Irish Folk Lore
Traditions and Superstitions of the Country;
With Humorous Tales
by
“Lageniensis”
(John O'Hanlon)

1870

CHAPTER VII.
THE MERROW-MAIDEN AND MERROW-MAN.

“When, by moonlight, the waters were hush'd to repose,
That beautiful spirit of ocean arose;
Her hair, full of lustre, just floated and fell
O'er her bosom, that heaved with a billowy swell

• • • • • • • • • • • • • •

“The maiden she gazed on the creature of earth,
Whose voice in her breast to a feeling gave birth,
Then smil'd; and abash'd, as a maiden might be,
Looking down, gently sank to her home in the sea.”
Crofton Croker.

From generic notions of our native folk lore, certain strange and peculiar creations of fancy have received an imaginative form and existence. The Merrow, or, as it is written in Irish, Morúadh, or Morúach, is a sort of fantastic sea-nymph, corresponding "with the prevailing conception of a mermaid. It is supposed to partake of semi-human nature and figure. From head to waist it appears in such shape ; and thence to the extremities it is covered with greenish-tinted scales, having a fish-like termination. Those creatures are said to partake of a modest, affectionate, gentle, and beneficent disposition. Their name seems a compound of muir, the sea, and oigh, a maid.

These marine objects are also called by the Irish, Muir-gheilt, Samhghubha, Muidhucha'n, and Suire. They would seem to have basked around our shores from the most remote period; for, according to bardic chroniclers, when the Milesian ships bore onwards in quest of a friendly harbour to our coasts, the Suire, or sea-nymphs, played around them on their passage. These fictitious imaginings are probably traceable to an Eastern origin. The merrow was capable of attachment to human beings, and is reported to have intermarried and lived with them for years in succession. Some allegory is probably concealed under the fiction of certain families or races, living on the southern and western coasts of Ireland, being partly descended from these marine creatures. Natural instincts, however, are found to prevail over their love. The merrow usually feels desirous of returning to her former haunts and companions under the sea waves. She is represented as the daughter of a king, whose gorgeous palace lies deep beneath the ocean. Sometimes mer-maidens live under our lakes. In Moore's Irish Melodies, we have the fine conceit of a merrow being metamorphosed into the national instrument, to which allusion occurs in these opening lines,—

“ ’Tis believed that this harp, which I now wake for thee,
Was a syren of old, who sung under the sea;
And who often, at eve, through the bright waters rov'd
To meet, on the green shore, a youth whom she lov'd.”

Mermaidens are said to allure youths of mortal mould to follow them beneath the waves, where they afterwards live in some enchanted state. Merrows wear a cohuleen druith, or little charmed cap, generally covered with feathers, and used for diving under water. If this be lost or stolen, they have no power to return beneath “waters of the vasty deep.” Sometimes they are said to leave their outer skins behind, to assume others more magical and beauteous. The merrow has soft white webs between her fingers. She is often seen with a comb, parting her long green hair on either side of the head. Female merrows are represented as beautiful in features. Merrow music is frequently heard, coming up from the lowest depths of ocean, and sometimes floating over the surface.

Merrows often dance to it on the shore, strand, or waves. With all their fascinations, practised to seduce the sons of men, the mermaidens are occasionally found to be vengeful. An old tract, contained in the Book of Lecain, states that a king of the Fomorians, when sailing over the Ictian sea, had been enchanted by the music of mermaids, until he came within reach of these syrens. Then they tore his limbs asunder, and scattered them on the waves.

From Dr. O'Donovan's Annals of the Four Masters, at the year of Christ 887, we find a curious entry regarding a mermaid cast ashore by the sea in the country of Alba, the modern Scotland. One hundred and ninety-five feet was her length, we are told, eighteen feet was the length of her hair, seven feet was the length of the fingers of her hand, seven feet also was the length of her nose, while she was whiter than the swan all over. Hence, it would seem, that the merrows were thought to have attained extraordinary large proportions; if, indeed, this be not the actual record of a fact, illustrating the natural history of our coasts.

The valour of certain Fenian heroes is celebrated on behalf of a mariner-lady, in Miss Brooke's beautifully translated poem of Moira Borb. This we find in her Reliques of Irish Poetry. The chiefs met her coming into a harbour from the waves, over which her bark swiftly glided. Her beauty was faultless; and on being questioned as to her parentage, by the son of Comhal, she replies,—

“Truth, O great chief ! my artless story frames:
A mighty king my filial duty claims.
But princely birth no safety could bestow;
And, royal as I am, I fly from woe.”

Miss Brooke tells us, in a note, that she has not rendered this stanza literally, because she found it difficult to interpret the Irish words: As mé ingean rig fo trinn.

They may be translated, I am the daughter of the king under waves; or the last words may be rendered, king of waves, or king of Ton (in the genitive), Trin, literally, a wave; but it may also mean some country, anciently bearing such name. It might even be a metaphorical phrase, implying either an island or some of the low countries.

Strange to say, the merrow is sometimes imagined to be a water-man; but in such case, he is deformed in shape and features. Merrow-men are also said to keep the spirits of drowned fishermen and sailors under cages, at the bottom of the sea. Doubtless, a belief in such fantasies and necromancy must have come down to us from the most remote times of Paganism.