Tales of the Merrow
Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales tales of Ireland
The oceans of Ireland are wide but never empty - Tales of the Merrow
Old Jack Doherty was a kindly and good natured sort of fellow, as well he might be for he had chosen to live in a strange and desolate part of the country, by a coast of jagged rocks and sucking tides. And why might that be cause for merriment, you may ask? Well, it was many's the night and many's the storm that blew an unfortunate ship too close to the cliffs, whereupon she was torn asunder and her rich cargo scattered to the sea's embrace.
Jack scooped up kegs of fine brandy and bales of fabrics, cotton and tobacco, good casks of whiskey and bottles of fine wines from places he couldn't pronounce, and why not, he thought, sure isn't the king rich enough? His bay was like a private brewery all to himself, and his nets never lacked for fish either! He supplied half the estates in the county and lived well from those proceeds too.
His heart wasn't hard either mind you, he'd always sail out and help any drowning sailors he could find, or any that made it to shore were well looked after and sent on their way, dried out and fit.
So contrary to what might be expected on the face of it, he had no difficulty in finding himself a wife, and indeed Biddy Mahony lived as well as any and better than most, and made a proud appearance in the Church every Sunday.
As full as his life was, Jack had one desire that had never been fulfilled, and that was to meet a Merrow. The Merrow were the odd fishlike people who lived under the sea, and in all his years he'd never seen one, although his father and grandfather were well acquainted with the ocean folk. His grandfather was so close to them that he'd have brought one to mass, only for fear of vexing the priest! As often as not he'd sail out all day looking for one, for it was said that part of county Clare was well populated by them, and came back with no fish to show for his troubles, to face the wrath of Biddy.
Then one day he set out on in unusually rough weather, the seas were high and snapping, and he spied upon a distant rock what looked like a greenish figure wearing a cocked hat. Jack waited there, floating, and waited again but the figure didn't stir. Losing patience he let out a whistle, and startled, the figure leapt straight into the water, not to be seen again.
Knowing the way of it now, he went back to that rock when the wind was blowing hard and the sea was high as hills, and sure enough he spotted the same figure leaing in and out of the waves on those days. He took himself up to the rock for a closer look, and saw a green man with a fishtail for legs and short arms like fins, a red nose and small eyes like a pig. The red hat woven of feathers was off its head and it seemed to be giving some serious matter deep thought.
Interrupting the cogitations, Jack boldly set foot on the rock and called out a greeting!
"Your servant, sir," said Jack.
"Your servant, kindly, Jack Dogherty," answered the Merrow.
"To be sure, then, how well your honour knows my name!" said Jack.
"Is it I not know your name, Jack Dogherty? Why man, I knew your grandfather long before he was married to Judy Regan, your grandmother! Ah, Jack, Jack, I was fond of that grandfather of yours; he was a mighty worthy man in his time: I never met his match above or below, before or since, for sucking in a shellful of brandy. I hope, my boy," said the old fellow, with a merry twinkle in his eyes, "I hope you're his own grandson!"
'Never fear me for that," said Jack; "if my mother had only reared me on brandy, 'tis myself that would be a sucking infant to this hour!"
"Well, I like to hear you talk so manly, you and I must be better acquainted, if it were only for your grandfather's sake. But, Jack, that father of yours was not the thing! he had no head at all."
"I'm sure, said Jack, "since your honour lives down under the water, you must be obliged to drink a power to keep any beat in you in such a cruel, damp, could place. Well, I've often heard of Christians drinking like fishes; and might I be so bold as ask where you get the spirits?"
"Where do you get them yourself, Jack?" said the Merrow, twitching his red nose between his forefinger and thumb.
And so Jack became good friends with the Merrow, and they talked for a while before the Merrow departed back to his undersea home. Several times they met again, and Jack learned his name was Coomara, until one day the Merrow arrived with a second hat tucked under his arm.
"Might I take the liberty to ask, sir," said Jack, "why your honour has brought the two hats with you today? You would not, sure, be going to give me one of them, to keep for the curiosity of the thing?"
"No, no, Jack," said he, "I don't get my hats so easily, to part with them that way. But I want you to come down and dine with me, and I brought you that hat to dive with."
"Lord bless and preserve us!" cried Jack, in amazement, "would you want me to go down to the bottom of the salt sea ocean? Sure, I'd be smothered and choked up with the water, to say nothing of being drowned! And what would poor Biddy do for me, and what would she say?"
"And what matter what she says, you pinkeen? Who cares for Biddy's squalling? It's long before your grandfather would have talked in that way. Many's the time he stuck that same hat on his head, and dived down boldly after me; and many's the snug bit of dinner and good shellful of brandy he and I have had together below, under the water."
"Is it really, sir, and no joke?" said Jack; "why, then, sorrow from me for ever and a day after, if I'll be a bit worse man nor my grandfather was! Here goes - but play me fair now. Here's neck or nothing!" cried Jack.
