By Don Baldwin
“The declaration of George Hoey, parish clerk of Termonfeckin in the county of Louth and of Owen Maguire and Patrick Taaffe, of the said parish, farmers, states that on Wednesday last the 18th inst (August), as they were on the sea shore on the lands of Meagh’s farm (Meaghsland) in said parish, about half past three in the afternoon the tide being nearly in, they saw a mermaid (as they believed from having seen it described in books) of the full human size, swimming in the sea and directing its course towards the river Boyne: That it was only 15 perches from them and that they and several others saw it quite plain and that they could not be mistaken; that its body was remarkably white with long arms, which it frequently used to drive away the seagulls which were hovering over it; that its hair was very dark and that its tail, which it frequently showed when plunging, was of a dark colour and shaped like the tail of a fish.
The body of the animal, which from the waist upwards was completely of the human form and size, was generally about three feet above the water. They state that they saw it for more than a quarter of an hour and when they were leaving the place it was still above the surface of the water.” (The Times of London, 1st September 1824)
Strange tales of mermaids and female deities of the deep have long persisted throughout mankind’s history and whether these intriguing reports are wishful thinking or bona fide facts is still a matter of considerable debate. Colourful accounts of mermaid-like sea creatures appear in the mythology of many ancient cultures worldwide including Asia, Africa, the Near East and Europe. One of the very earliest of these peculiar stories appeared in ancient Assyria, in which the goddess Atargatis transformed herself into a mermaid out of shame for having killed her human lover. These opposing traits of benevolence and malevolence appear to be recurring themes in mermaid myth, along with their readiness to take human lovers.
Norse mythology had also a deep respect for the female entities who ruled the sea, namely the goddess Ran and her daughters; these stormy sea spirits reflected the shifting moods of the ocean sometimes helpful, sometimes harmful; gathering sailors in their drowning nets and dragging them down to the deep.
Likewise, the seductive Sirens of the sea figured heavily in Greek mythology, enticing helpless sailors to their death by means of their enchanted singing; mercilessly luring their ships to be shattered upon the rocks.
Celtic culture is also very rich in mermaid legend and Ireland in particular has a very long and detailed association with this temptress of the deep. In fact, the word mermaid is derived from the Irish word ‘merrow’ or moruadh, ‘muir’ (meaning sea) and ‘oigh’ (meaning maid); which refers specifically to the female of the species. Merfolk in general are also known as ‘suire’, which has been corrupted into the Scottish variant, silkie. Mermen, the male counterpart of the species are much more wary and rarely seen and what few reports there are, are far from flattering: Describing them as having sharp pointed teeth, small piggy eyes and scaled skin; little wonder the fairer of their species occasionally strayed towards human shores!
In most parts of the world, mermaids take on the shape of a woman from the waist up and the form of a fish from the waist down. Curiously in Irish folklore however, the only physical differences between some mermaids and humans are that the mermaid’s feet are flatter and their hands have thin webbing between the fingers. And while they have a great affinity for water, they are also amphibious and can spend long periods on land.
According to legend, mermaids also had special clothing, which allowed them to return to the sea and travel easily through the ocean currents. In Kerry, Cork and Wexford, they wore a small red cap made from feathers called a ‘cohullen druith’. However, in more northerly waters they travelled through these rough seas wrapped in a sealskin cloak and took on the attributes and appearance of seals.
In order to come ashore the mermaid must remove her cloak or cap and conceal it, so any mortal who finds these has power over her, for she cannot return to the sea without them. Hard bargains between mermaids and mortals over control of these powerful garments had been commonplace around the Irish coast: These marital arrangements seldom ended well for these avaricious men, as the mermaid invariably retrieved the stolen garment and promptly returned to the sea.
Entries in the Annals of Ireland indicate that throughout medieval times the existence of mermaids was accepted as historical fact. In 1118, recorded in the Annals of the Four Masters is an entry, which states that ‘fishermen have again discovered mermaids, this time in the Nore River in County Kilkenny and near the town of Waterford’. Another entry in the same book in AD 558 refers to the capture of the mermaid Liban, by fishermen off the Antrim coast.
Liban however, proved to be no ordinary mermaid but had in fact once been a human child who had been raised among the Merfolk, after a drowning accident had taken her family and left her to the mercy of the sea.
Liban’s story was a strange one indeed, originally a human girl; she had lived with her parents on the coast of Scotland. During a storm her parents were drowned and she had been carried away by a severe flood. Many years later in AD 588, she was caught in fishing nets placed across the entrance to Belfast Lough. In her intervening years at sea, she had lived among the Merfolk in Tir fo Thuinn (the Land beneath the Waves). She later accepted Christianity and was named Muirgen (daughter of the sea), and performed many healing miracles throughout Ireland. When Muirgen died she was buried in St Cuthbert’s church at Dunluce in north Antrim, where a seashell motif on her tomb marked her years amongst the Merfolk.
Irish legend considered the Merfolk to be fallen angels, supernatural beings who had been cast out of heaven for their rebellion, ‘And some fell into the sea and some on the dry land’, drawing an interesting parallel with scripture which describes these celestial events in Revelation 12:12.
Science of course, might suggest a more rational explanation for the possible existence of such aquatic creatures; citing the case of other hunting mammals such as seals and otters that evolved from bear and weasel-like creatures respectively, to pursue their prey into the sea 35 million years ago. Could a branch of mankind have somehow done the same?
George Bernard Shaw once quipped that ‘If all the Economists were laid end to end, they’d still never reach a conclusion!’ which is a rule of thumb that applies equally well to mermaid theories: So consider all these things wisely while remembering that ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world.’ Albert Einstein