A Field Guide to Fairies - Merrows

Updated on March 1, 2020
Pollyanna Jones profile image

A published folklorist, Pollyanna enjoys writing about hidden histories, folk customs, and things that go bump in the night.

"A Merrow, Collecting Souls", by Leona Volpe ©2020
"A Merrow, Collecting Souls", by Leona Volpe ©2020 | Source

Ireland's Mer-folk

There are many splendid creatures of the sea, but none so lovely as the Merrow. In Irish, the creature is called a Murdhuacha or Murúch, with older Middle Irish differentiating the sexes as a Murdúchann for a female, and Murdúchu for a male.

The great Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, gave one of the most well-known descriptions:

“The Merrow, or if you write it in the Irish, Moruadh or Murúghach, from muir, sea, and oigh, a maid, is not uncommon, they say, on the wilder coasts. The fishermen do not like to see them, for it always means coming gales. The male Merrows (if you can use such a phrase – I have never heard the masculine of Merrow) have green teeth, green hair, pig’s eyes, and red noses; but their women are beautiful, for all their fish tales and the little duck-like scale between their fingers. Sometimes they prefer, small blame to them, good-looking fishermen to their sea lovers. Near Bantry in the last century, there is said to have been a woman covered all over with scales like a fish, who was descended from such a marriage. Sometimes they come out of the sea, and wander about the shore in the shape of little hornless cows. They have, when in their own shape, a red cap, called a cohullen druith, usually covered with feathers. If this is stolen, they cannot again go down under the waves.

Red is the colour of magic in every country, and has been so from the very earliest times. The caps of fairies and magicians are well-nigh always red.”

"Female Merrow", by Leona Volpe ©2020
"Female Merrow", by Leona Volpe ©2020 | Source

The folklorist, Thomas Crofton Croker, described in his 1828 publication Irish Fairy Legends that Merrows, “...are described as being a kind of mermaid, but it is more accurate to describe these creatures as being humanoid beings that are able to dwell beneath the sea. They often have hair the colour of seaweed, webbed fingers and toes, and some are said to have fish-like scales, silvery eyes, and even a tail.”

Whilst most of the stories we have about Merrows are from the 18th Century, these creatures are described in older texts and appear in The Book of Invasions. The Murdúchann in this great text, is described as being a siren-like sea nymph that the Milesians encountered when reaching Ireland’s shores.

Katherine Briggs in her Dictionary of Fairies described them as “The Irish equivalent of mermaids. Like them, they are beautiful, though with fishes’ tails and little webs between their fingers. They are dreaded because they appear before storms, but they are gentler than most mermaids and often fall in love with mortal fishermen.”

"The Merrow in his Domain", by Leona Volpe ©2020
"The Merrow in his Domain", by Leona Volpe ©2020 | Source

Male Merrows are ugly to behold; described as having green skin and pointed teeth, short flipper-like arms, piggish eyes, and a sharp red nose. Female Merrows however are incredibly beautiful, with dark eyes, pale white skin, and flowing hair.

One such beauty features in The Lady of Gollerus, a folk-tale recorded on the northern side of the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry. It describes how one of the locals came across and fell in love with a fine-looking female Merrow at the strand near Gallarus, not far from Ballyferriter. The two were wed and had children together, but like most pairings between a human and one of the Fair Folk, it was not to last. In time, she had to return to the sea after a longing for home grew within her.

Merrows are curious folk, interested in human affairs, but usually from a distance. They are seldom ill-tempered, and are generally amiable entities, unless crossed. A Merrow is able to walk on land, and wears a magical red cap called a cohuleen druith. By granting such a cap to a human to wear, it will grant a man the ability to survive in the Merrow’s own watery realm. But should a Merrow have his or her own cap removed, then they may not be able to return to the sea.

The Soul Cages

A Merrow features in a tale by Crofton Croker’s Fairy Legends of the South of Ireland, in a story called The Soul Cages. Set in Dunbeg Bay in County Clare, our human hero; a man named Jack Dogherty, was most anxious to see a Merrow. He and his wife, Biddy, dwelt in a cabin overlooking the sea, and after hearing tales from his grandfather about one that he had befriended, Jack pined to see one of these wonderful fairies for himself.

He would walk the shore each day, looking out, but never saw as much as a fin. His patience eventually paid off as finally, the day came when he made out the shape of a creature on a rock about half a mile along the coast. It stood as still as stone, wearing what looked like a red hat on its head. Jack at first believed his eyes were deceiving him; that it was a trick of the light of the sunset catching the rock. But then the shape sneezed, and plunged into the sea. Dogherty was thrilled to at last have seen a Merrow, but he wanted more – he wanted to speak with one as his grandfather had.

Each day, he would return to the rock, to seek it out again, but it was not until the end of the year, when the storms came in, that he saw the fairy again. It would play about the rock as fearless as a pike after salmon, and finally, on a day the wind was blowing a gale, Jack got up close to it. He found it to be a grotesque-looking male with a fish’s tail, scaly legs, green teeth, and short arms like fins, but Dogherty was not frightened. The Merrow noticed Jack, and in a typical jovial manner, spoke to him, addressing him by name. He explained that he knew of him, as it was he that was a friend to his own grandfather, describing him as a great man. He invited Jack to join him another time under the sea and to taste liquor with him.

