The Merrows

From the many ideas and images that fill the folklore and mythology of Ireland there have been various mystic creations that have been given imaginative form and existence. One of these mystical creatures ‘The Merrow’ (or in Irish Morvadh, Morvach) is one of these and takes the legendary shape of a fantastic sea spirit that follows closely our idea of a mermaid. They are semi-human in their nature and shape of the body. From head-to-waist they appear, for intents and purposes, human. Then, from the waist, it is covered with greenish-tinted scales that appear to be the body and tail of a fish. In temperament, we are told, they are of a modest, affectionate, gentle and beneficent disposition. In the Irish their name appears to be a compound of ‘Muir’ (the Sea), and ‘Oigh’ (maid).

These marine creatures are also called by the Irish ‘Muir-gheilt’; Samhghubha; Muidhucha’n; and Suire and they appear to have been residing around our shores from the distant past, basking on our rocky coastline. According to the earliest chronicles available, when the Milesian ships bore onward, seeking a friendly harbor along our shores, the Suire, or ‘Sea-Nymphs’ played around them as they made their passage.

It is said that ‘The Merrow’ was able to have a close relationship with human beings and, it appears, they intermarried, living together with them for many years. There is, naturally, some exaggeration within the tales told by the various families and groups that live and thrive on Ireland’s southern and western coasts and claim a partial descent from these inhabitants of the seas and oceans. There can be little doubt, however, that the natural instincts of ‘The Merrow’ are likely to have prevailed over their romantic interests. Another problem that may have upset relationships with mortals would undoubtedly have been the very strong desires that they possessed to always return to their former haunts and companions in their undersea world.

Tradition suggests that the ‘Merrow-Maiden’ was the daughter of a King from beneath the sea, but it also informs us that these maidens might be found living under the waters of our lakes. These mermaids are said to allure young mortals to follow them beneath the surface of the water, where they will live in an enchanted state with each other.

‘Merrows’ wear a ‘Conuleen Druith’, or a little charmed cap, which was generally covered with feathers and used for diving under the water. Should they ever lose this small cap they would lose the power to return to their homes in the depths of the seas and oceans. They have, however, been known to leave their outer skins behind them in the sea so that they might assume other more magical and beauteous appearances. But, they retain the soft white webs between their fingers and are often seen with a comb of gold, parting their long green hair on either side of their head, enhancing her very beautiful features. Also, beautiful and attractive is the music of ‘The Merrow’, which can be heard coming up from the lowest depths of the ocean, and sometimes floating across the water’s surface to encourage ‘Merrows’ to dance upon the shore, the strand, or on the waves that roll against the shoreline. Though all their features and fascinations are designed and practiced in order to seduce young mortal men, these maidens can occasionally be very vengeful.

It is strange to think of the possibility that there are ‘Merrow-Men’, but tradition insists that they do exist. It is said, however, that the ‘Merrow-Man’ is deformed in its shape and its features. More menacingly, the ‘Merrow-Men’ are said to keep the spirits of drowned fishermen, and sailors, captive in cages that are fastened to the bottom of the sea.

The myth of the Merrow-Maiden is known in various folklore traditions, but under different names. In Scotland, these creatures are known as Selkies and like Merrows in Ireland they can be either male or female. Furthermore, the Selkies are seals while in the water and what differentiates them from mermaids, other than the choice of animal, is that they undergo a full body transformation upon coming to shore. They do not merely transform their seal tails into human legs, but rather completely shapeshift from the sea animals into a human form. This is accomplished by shedding their seal-skin when they come to land.

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.