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.
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.