A few days later, Dogherty went to meet the Merrow at the rock, who greeted him as he clambered up from the waves. The Merrow had brought with him two of his magical caps, one of which was given to Jack who was instructed to put it on. The two donned their cohuleen druith then down into the sea the Merrow took him, until they were in the Merrow’s house, deep beneath the waves.

"Coomara", by Leona Volpe ©2020
"Coomara", by Leona Volpe ©2020 | Source

Introducing himself as Coomara, or Coo to his friends, the Merrow treated the human to a feast, with drinking and singing, sharing his rare spirits that he had salvaged from wrecks. Jack had a most lovely time viewing the Merrow’s collection of treasures gathered in a private museum that Coo had created, but was most curious about a row of lobster pots in this place that caught his eye. Upon enquiring, was told by the Merrow that this was his collection of souls from fishermen and other mortals, drowned at sea. Coo described how the cold and frightened souls would find his traps as they drifted down to the bottom of the ocean. He would check his pots, and once filled, bring them in from the seabed to his house, where he would take great care for them in his museum. However, once caught, a soul is his, for they are trapped and cannot escape.

After being safely returned to dry land by Coomara, it troubled Jack to think of those poor captured souls in their cages, and thought how he might free them. Not wanting to get Coomara into trouble with the priest, he didn’t take it up with the Church, nor did he tell his wife or friends. At last he determined that he would meet with Coo again, and get him very drunk in order to rescue the drowned souls. He instructed his wife to start praying for the souls of lost fishermen, and bade her go on a pilgrimage, which she did. Once Biddy was out of the way, Dogherty went off to the Merrow’s rock and waited.

When Coomara arrived, Jack this time invited him to come sup with him at his cottage. The Merrow was delighted by the offer, and wearing his magical cap, went over land to the man’s house, where they ate and drank, and sang late into the night. Unfortunately for Dogherty, the Merrow drank him under the table and disappeared long before the man woke up the next day. He had failed.

"Jack finds the Soul Cages", by Leona Volpe ©2020
"Jack finds the Soul Cages", by Leona Volpe ©2020 | Source

Having a pot brewed by his brother-in-law stashed away, Dogherty was determined to try again, and invited the Merrow once more to join him. Coo was most amused that he had outdrunk the human, but was most intrigued to hear of a special brew that he had never tried, and agreed to come and taste potcheen with the man.

The next day, Jack met him again at the rock, and wearing his cap, Coomara followed him to the cottage to engage in a second drinking contest. Dogherty offered him toast after toast, but watered down his own potcheen with water, so that the Merrow was soon as drunk as you like.

At last, the fairy slid from his chair into a stupor, and in a flash, Jack stole the hat from his head.

As quick as a hare, Jack ran to the rock, placing a cap upon his head, and dived into the sea. Eventually finding the Merrow’s house, he scooped up an armful of the soul cages, and took them out, turning them up.

It is said that he saw a little flicker of light coming out of each of them, and heard a faint whistling sound as each soul went past. Carrying on his work until all of the cages were emptied, he quickly placed the lobster pots back exactly as they had been found, and made his way back up through the sea. He found the going hard, without Coomara carrying him up, and were it not for grabbing the tail of a cod which in a panic pulled him up through the water, he would never have made it out.

Hurrying back to the cottage, he found his Merrow friend still fast asleep under the table, and quietly placed the red cap back onto his head. When Coo awoke with a sore head, so ashamed was he by being out-drunk by a human, that he snuck off without a word the next morning before Jack had woken.

Coo never noticed that his soul cages had been emptied, and Dogherty and he remained firm friends for many years until the Merrow finally stopped visiting. Without the second red cap, Jack could not visit him, so could only think that Coomara, being a young Merrow, had found another part of the sea to live in.

"The Merrow, admiring his Soul Collection", by Leona Volpe ©2020
"The Merrow, admiring his Soul Collection", by Leona Volpe ©2020 | Source

"Fakelore" Controversy

There is some controversy about the legitimacy around this story being bona fide folklore. Thomas Crofton Croker hired a collector named Thomas Keightley to gather tales from him, whilst preparing his book.

The two had a falling out after Thomas Crofton Croker failed to credit Keightley for his services, who later confessed that he had invented "Soul Cages" for his own work entitled The Fairy Mythology which was published in 1828. Based on "Der Wassermann und der Bauer" this tale of a peasant and a waterman was recorded by The Brothers Grimm in their Deutsche Sagen.

Whilst there are folk-beliefs of Merrows and mer-folk in Ireland, there were no instances of this story found in Dunbeg by a later folklorist, Thomas Johnson Westropp. Having travelled to Country Clare to collect folktales in the first decade of the 20th Century, he recorded many tales, but found no mention of Coomara.

The situation was further complicated by Thomas Keightly who went on to claim that there were indeed tales that he had collected from around Cork and Wicklow, where the locals were acquainted with this legend of the Merrow and his drinking contest from their childhoods. The theme of such a game with fairy folk is after all, not uncommon in Ireland.

Whether this is an example of a common story theme appearing in a different geographical location with story elements changed, as we see so often with folklore and fairytales, or whether it was an invention later accepted as genuine, the story of Coomara has been passed back into the populace and has become regarded as authentic.

Artwork by Leona Volpe ©2020
Artwork by Leona Volpe ©2020

Questions & Answers

    © 2020 Pollyanna Jones

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