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A Folklore Survey of County Clare by Thomas Johnson Westropp


Water Spirits and Mer-folk

The Shannon, according to the ‘Dindsenchas,’ derived its name from a sea-lady, but evidently not a ‘water-breather.’ Sinenn, daughter of Lodan, came from Tir-tairngire, the Land of Youth, under the sea, to visit the well of Connla, under the river now called Shannon. She came to Linn na feile, but was drowned at Tarrchinn ‘on this side Shannon,’ and gave her name to the great river.[48] A water spirit, or mermaid, is remembered at Killone Lake and Newhall. The legend is preserved in several variants. In 1839 it was told how O’Brien of Killone saw a lovely girl in the lake, and caught her. Bringing her home, he found to his great disgust and disappointment that she had a fish’s tail. He ordered her to be kept in a ‘crib,’ and fed and well-treated. As she never spoke, a local fool threw scalding water on her to make her say something. He was only too successful, for, after a wild, blood-curdling shriek, she cried:

‘As the return of the salmon from the stream,
A return without blood or flesh,
May such be the departure of the O’Briens
Like ears of wild corn from Killone.’ [49]

The legend recorded, almost at the same time (1840), by Crofton Croker was told to me by the old peasantry, about 1876, as follows:—A mermaid used to swim up a stream that flowed under the cellars of Newhall, in order to steal wine. The ‘master’ (an O’Brien), or the butler, hid and stabbed her, (or threw her into a tub of scalding water where she became a big lump of jelly), and her blood ran down the stream and reddened all the lake. As the wounded [were] being floated away she wailed:—

‘As the water maid floats weak and bloodless down the stream
So the O’Briens shall go from Killone.’

Prof. Brian O’Looney heard in his youth, and told me, a tale nearly identical:—

‘As the mermaid goes on the sea,
So shall the race of O’Briens pass away
Till they leave Killone in wild weeds.’

The lake, like the stream already noted at Caherminaun, turns red at times from iron scum and red clay after a dry summer. This is supposed to be caused by the local Undine’s blood, and to foretell a change of occupants in Newhall. Strange to say, I saw it happen last when the place was let by the MacDonnells to the O’Briens. The cellar at Newhall has its outer section roofed with large slabs, and the inner consists of long, low, cross vaults. In the end of the innermost recess is a built-up square patch, which sounds hollow, and is said to show the opening closed to keep out the thievish mermaid. There seems no evidence of any stream running underneath the cellar, but local tradition tells of a vaulted passage down to the lake.

Sruhaunaglora (prattling brook), in Kilseily on the flank of the eastern hills, probably owes its name, as many brooks their legend, to the supposed talking of water-folk. There was some belief in mer-folk at Kilkee before 1879, but it has nowadays got touched-up for tourists. Such touching-up, however, cannot have affected the ugly, drunken, stupid merrow Coomara (sea-dog), who kept the souls of drowned sailors in magic lobster-pots in his house under the sea, off Killard, as related by Crofton Croker. [50] The merrow’s power of passing through the waves depended on a magic cap, and a duplicate of it enabled his human guest to visit him.

The last reported appearance of a mermaid is so recent as the end of April, 1910. Several people, including Martin Griffin, my informant, saw what they are firmly convinced was a mer-woman in a cove a little to the north of Spanish Point, near Miltown, Malbay. She was white-skinned and had well-shaped white hands. The party tried to make friends with her, giving her bread, which she ate. Then a Quilty fisherman got frightened, said she was ‘something bad,’ and threw a pebble at her, on which she plunged into the sea and disappeared. Soon afterwards King Edward died. An old man at Spanish Point said the last mermaid was seen the year of the Great Famine (1846), and that such an appearance foretells a public disaster.


Chapter 5


Chapter 7