"That's your grandfather all over," said the old fellow; "so come along, then, and do as I do."
So saying he tossed the hat to Jack, who put it on the right way, and sprang into the waves. Jack closed his eyes and sprang after, grabbing hold of the Merrow's tail and vanishing under the ocean. It was a long journey through the deeps, and often Jack had second thoughts as the miles rolled by, but it was too late to turn back now.
They came at last to a silver wall, and falling through Jack was astonished to find himself on dry land at the bottom of the sea. They landed just in front of a nice house that was slated very neatly with oyster shells! The Merrow, turning about to Jack, welcomed him down. He looked about him and could see no living things, barring crabs and lobsters, of which there were plenty walking leisurely about on the sand. Overhead was the sea like a sky, and the fishes like birds swimming about in it.
Well Jack gabbled on in wonderment for a bit, as well he might, and then he joined the Merrow in his house for dinner, a fine luncheon was awaiting and two young Merrows cooking at the hearth where a fire blazed warmly. They ate and drank and supped of good vintages from delicate shells, and anon the Merrow took Jack to see his cellar. At the back of the room was a shadowed place, and the Merrow turned to Jack as if to whisper a secret, and whisper he did.
"Now Jack," he said, "would you like to see my Godsends?" And Jack went closer to see what looked like lobster pots arrayed on shelves at the back of the cellar. A chill took him then although he knew not why.
"Well, Jack, how do you like my Godsends?" said old Coo.
"Upon my oath, sir," said Jack, "they're mighty well worth the looking at. But might I make so bold as to ask what these things like lobster pots are?"
"Oh! the Soul Cages, is it?"
"The what? sir!"
"These things here that I keep the souls in."
"Arrah! what souls, sir?" said Jack, in amazement, "sure the fish have no souls in them?"
"Oh! no," replied Coo, quite coolly, "that they have not, but these are the souls of drowned sailors."
"The Lord preserve us from all harm!" muttered lack, "how in the world did you get them?"
"Easily enough: I've only, when I see a good storm coming on, to set a couple of dozen of these, and then, when the sailors are drowned and the souls get out of them under the water, the poor things are almost perished to death, not being used to the cold. So they make into my pots for shelter, and then I have them snug, and fetch them home, and is it not well for them, poor souls, to get into such good quarters?"
Jack was nonplussed and not a little disturbed, but they retired above for brandy in the kitchen until he felt it was time to go back as his wife Biddy would be getting concerned. Coo the Merrow took him outside then and put his hat on backwards, telling him that he'd pop up right back where he went in, but to cast the hat into the sea after. And so it was, and so Jack did.
He went home that night under the stars and spoke not a word of his adventures to Biddy, pondering deep on all he had seen. When next he met the Merrow then he proposed that the man of the sea might join him for dinner in return, knowing Biddy would be away that day, and the Merrow agreed cheerfully. "Don't fear for me Jack, I'll be there!" he said.
And on the day, Jack laid out a fine spread with the finest vintages he could find, but as much as the Merrow put away he never quite keeled over with it. Aha, thought Jack, I've just the thing!
Jack took care to have his own liquor well watered, and said, "Tell me, sir, did you ever drink any poteen? Any real mountain dew?"
"No," says Coo, "what's that, and where does it come from?"
"Oh, that's a secret," said Jack, "but it's the right stuff - never believe me again, if 'tis not fifty times as good as brandy or rum either!"
The Merrow took a sup, and it was the good stuff alright, a brazen drop with fine smack. The Merrow drank and sang and laughed and danced until he fell asleep on the floor snoring. Jack crept up and lifted the hat from his head, sprang up from his seat and soon came to the Merrow's home under the waves.
Not a person was in sight, only the crabs and lobsters making their way about their own business across the sand, so Jack went into the house to open the lobster pots in the back. As he did so he heard little chirps and whistles and was surprised, for the priests had told him that nobody could see or hear a soul, any more than they could see the wind. He said a prayer and blessed them on their journey, wherever they may go next.
And now he set the hat on his head backwards, but was confounded! The water above was too high to reach and he couldn't leap into it. He was puzzled until he spied a massive cod swimming above, and its tail dipped down low for a moment. Seizing his chance he grabbed the tail and was flipped up into the water, and so whizzed home in a flash.
As for home! Biddy had come back early and was upset to find all her poteen gone, thinking she'd married herself a drunkard, when she spotted the Merrow lying under the table and was aghast at the shape of him. Running from the house she was glad to hear Jack's cheery whistle as he ambled up the trail, and told her the whole story.
Despite this turn of affairs Jack and the Merrow remained good friends thereafter, and the Merrow never missed the souls, until one day Jack threw stones into the water in the usual way, but the Merrow never showed up. Jack supposed he had passed on or moved away, and that was that.
Although it is not certian, a wrecker's cove lay along the shores of county Clare as on the map.
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