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Mermaids & Seal Women: Folklore from Ireland & Britain

In this blog post, I share some wonderful folk stories from Ireland & Britain about mythic women of the sea who can shape-shift from a seal or mermaid into human form by shedding their skin; a symbol of the feminine essence.

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Mermaids & Seal Women: Folklore from Ireland & Britain

In this blog post, I share some wonderful folk stories from Ireland & Britain about mythic women of the sea who can shape-shift from a seal or mermaid into human form by shedding their skin; a symbol of the feminine essence.

In stories across Ireland, Britain, Scandinavia and beyond there are many rich and wonderful folk stories about mermaids and selkies. 

These stories often feature mythic women who can shape-shift from a seal or mermaid to human form by shedding their skin. A mortal man often falls in love with the mermaid or selkie, which ends up having tragic consequences. They are commonly referred to as maighdeann-mhara in Scottish Gaelic, maighdean mhara in Irish, and moidyn varrey in Manx.

These mythic women of the sea represent our ability to shape-shift and change through all of life’s stages and phases, the sealskin or mermaid tail representing the feminine expression of soul. Their journey of losing their skin or tail represents a yearning for what has been lost. The painstaking journey to find it once more is a journey of soul initiation, and ultimately a homecoming to the true essence of self.

In this blog, I will explore some folklore from Ireland & Britain about these wonderfully magical creatures:

Selkies of the Scottish Isles

Many of the folk-tales on selkie folk have been collected from the Scottish isles, and there’s also a selkie chant called Ionn da (Yundah) from the Hebrides. There are different versions of this chant, one of which you can listen to here:

A typical folk-tale from the Scottish Isles tells the story of a man who steals a female selkie’s skin. Finding her naked on the seashore, he compels her to become his wife. Living a domestic human life far from home, she longs for the sea, her true home. Years pass and she bears children by her human husband, yet she still longs for the sea. 

Eventually, she discovers her skin and immediately returns to the sea, abandoning the children she has loved. Sometimes, one of her children discovers or knows the whereabouts of the skin. Sometimes it’s revealed she already had a first husband of her own kind. In some versions, the selkie revisits her family on land once a year, though she typically never sees them again.

Irish Mermaids

There are a variety of tales about mermaids found in the National Folklore Collection. Mermaids are often anything but benevolent in these stories; for example, mermaids who see a ship out at sea are said to want someone on board the ship to be thrown out to her, or else she would wreck the ship and drown all the people on board. Another story accounts that mermaids put a spell on anyone walking near water at midnight, pulling them into the sea and turning them into mermaids.

Amidst this variety of tales, we find similar stories to those of the Scottish Isles. Instead of a seal skin, however, the mermaid has a magical cloak which is stolen. Here is one such example, called The Legend of O’Dowd of Inniscrone Castle and the Mermaid:

One fine Summer morning, O'Dowd was walking on the shore and he saw a beautiful mermaid asleep on the rocks. She had long golden hair and a red cloak beside her. O'Dowd took the red cloak and hid it in a stack of turf at the Castle. She woke up but as she had not her mermaid cloak she was a mermaid no longer but was a woman. After this O'Dowd married her and they had seven sons. The mermaid made O'Dowd promise that he would not go to sea again. He broke the promise and went to sea. When he was gone one of her sons told her that he often saw his father looking at a beautiful red cloak. She knew it was her own and asked him where it was hidden. When she got it she made up her mind to "take" to sea and become a mermaid again. She could not bring her sons with her into the sea as there were half human beings so with a wave of her red cloak she turned them into seven rocks and so then returned to the sea. These rocks are to be seen in Scurmore woods and it is believed that these rocks bleed every seven years if they are tipped with something sharp.

A few years ago, I learned a traditional Irish song called An Mhaighdean Mhara from my mentor Mary McLaughlin, which is a conversation between a mermaid or seal woman and her daughter. This is another story about a mermaid who married a mortal man and took a human form. She is trapped between the two worlds, torn between the love for her daughter and the desire to return to the sea.

