Wednesday, September 8, 2010
The word merrow or moruadh comes from the Irish muir (meaning sea) and oigh (meaning maid) and refers specifically to the female of the species.
Mermen - the merrows male counterparts - have been rarely seen. They have been described as exceptionally ugly and scaled, with pig-like features and long, pointed teeth. Merrows themselves are extremely beautiful and are promiscuous in their relations with mortals.
Sometimes the females prefer, good-looking fishermen to their sea lovers, when you consider the above description of the male merrow you can’t blame them. Near Bantry in the last century, there is said to have been a woman covered all over with scales like a fish, which was descended from such a marriage. Sometimes they come out of the sea, and wander about the shore in the shape of little hornless cows.
The Irish merrow differs physically from humans in that her feet are flatter than those of a mortal and her hands have thin webbing between the fingers. It should not be assumed that merrows are kindly and well-disposed towards mortals. As members of the sidhe, or Irish fairy world, the inhabitants of Tir fo Thoinn (the Land beneath the Waves) have a natural antipathy towards humans. In some parts of Ireland, they are regarded as messengers of doom & death.
Merrows have special clothing to enable them to travel through ocean currents. In Kerry, Cork and Wexford, they wear a small red cap made from feathers, called a cohullen druith. However, in more northerly waters they travel through the sea wrapped in sealskin cloaks, taking on the appearance and attributes of seals. In order to come ashore, the merrow abandons her cap or cloak, so any mortal who finds these has power over her, as she cannot return to the sea until they are retrieved.
Hiding the cloak in the thatches of his house, a fisherman may persuade the merrow to marry them. Such brides are often extremely wealthy, with fortunes of gold plundered from shipwrecks. Eventually the merrow will recover the cloak, and find her urge to return to the sea so strong that she leaves her human husband and children behind. Very similar to the Selkie.
Many coastal dwellers have taken merrows as lovers and a number of famous Irish families claim their descent from such unions, notably the O'Flaherty and O'Sullivan families of Kerry and the McNamara’s of Clare. The Irish poet W B Yeats reported a further case in his Irish Fairy and Folk Tales: "Near Bantry in the last century, there is said to have been a woman, covered in scales like a fish, who was descended from such a marriage".
Despite her wealth and beauty, you should be particularly wary about encountering this marine fairy.
There are other names pertaining to them in Gaelic - Muir-gheilt, Samhghubha, Muidhuachán, and Suire. They would seem to have been around for millenia because according to the bardic chroniclers, when the Milesians first landed on Irish shores the Suire, or sea-nymphs, played around them on their passage.
An old tract found in the Book of Lecain states that a king of the Fomorians, when sailing over the Ictean sea, had been enchanted by the music of mermaids until he came within reach of these sirens, then they tore his limbs asunder and scattered them on the sea.
From Dr. O'Donovan's Annals of the Four Masters - Entered in the year 887 ad. there is a curious tale of a mermaid cast on the Scottish coast - Alba - She was 195 feet in length and had hair 18 feet long, her fingers were 7 feet long as was her nose, while she was as white as a swan.
Most of the stories are about female beings however there are some about mer-men who capture sailors and keep them in cages under the sea. In some stories though, fishermen leave part of their catch as a thank you to the merrow for guiding them to good fishing grounds.
Source: O'Hanlon, John - Irish folklore: Traditions and Superstitions of the Country. first published 1870. Republished by EP Publishing Ltd., 1973.
. Image by MirrorCradle.