A mermaid found a swimming lad,
Picked him up for her own,
Pressed her body to his body,
Laughed; and plunging down
Forgot in cruel happiness
That even lovers drown.
It’s possibly becoming quite apparent (especially for anyone that follows me on Twitter) that I have something of a Yeats obsession. And a slight mermaid obsession. But it’s to be expected if you were a child in possession of a vivid imagination living right beside the sea. Especially if you grow up to be an adult with a vivid imagination, engaged to a merman.
The northcoast of Ireland has had it’s own fair share of stories and sightings of mermaids over the years. One of our favourite crowd-avoidance places during the coastal summer madness is Dunseverick (please keep this secret, lest my favourite deserted places become overrun) It’s a beautiful part of the coastline with a ruined castle, rocky waterfalls, wild flower covered cliffs, a tiny picturesque harbour and breath-taking views.
One sunny morning during the 1880s a fishing boat was returning from Rathlin Island when the crew spotted a mermaid on the rocks at Dunseverick. When they returned to land they ran to the rocks to find her, but of course she was nowhere to be found.
Of course, as in so much Irish folklore, the stories of mermaids or merrows here are tinged in sadness.
‘The Merrow…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…have green teeth, green hair, pig’s eyes, and red noses; but their women are beautiful, for all their fish tails and the little duck-like scale between their fingers. Sometimes they prefer, small blame to them, good-looking fishermen to their sea lovers.’ WB Yeats
Mermaids tease men with their beauty, lounging on the rocks singing their irresistible siren song, attempting to attract fishermen, only to disappear into the sea as they are approached. At sea, these creatures are wild and free, wreaking havoc on seafarers, conjuring storms and capsizing vessels for their own amusement. However, they have a vulnerability. All mermaids are in possession of a shimmering shawl or a red cap. Should either of these garments be found and kept by a human male, a mermaid will forget her sea life and become an obedient and dutiful wife.
This very thing happened many years ago in Portrush. A local man- lets call him John O’Dowd- was walking on the rocks at Lansdowne one evening. This man was a landowner and much sought-after, but had little interest in getting married much to the chagrin of his mother. Whilst on his walk he heard the most beautiful, bewitching song and spied a mermaid sitting on the rocks.
As he approached she slipped into the sea, leaving behind a piece of cloth- her shawl, which he kept. She returned to him, becoming a land dweller and his wife. They led a happy life together and over the years had seven children. One day, the youngest child was playing outside when something shiny and iridescent caught his eye in the rafters of one of the outhouses. Being of a curious nature, the little boy got a stick and poked at the rafters until a piece of the most beautiful cloth he had ever seen fluttered onto the ground beside him, shimmering. Of course it was the mermaids shawl, hidden all those years ago by his father. He brought the precious fabric to his mother and she, upon seeing it, was reminded of her previous life, left her family and returned to the sea.
If this makes you feel a bit sad or judgemental about the parenting habits of mythical creatures, think of that other sea dweller- the Selkie. Selkies are seals by day and men or women by night. As with mermaids, if anyone secures their seal skin, the beautiful, dark eyed woman will become their wife, loyal and kind. They will often wander from their mortal homes to the cliffs to sing their melancholy songs, and should their human husband be lost at sea this song will guide him back to land. However, if the Selkie finds her seal skin she too will return to the sea, but will remain close to shore to keep an eye on her human family. Think of that next time you catch a glimpse of a seal near the coastline.
Much as I adore the old Irish stories, I tend to re-imagine them when I am illustrating, and am always influenced by my fashion work and the fact I spend quite a lot of time surrounded by ridiculously good looking models. Therefore, my mermaid looks like she would be more at home in Byron Bay or in a John Frieda ad than on the stormy north coast of Ireland all those years ago.
But she does make me think of summer days at the beach, messy salty hair, sandy skin and sunshine and that always makes me smile.
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