Since the time of the Ancient Greeks, there have been folktales of oceanic Femme Fatales luring men to an early grave. These maidens of the sea have proven as lethal as they are beautiful and the Irish mermaid known as the ‘Merrow’, is no exception.
The name derives from the old Irish ‘Moruadh’ meaning ‘sea maid’. Although the literal translation is feminine, the term Merrow applies to both the male and female of the species. They are said to dwell in ‘Tir fo Thoinn’, or ‘the Land beneath the waves’.
Merrow menfolk really don’t have a lot going for them. They are hideously ugly to the point that the mermaids refuse to take them as a mate, despite their genetic compatibility.
There is actually very little documented about these loathsome creatures, however they have been described in stories as being covered in emerald scales with a stunted body and limbs. They have green course hair, grotesque pointed teeth and bloodshot eyes. Merrow men are so bitter over their appearance and loneliness, that they capture the spirits of drowned sailors and keep them incarcerated under the sea in a desperate attempt at revenge.
Merrow women on the contrary, are absolutely striking. They have long, radiant hair and from the waist down, have glistening verdigris scales covering a quite remarkable fish tail. The beauty of the Merrow takes the breath of men away figuratively and literally. Their exquisite singing can mean both harmonious joy or death to those who succumb to the melodic enchantment.
Many human males have been seduced over time into mating with the female Merrow. Those with the Irish surnames of as O’Flaherty and O’Sullivan in County Kerry and MacNamara in County Clare, are believed to descend from such unions. Of course such relations were short-lived as the mermaid would become homesick for her subterranean way of life and would drag her suitor beneath the water.
Poor unsuspecting men would be enticed into the sea by the bewitching music of the Merrow women and be pulled beneath the waves to live in entranced captivity. In the event one absconded, they would incur the wrath of the scorned Siren and be hunted and then drowned. If an escaped prisoner really antagonised their captor they would be angrily devoured, bones and all.
Written accounts of the Merrow women luring unsuspecting Irishmen date back to the ancient Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland, also known as the Annals of the Four Masters. Indeed, even the all-powerful demi-gods of chaos known as the Fomorians were not immune to their charms.
The Formorians and the Merrow
Roth was a Fomorian son carrying out his duties patrolling the coastal borders of Ireland. It would appear that the Merrows took umbrage at his presence within their seas and took steps to ensure he would no longer pose a threat. The seemingly innocent beauties of the waters began their attack by lulling Roth gently to sleep with their enchanting melodies.
Once he was sedated and clearly unable to fight back, they became bloodthirsty and homicidal. Violently they tore the poor misfortune limb from limb and joint from joint. Although much of him was consumed, the creatures sent his thigh floating over the current, the jagged femur pointing to what has now become known as the county of Waterford.
Of course, sometimes on a bad day there didn’t need to be a catalyst to stir up the wrath and destruction of these ill-tempered wily sea maids. They would simply take pleasure in brewing up storms, shipwrecking and drowning innocent sailors for no other reason other than crossing their watery path.
Luty of County Kerry and the Merrow
County Kerry lies on the Atlantic coast of Ireland and has strong links to the Merrow folk. Stories date back centuries and the most famous one of all involved a gentle fisherman who would rue the day he ever set eyes upon a Merrow woman.
Whilst walking on the beach, a young man by the name of Luty saw an incredible sight. There, lying on the shingle was the most beautiful female he had ever seen. A woman in every way bar her fish tail that was floundering on the sand.
His kind nature took over from the disbelief and he realised quickly that the creature before him was in terrible distress. He lifted the woman into his two strong arms and carried her out to the waves. The Merrow was named Marina and she was so ecstatic at being rescued, her malicious nature was subdued and she granted Luty three wishes.
He asked for the ability to break curses brought about by dark magic, to be able to command malevolent spirits to carry out charitable deeds and the power to make good things happen for those in need. The young man’s selflessness impressed the sea maiden so much she added a final gift of prosperity to Luty and all his future descendants.
Luty was delighted and reached out to shake her hand. Sensing the pureness of his soul, her true wickedness came to the forefront and she began to seduce the unsuspecting hero with her alluring voice. A shocked Luty realised almost immediately what she was doing and reached into his pocket for his iron knife.
As with all fairy folk, Marina could be harmed with iron and he lashed out. The mermaid dived beneath the waves but not before uttering a terrifying promise to come back and reclaim Luty in nine years. Time passed and Luty married a local girl and had two sons. He took his youngest son fishing and as Luty reached the shore, Marina rose from the ocean depths and grabbed the poor misfortune, dragging him down into the angry waves and he was never heard from again.
Protection from the Merrow
The Merrow wear a special enchanted cap called a cohuleen druith. The garment and indeed the Merrow penchant for capturing the souls of hapless sailors was spoken of in the nineteenth century Thomas Keightley book of folk tales, ‘The Soul Cages’. The cohuleen druith holds the power of the Merrow that enables them to live under the ocean.
If you are fast enough to snatch it from the head of the siren before she enchants you, she is no longer able to descend beneath the waves and she is very much at your mercy. Of course if you are too late and your senses are ensnared – well I am afraid you are doomed to an eternity in a soul cage, trapped at the bottom of the sea.