As a small island on the western edge of Europe, Ireland is known for the rugged beauty of the beaches that line the coasts of its four provinces. The country’s inner lakes and inlets, too, are prized for their exceptional beauty and character—and one need only glance at a photograph of the gorgeous Lough Derg of the Shannon River Basin or magnificent Upper and Lower Lakes of County Wicklow’s Glendalough to see why!
Yes, Ireland’s lakes and beaches are truly something to behold. This Folklore Friday, however, we’re going beneath the surface—in some instances, far, far beneath—in order to take a look at some of the most famous creatures once rumored to have inhabited Ireland’s many waters. Dare to take the dive? Just read on!
As long as there have been those who sail out to sea, there have been stories of those who reside beneath it. In some cultures, these creatures are known as mermaids (half fish, half beautiful woman, with a tendency to fall in love with handsome seamen). In others, they are sirens (still half fish, still half woman, but with a penchant for luring those seamen into a watery grave, instead).
Lesser known than either of these two, however, is the merrow of Ireland—a humanoid underwater creature said to have green-tinted skin, webbed fingers, hair resembling a mess of seaweed. In fact, the only thing that makes it resemble the mermaids and sirens of other nations’ lore is its powerful, scale-covered fish tail.
That said, the most unusual trait of the merrow lies not with its physical attributes, but its choice of clothing. All merrows are said to wear a magical red cap, which gives it its ability to breathe and live under water. As such, if someone were to steal it, they would prevent the merrow from ever returning to its underwater home. If this trope reminds you of anything, it’s not without good reason: the selkie folk of Scottish folklore are similarly vulnerable to the theft of their mystical sealskin.
Many of the most well-known tales of merrows and selkies alike involve the disappearance of their all-important garments, and the subsequent tragic exile of the creature on dry land. Unlike the selkie’s skin, however, the merrow’s cap could be used by just about anyone: in one popular legend, an Irishman is permitted to borrow a red cap so that he may visit the home of a merrow under the sea.
Merrows have been described by many Irish and non-Irish writers over the years. In the collected folk tales of renowned writer and poet W.B. Yeats, there is an entire section entirely dedicated to them. One of the stories concerns a gentleman named Dick Fitzgerald, who fell in love with a merrow girl, and, after taking her red cap, decided to marry her. The couple had three children, and lived together in happiness for many years. However, the life they had built was not reason enough to convince the merrow to stay when, cleaning one afternoon, she discovered her red cap hidden away in the walls of their home. Dick never saw his wife again.
The merrow also appears in the writing of famous Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, in her book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Rowling describes the merrows as Irish merpeople, less beautiful by far than their warmer-water cousins, but rather stockier and fishier, with round, hollow eyes.
Perhaps one of the most outrageous pieces of writing on the merrow, however, doesn’t come from a work of fiction at all. In the mid-1800s in Ireland, a show-stopping story in a local newspaper detailed the encounter of an man with two dying merrows, who had washed ashore on a rocky beach after a bad storm. The first merrow died before anything could be done, but the second held on, and so the man brought it home to to nurse it back to health. He kept it in a bathtub filled with water, and, after many attempts to feed it, discovered that it would accept only fresh shellfish and cow’s milk. While it’s unknown what became of this man and the merrow he rescued, we can’t help but think that this is ample reason to keep such foods in stock!
Similar to the shape-shifting kelpie of the Scottish and Irish lake-lore, the each-uisce (or each-uisge in Scotland) is an Irish sea spirit that commonly takes the form of a horse, though sightings have also described it as an enormous dark bird, or a handsome man with hooves and seaweed in his hair. The each-uisce is widely feared for its malevolence and fiery temper. As such, if witnessed in its equine form, it should only be ridden when absolutely necessary, and aways on the interior of land.
For the lucky rare individual who manages to fully tame this fearsome beast, however, it will act as the perfect steed: valiant, tireless, and obedient—provided that it is not allowed to catch the merest glimpse of the ocean. If it the waves should meet the each-uisce’s line of sight, its rider must dismount immediately, for it will charge hard and fast into the ocean, drowning anyone on its back without a second thought.
In other stories, the murderous tendencies of the each-uisce are far more tactical in nature. Some legends say that, when in horse form and with a rider atop its back, a single glance at the sea will cause the its skin to become incredibly sticky, preventing its unfortunate passenger’s escape. After it has drowned its victim, the each-uisce will rip them apart, devouring every part of their body but the liver, which then floats alone on the surface of the water, signifying the carnage that has taken place.
Described by folklorist Katharine Briggs as “perhaps the fiercest and most dangerous of all the water-horses,” the each-uisce has been shown in legends to pose a particular threat to unaccompanied women. In one story, a young woman who was herding cattle alone crossed paths with an each-uisce who had taken the form of a handsome man. They talked for a time, and, eventually, he lay his head in her lap and fell asleep. As he lay there, he stretched out slightly, and the woman caught side of a pair of hooves beneath his sleeves where his hands should be. In silence, she made her escape, and was lucky to live to tell the tale.
