since the name “conneely” became a by-word for the animal, many changed their surname to Connelly. There is also a mention in this folklore connection mentioning that there is a Roaninish (Rón-inis, “seal island”) off Donegal, outside Gweebarra Bay.

In many versions of the Selkie myth, the children produced by the coupling of a Selkie and a human, are born with certain physical characteristics that set them apart from normal children. The children of male selkies and human women have webbed toes and fingers, and when the webbing is cut, a rough and rigid growth takes its place. Such tales as these, stem from before the advent of modern medicine, when many physiological conditions were untreatable. When children were born with abnormalities, it was common to blame the fairy folk. One family became known locally as the ‘Seal Family’, claiming to be descended from a union between a fisherman and a selkie. This was an explanation for a hereditary growth of skin between their fingers that made their hands resemble flippers. At the same time children born with “scaly” skin were also thought to be the descendants of Selkies, though this could have been caused by ‘ichthyosis’, a genetic skin disorder that causes patches of skin to harden and appear “scaly.” This condition can be severe, appearing all over the body, but it is more likely to only cause slight disfigurement.

The Queen of the Sea

A Tale of Irish Mermaids

Young Pat Murphy, known to many as ‘Stitch’, went one day to the beach with an donkey to gather a load of seaweed. It was a beautiful May morning and because it was still early there were few people about. ‘Stitch’, however, was an industrious young man and was keen to have as much seaweed gathered as possible before any of the neighbours came upon the same place. Dressed well for the hard work ahead of him and armed with a strong cudgel he hastily urged his donkey, loaded with empty creels, down the boreen towards the sea.

Gathering Seaweed

It promised to be a good day for gathering seaweed and not a sound broke the stillness of that tranquil morning, except for the occasional whack of ‘Stitch’s’ cudgel as he urged the animal forward. Then, there was the gentle murmur of the waves as they lapped softly on the golden sandy beach before retiring quickly once again and, when ‘Stitch’ reached the beach he commanded the donkey to stop and stand still while he eagerly began to fill the creels. For a moment he raised his head from his work and looked out towards a ‘black rock’ that stood only a few yards out from shore. In a moment, his face went a deathly white, he staggered and reached out for the creels to support him, but he did not reach them and fell forward in a faint. He never made a sound but lay there for three of four minutes until Sean Rooney lifted him up. It still took him a moment or two to regain full consciousness and, when he did, he remembered what he had seen. In a feeble voice he spoke in terror, “Oh, Sean, did you see them?

What did I see, ‘Stitch’, and what in the name of God came over you?

The two women on the black rock! Sure, didn’t I see them as plain as day. God help us!” replied ‘Stitch’ as he tried to cling ever closer to Sean.

God save us, ‘Stitch’, are you dreaming, or what?” said Sean.

I’m not dreaming, or imagining anything, Sean! I saw her with my own eyes. The grandest lady that anyone has ever seen or heard about. She had a beautiful dress on her, upon which gold and silver decorations shone and sparkled in the sunshine. Hanging from her head and around her shoulders were the finest golden curls, framing the face of a young girl who was the image of an angel. And, on her head sat a golden crown that was covered in pearls and diamonds.

Well, ‘Stitch’, you will have no need to worry or fear what you have seen, for you will have nothing but good luck from this day onward,” Sean assured him.

Sean, man dear, I don’t feel at all well after what I have seen. I am afraid that I am done for! The vision I saw took the very sight from my eyes.

Trust me,” Sean counselled him. “Don’t worry about it. What you have seen will never do you any harm.” His voice was calming but it did not inspire true confidence in what he said. Sean admitted to a neighbour, later, “I tried to keep the poor man’s spirits up, for God knows those spirits will be down for a while to come. It was, undoubtedly, the great lady herself that he had seen, the ‘Queen of the Sea’, and her beautiful daughter. Sure, I have only heard of them being seen once before, and the one who saw them never had a day’s luck after, until he died.

The same was true of Pat ‘Stitch’ Murphy, for he was never the same after his experience.