Emerald Isle

The Mermaid of Lissagriffin

Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from the Mythological Cycle

The one that got away

Times were hard in Ireland not so long ago, and harder yet they were before that – many’s the family was cast out of their houses for being unable to pay their rent! One such was poor Finian O’Toole, the kindly father of nine children who found himself evicted by the cruel English landlord in the parish of Kilmoe.

Now it was the way in that part of Ireland, in the warmer south of the country and along the western coast, that strange things would sometimes be seen in the ocean. Dancing lights, ships of a peculiar sort, mysteries and signs floated by on those liminal currents when the year turned, and sometimes they might even wash up a mermaid, or as they were called, a Merrow!

This is the tale of one such creature, and the hard clan who moved into Finian’s house after he was kicked out.

Taking pity on him, some kindly neighbours helped Finian build a small mud cabin next to the ditch by the side of the road, and there he lived, watching the Colls, who had moved into their old house, walk past without a thought in the world. They were a tough lot with a bad reputation and were not well-liked by people in the area, not least because they moved in after an eviction.

Well Finian somehow managed to feed his family, and raised his children to be as good as he could manage, and decent enough they turned out too. But one day he was walking along the cliff edge overlooking the cove, when he paused and looked out over the heaving ocean, pondering if he might yet get on the boat across the Atlantic to America and perhaps a better life.

But on the balance he decided against it, for he couldn’t afford tickets for his entire family on the hazardous coffin ships, and he couldn’t bear to leave any behind. At least, he thought, here they were together, for better or worse.

It was a fine fresh morning after the wild storm and as he picked his way through humped masses of seaweed and stacks of driftwood, who did he see but old Coll and his son out collecting weed for their fields – so he decided to head over to the rocks, out of their way.

As he was walking, he heard a strange sound coming from a heap of seaweed, and he lifted it up to find long brown hair tangled in with the weed! He kept digging and soon two grey eyes looked back at him, while a great scaly fish-tail flapped on the strand beyond. It was one of the Merrow, washed ashore by the storm.

He saw laying beside the strange creature a silver bridle, so he took it up and left it just within reach of her pale blue fingers, then retreated behind some rocks so as not to frighten her further. But just as she was about to take the bridle, who should come around the corner but Coll and his eldest son, talking grimly.

Finian ducked down when they saw the Merrow, and they were amazed as they dug and lifted her out from beneath the shore-wrack. She begged to be let return to the sea after her horse, which had fled in terror at the storm’s fury, but they just laughed, knowing well what they had.

Chuckling, they said her bridle needed to be fixed, and wasn’t she in luck – they lived nearby and could fix it for her while she waited. Up she was lifted like a sack of spuds between them, and away she was taken.

Wrinkling his nose at their gleeful banter, Finian was about to turn away when he noticed something twinkling in the seaweed, and bending over he pulled out a beautiful silver comb, the likes of which he had never seen before, embossed with odd spirals and wave designs like you might find on the old tombs of the first people of Ireland. He said nothing of his discovery to anyone, only going home and tucking it into his straw mattress.

Over at the Coll house, the two men continued to ignore the piteous cries of the Merrow, telling her the bridle was more damaged than they thought, and it might take a while to fix it. Well they admired her pale beauty and the way her dark hair shimmered in the firelight, and while Coll senior was out hiding the bridle under iron tools in the shed, his son coughed and looked into the Merrow’s eyes.

He asked her, if she couldn’t go back to the sea, would she ever consent to marry a human? For he was bewitched by her ethereal beauty. She said that if she had to, although she would miss the sea terribly, she would only stay on three conditions.

The first was that her husband would never eat from the table of a Sheriff, that he would never kill a black sheep, and that he would never harm a seal – these were her geas after the manner of the oldest stories, her magical bonds.

Coll junior thought these were light burdens indeed to bear if in return he would gain such a beautiful and enchanting wife, so he agreed, and with a sigh she found her legs and rose to her feet.

Years went by and they had children, and no trouble was in their life only for that she would often stand by the window looking towards the sea, and hum little songs to herself, like the distant whisper of surf on a rocky shore.

The Colls were apparently blessed from the day of the wedding, as they knew was often the case with folk who had traffic with one of the Sidhe. Nothing went wrong, their fortunes increased, and despite their reputation as ruthless men, they were never caught out in any wrongdoing.

Yet in their prosperity they grew lax and began to forget the promises they had made to the Merrow, and when Coll sat at the table of the landlord’s cousin, did he know the man had just been made sheriff over the next county?

Times grew harder for all in Ireland then, as the crops began to fail and yet another famine gripped the land, but it bothered the Colls not a whit to go and steal a sheep from a neighbour for dinner. If the sheep was black, who could tell in the dark? And when sheep grew scarce, why not go and kill a seal lying fatted by the shore? There was good eating in them.

On that very night, when the wind sent the clouds scudding across the face of the carious moon, that the eldest son of Coll and the Merrow came across the silver bridle twinkling amid the tools in the back, and on that very night Finian felt a strange call, and was compelled to bring the silver comb to its proper owner.

Awakened from her sleep by a knocking at her door, Coll’s Merrow wife was awoken by a knock at her door. She found nobody there when she opened it, but looking down she spied the silver comb lying on the ground at her feet.

Smiling, she went to comb her hair in the mirror, for the first time since she had become fully human, and her heart ached greatly to swim in the ocean again. Her eldest child came to her with the bridle, and she kissed the boy softly on his forehead before going to each of her sleeping children and kissing them too.

Without further delay she took to her heels, and swift as an Atlantic gale she came to the clifftops and leaped into the seething waters below, changing into her Merrow shape as she fell. Her horse came amid the white-capped waves and she bridled it, pausing only to look behind her and stare with narrowed yellow eyes at the human settlement she had just left.

“Never again shall seven men of the name of Coll stand atop the rocks of Lissagriffin!” she spat the curse past suddenly sharp teeth, and vanished beneath the waves as lightning split the sky, never to be seen again.

I’ll tell you, from that day onwards the Colls never had a tap of luck, being caught and punished for their crimes, their crops failing and their house falling apart in a sudden storm. Eventually they had to leave and never returned, although it must be said – Finian O’Toole and his family were blessed with an uncommon series of fortunate events which left them wealthier yet than the Colls and their former landlord!

As for the Merrow, some do say that when the wind is in the west and the shore whispers just so, her voice may yet be heard calling for her children...

Lissagriffin is marked on the map below.

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