In other stories, women were far more aggressive in their response to the wicked advances of the water horse. After being plagued by his knocking on her cottage door night after night, one such lady decided that the only way to ward him off was through offensive action: the next time that her would-be suitor came a-calling, she filled up a pot of boiling water and threw it between his legs!
Sometimes known as the King Otter, the dobhar-chú is a gargantuan beast said to have once lurked beneath the surface of Glenade Lake in Glenade Valley, County Leitrim. The word dobhar-chú is an archaic Irish word for otter, literally translating as “water hound,” similar to the German seehund, “see dog” for seal. A headstone, found in the nearby Conwall Cemetary, bears an image of its likeness. Dating back to September 1722, this headstone marks the burial site of Grace Connolly, a woman became the tragic victim of the King Otter while washing her clothes on the shore of the lake one morning.
The story goes that, after several hours of Grace’s absence, her husband, Terence, grew concerned and made for the lakefront on horseback to find her. Upon his arrival, he found not only the savaged body of his wife, but the massive dobhar-chú that had killed her, asleep beside the water. Mad with grief, Terence stabbed the beast with his sword. As it died, the dobhar-chú gave an ear-piercing shriek, which caused the water of the lake to begin to ripple. In mere moments, a second dobhar-chú—said to be the mate of the first—burst forth from the water, intent on avenging its mate, just as Terence had Grace. After a long and bloody battle, Terence succeeded in slaying the second dobhar-chú.
Though the story of the Glenade Lake dobhar-chú is without doubt the creature’s most famous appearance in Irish mythohistory, it’s far from the only instance in which a sighting was recorded. In the 1896 edition of The Journal of Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, a Ms. Walkington wrote a letter that described her sighting of a creature “half-wolfdog, half-fish.” Months later, her letter was responded to by another reader, a Mr. H. Chinchester Hart. Mr. Chinchester Hart had heard stories of a creature much like the one Ms. Walkington had described, and believed it to be called the dobhar-chú, “The king of all lakes and father of all otters” who could “run his muzzle through rocks.”
And as recently as the year 2000, renowned Irish artist Sean Corcoran reported witnessing the appearance of a dobhar-chú in a lake while visiting Connemara’s Omey Island with his wife. He said, “The creature swam the width of the lake from west to east in what seemed like a matter of seconds.” After doing so, it gave “the most haunting screech” they had ever heard, and disappeared into the deep.
THE MONSTER OF MUCKROSS LAKE
Muckross Lake, otherwise known as Middle Lake or the Torc, is Ireland’s deepest lake, located in Killarney National Park in County Kerry. Along with a plethora of salmon and brown trout, its massive depth—which reaches up to 246 feet in places—is said to be home to something, well, massive.
Unlike stories relating to other lake monsters, such as the Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster of Scotland, and Champ, of Lake Champlain, the first records of Muckie, the Muckross Lake Monster, are relatively young. In fact, the conversation regarding its existence only began in 2003, when a group of scientists, the Irish Charr Conservation Group, were running a series of sonar scans in order to determine which fish populations were native to the Muckross waters. The following year, the researchers were almost finished recording their results when they discovered something highly unorthodox, to say the least.
The sonar scan indicated that, at the time of the group’s testing, a creature had gotten in the way of the reading. And not just any creature—this was a moving animal, and it was the size of a two-story house.
“We have been unable to identify exactly what the image is,” said Andrew Long, a specialist fisheries consultant partnered with River Monitoring Technology at the time. “But we know it was not a computer or logging error, as the gear was functioning normally.”
The rumors of a purported 260-foot long creature residing in Muckross Lake prompted some research into the local history of the area. This resulted in the discovery of a photograph taken in 1981, which shows a mysterious object rising out of the waters of the lake—a fin, possibly, or some kind of flipper.
And, when the researchers looked further back in time, they found that the Killarney and MacGillicuddy Reeks area had, in fact, been home to a the legend of a gargantuan sea serpent for many years. As a matter of fact, one of the highest points in the MacGillicuddy Reeks mountains has always been known as Cnoc na Peiste, or the “Peak of the Serpent,” and one of the lakes of the massive Black Valley was said to have been formed by said creature through brute force.
In the time since Muckie’s “discovery” via sonar reading, there has been much debate regarding its true nature. Some marine experts posit that it could be a giant eel, grown to an unthinkable size due to the comfortable temperature of the lake and its abundant food supply. Others suggest that it could be an ancient creature from prehistoric times, hidden away from human knowledge beneath the murky surface. No matter what you believe, one thing is for certain—it’s always best to take a friend with you while strolling along the quiet shores of Muckross Lake.