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.

The Bull Kelly

On one of the many rocky islands that lie off the West coast of Ireland lived a fisherman called Kelly. He was a muscular man who was fond of his drink and his tobacco, and he would take his ill-temper out on his wife by beating and by throwing things around the house. All other men on the island were afraid of Kelly and would not stand up to his bullying ways and the called him ‘The Bull’. But Kelly would go out to sea every day that there was fair weather and catch as many fish as he could, which he would subsequently bring to Kilclough and the fish factory there. These trips were, of course, ideal opportunities for ‘The Bull’ to stock up on his supplies, especially his tobacco and whiskey, and the odd grocery item that his wife might need for the house.

For several days the weather had caused the sea to toss and boil, while wind-driven rain and grey skies made it difficult to see very far ahead. ‘The Bull’ had run out of tobacco and alcohol several days previously and further inflamed his already famed fiery temper, making him even more violent and it was his poor wife that suffered the consequences. Then, one day, a loud knock came to the Kelly’s cabin door and his bruised, long-suffering wife was ordered to answer it. When she opened the door to the visitor, she came face to face with a red-haired man whom she did not recognise. “Is he in?” asked the man in a deep gruff voice.

Paddy!” she called out, “there’s someone to see you.

Who?” asked ‘The Bull’ but before he could get an answer the red-haired stranger was by his side.

It’s only me,” he spoke softly to Kelly, taking him totally by surprise.

The sudden appearance of the red-haired man was believed to be an unlucky omen, but Kelly was in such an ill-temper that he never thought about omens. “What is it you want?” he snapped at the stranger.

What will you give me to go over to Kilclough and bring back what you are in most need of?

Kelly laughed loudly. “Nothing!” he said. “I will give you nothing for whatever means you use to go there I am more than able to use that means also.

Alright,” said the visitor with a knowing smile on his face. “Get on your coat and come with me down to the shore. I will show you how to get across the sea, but as only one of us can go, you must go alone.

Without hesitation Kelly pulled on his heavy sea coat and followed the red-haired man out of the cabin door. Together they followed the path down to the stone-covered shore where the waves were rolling in. Then, out of the mist, there came a large herd of horses with men and women on their backs, galloping along singing loudly and laughing. The ginger-haired man now turned to Kelly and told him, “Get up there now on a horse and it will take you across the water.”

Although he was suspicious of the stranger, Kelly got up on a horse as requested and in an instant the animal jumped out over the sea and landed in the centre of Kilclough. Overjoyed with his good fortune ‘The Bull’ ran to the store and bought both his tobacco and whiskey supply and within minutes he was back to his horse. To his surprise the other riders were assembled by the seashore and eager to be off. So, ‘The Bull’ got up on his horse again and they all immediately jumped into the seas. On this occasion, however, they came to a halt midway between Kilclough and home, where there was a large island of rock beyond which the horses could not be made to pass. There was great disquiet among them all and they decided to call a meeting to decide the best way forward. “There is a mortal among us,” one of the riders called out to the rest. “Let us drown him now, so we can pass!

They gathered around ‘The Bull’ and lifted him from his horse and carried him to the top of the rock and threw him down into the sea. Then, when he returned to the surface, he was grabbed by all the hands and the crowd called out, “Drown him! Drown him! We have the power over life and death here and he must be drowned!” But just as they were making ready to throw him from the top of the rock for a second time the ginger-haired man pleaded for his life and with a strong hand led him to the shore.

As ‘The Bull’ walked up from the shoreline towards the cabin again the red-haired man spoke softly to him. “You are safe now,” he said, “but just remember that the spirits are watching you at all times, and should you ever again beat your wife, or throw furniture and things about the home in a foul temper you will discover that you shall die upon that rock.” With these words the stranger disappeared. But from that time onward ‘The Bull’ was as meek as a mouse, for there was now a great fear on him. Each time that he passed the rock in his boat he would stop and say a wee prayer for his wife. By adhering to this, Kelly kept the evil away and they both lived together happily until they reached a good old age.

To you, the reader, this may sound like a simple tale, but it is a story with a good moral behind it. The red-haired man might be thought to be an unlucky omen, but it is the one who saves, helps and rescues any mortal who is unhappy, or finds themselves helpless in the hands of the fairy folk. The story, however, demonstrates how the threat of justified retribution from the anger of fairies can reduce the tyranny of one person over another who is weaker.

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.