An Mhaighdean Mhara Lyrics
Irish

Is cosúil gur mheath tú
Nó gur threig tú an greann.
Tá an sneachta go frasach
Fá bhéal na n-áitheann’
Do chúl buí daite
’S do bhéilín sámh,
Siúd chugaibh Maerí Shinidh
’S í ’ndiaidh ’n Éirne ’shnamh.

“A ’mháithrín dhílish,” 
Dúirt Máire Bhán,
Fá bhruach a’ chladaigh 
’S fá bhéal na trá,
Is maighdean mhara 
Mo mháithrín ard
Siúd chugaibh Maerí Shinidh
’S í ’ndiaidh ’n Éirne ’shnamh.

Tá mise tuirseach 
Agus beidh go lá,
Mo Mháire bhruinngheal,
’S mo Phádraig bán,
Ar bharr na dtonnta
’S fá bhéal na trá,”
Siúd chugaibh Maerí Chinidh
’S í ’ndiaidh ’n Éirne ’shnámh

Tá an oíche seo dorcha is tá an ghaoth i ndrochaird
Tá an tseisreach ina seasamh
is na spéartha go hard
Ach ar bharr na dtonnta
’S fá bhéal na trá,”
Siúd chugaibh Maerí Chinidh
’S í ’ndiaidh ’n Éirne ’shnámh

An Mhaighdean Mhara Lyrics
English translation

It’s likely you deteriorated
Or that you abandoned fun.
The snow is falling heavily 
On the mouth of the ford.
Your yellow colored hair
And your quiet little mouth,
Here you have Mary Hinny
She’s just after swimming the Erne.

“Oh mother of mine,” 
Said fair Mary,
“Under the bank of the stony beach
And under the mouth of the sandy beach,
My noble mother is
A mermaid (silkie),”
Here you have Mary Hinny
She’s just after swimming the Erne

“I am tired and I will be until the day,
My bright breasted Mary, 
My fair Patrick,
On top of the waves 
And under the mouth of the beach,”
Here you have Mary Hinny
She’s just after swimming the Erne

The night is dark and 
the wind is at an ill height
The plough is standing up
And the skies are high
But on top of the waves 
And under the mouth of the beach,”
Here you have Mary Hinny
She’s just after swimming the Erne

Cornish Mermaids

There are a number of mermaid stories from Cornwall, which have similar themes to stories from Ireland and Scotland.

Perhaps the most well-known Cornish mermaid is The Mermaid of Zennor (Cornish: An Vorvoren a Senar) which was first recorded by the Cornish folklorist William Bottrell in 1873.

The story goes that long ago, a beautiful and richly dressed woman occasionally attended services at St. Senara’s Church in Zennor, and sometimes at Morvah. The parishioners were enchanted by her beauty and her voice, for her singing was sweeter than all the rest. She appeared infrequently for scores of years, but never seemed to age, and nobody knew whence she came, although they watched her from the summit of Tregarthen Hill. After many years, the mysterious woman became interested in a young man named Mathey Trewella, “the best singer in the parish.” One day he followed her home, and disappeared; neither was ever seen again in Zennor Church.

The villagers wondered what had become of the two, until one Sunday a ship cast anchor about a mile from Pendour Cove. Soon after, a mermaid appeared, and asked that the anchor be raised, as one of its flukes was resting on her door, and she was unable to reach her children. The sailors obliged, and quickly set sail, believing the mermaid to be an ill omen. But when the villagers heard of this, they concluded that the mermaid was the same lady who had long visited their church, and that she had enticed Mathey Trewella to come and live with her.

The parishioners at St. Senara’s commemorated the story by having one end of a bench carved in the shape of a mermaid. A shorter account of the legend was related to Bottrell on a subsequent visit to Cornwall. The mermaid had come to church every Sunday to hear the choir sing, and her own voice was so sweet that she enticed Mathey Trewella, son of the churchwarden, to come away with her; neither was seen again on dry land. The famed “mermaid chair” was the same bench on which the mermaid had sat and sung, opposite Trewella in the singing loft.

