Originally published August 2013
Mermaids have been in the news a little as a result of a couple recent programs on the Discovery Channel which have been blasted by scientists as misleading. (The NOAA actually felt the need to issue a statement that “No evidence of aquatic humanoids
has ever been found” after the first Discovery Channel mermaid episode was released.) Mermaid shows have also become a very popular new feature at some of the large Renaissance festivals in the U.S. so I thought I would jump on the bandwagon and look into some Irish “tails”…
Whereas in classical stories mermaids tended to be monsters or sirens that would lure sailors to their doom, Irish tales of mermaids tend to be more romantic. Merrows or muiroighe were shape-shifters that had the ability to assume human form. The most common story involves a marriage between the mermaid/merrow and a mortal. The mortal man has discovered one or more of the creatures who have literally shed their animal skins and are in human form while on land. The “selkies” or seal people are one of the variations on this tale. The man takes her seal skin and hides it and the female is trapped in human form, unable to return to the sea. The man takes the woman home as his wife and over the course of the years they live a fairly happy life and she bears his children. But one day, of course, she finds her skin and abandons her land family to return again to the sea. Apparently several Irish families include images on their family crests or arms which supposedly reflect this type of story from their family history.
There are other stories as well. Around A.D. 90 Liban, the daughter of Eochaidh was spared from a flood that drowned her family. She lived in a cave by the sea for many years with her small dog and eventually prayed to be transformed into a salmon. God granted part of her wish by giving her the tail, her upper half remained human. (The faithful dog became an otter) Her singing so enchanted the people of Ulster
that she was captured and put on display. In fact a young cleric was supposedly so enchanted by her singing that he asked her to buried in the same coffin with him when she died. It is said that she was baptized as Muirgen (meaning “daughter of the sea”) by St. Comall, and she became known as St. Murgen due to several miracles that were associated with her.
However when the Christian church came more into power in Ireland it disagreed with the benign view of mermaids in the local myths. The saw mermaids as symbols of vanity, lust and seduction leading to temptation and damnation. Thus she is often portrayed with a comb and a mirror as we see at left a carving from the Clonfert Cathedral.
Other portrayals show her with a school of fish, and or holding a starfish. Some scholars interpret the fish as people in danger of temptation, and as the starfish (as a symbol of Christ or Christians) as a Christian soul already captured by lust.
Above some of the mermaids images like the one at Clonfert there is sometimes also a knotwork design which some interpret as a counter-charm of protection against the possibility that the mermaid’s image alone may incite the viewer to lust.