The “mermaid chair” at St. Senara’s Church can be seen to this day, and together with the accompanying legend, is one of the popular attractions mentioned in tourist guides to Cornwall.

Mermaid bench Cornwall

Manx Mermaids

On the Isle of Man, we find yet more vivid stories of mermaids. Here is one such folk tale called The Mermaid and the Apple Tree (source: Kathleen Killip from ‘Saint Bridget’s Night: Stories from the Isle of Man’) in which the mermaid is referred to as Ben Varrey.

A long time ago a fisherman called Juan Caine lived in a thatch cottage on the Isle of Man, right on the edge of the sea. His thatch was as bright as gold and his walls were as white as the winter snow.

When he wasn’t out in his boat he was busy in his fields or his garden where the waves washed up to the tall fuchsia hedge and on stormy days tried to get right in. His pansies and wallflowers and roses grew bright in the sea air. In spring the scent of apple trees floated out over the water and in autumn they were heavy with shiny red apples.

And whether he was digging the garden or milking the black cow, or sowing the corn, or cutting the hay, or mending the nets, Juan was always singing because he was as happy as the day was long.

But sad to say there came an end to all this for one summer Juan got a spell of bad luck at the fishing. Every time he went out to look for the silver herring he came back with an empty boat. And when this happened for a whole summer you may well believe Juan couldn’t sing any more.

One moonlight night he went out to smoke a pipe under the apple trees and listen to the whisper of the wind and the talk of the sea, the way he would maybe find out what kind of weather there would be for the next day’s fishing, when all of a sudden he heard a voice, very low and quiet.

“Juan, is it yourself that’s in?”

“It is. It is. But who’s asking for me at this time of the night at all?”

Don’t ask who I am. But come over here and answer my questions,” said the voice.

“But I can’t see any person.”

“Over here. By the fuchsia hedge.”

A Mermaid, 1900 John William Waterhouse RA (1849 – 1917)

Juan leaned over into the shadows and saw a flash of white and a gleam of gold in the water below.

I believe it’s the ben varrey I’m talking to,” he said. His mother had always said when he was a small boy that there was a mermaid living down at the edge of the tide.

“I used to be coming here every day Juan, to listen to your singing. Indeed there was nothing I liked better. How is it you’re never giving us a bit of song now at all?”

Well I’m not feeling much like singing in the times that’s in,” said Juan, and he began to tell how he went out in the boat every day and couldn’t find the herring anywhere.

“Gone off wandering in the seas they are. Nobody knows where to find them…but who am I talking to at all?”

“Never mind that Juan boy, but listen. If I tell you where to find the herring will you promise to sing your songs again?”

“Too true I will! I’ll be happy as the day is long then. But if you can tell me where to find the herring I know you must be the ben varrey.”

Well, the ben varrey told Juan her secret and sure enough the next day he came back with his boat full. Later that night he went out into the garden to thank her.

“And is there anything you would fancy from the garden now,” he asked her. “A few roses maybe…”

“Well, since you mention it Juan,” said the ben varrey, “I’ve often thought I would like to taste an apple from one of your trees. The blossom smells so sweet in spring and then in autumn the apples look all red and shiny, like jewels.”

You can have as many as you like,” said Juan. And there and then he picked a basket of the best fruit from his trees.

The ben varrey liked the apples so much she often came back for them and you can imagine that from that time on Juan was always lucky at the fishing.

One day he decided to give the ben varrey an apple tree all for herself and he planted one by the garden wall just at the edge of the tide. In spring she could catch the petals of blossom as they floated down, and in autumn she could reach up and gather an apple from her own tree.

All this, as I told you, happened a long time ago and of course Juan’s little house is no more to be seen. But the tree he planted is there today and some people say that on moonlight nights the ben varrey still comes and gathers her apples.

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Meet Tara

My name is Tara Brading and my passion is connecting women to the wisdom of their ancestors, specializing in ancestral feminine wisdom traditions from Ireland & England.

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