The Merrow of Gollerus

There was a lonely young fisherman who lived on the shore of Gollerus, in Smerwick harbor. Instead of cavorting in the pubs with his neighbors, he would walk along the sea shore, listening to the birds and watching the waves lap on the shoreline.

One day the fisherman was walking along the shoreline, dreading the coming season and the hungry times ahead. The fishing nets had come up empty, and the villagers did not know how they would survive. Suddenly, he stumbled upon a young woman nestled in the rocks of the seashore, combing her hair in the fading light. He could see that she was a merrow, a fairy creature from the sea. She had soft yellow skin, and deep green hair decorated with seaweed and small stones. Sitting next to her was a cohuleen druith, an enchanted cap which the sea people use to dive deep into the ocean.

She looked up at the fisherman with dark green eyes and said, “Young man, why are you afraid?”

He replied, “You are a fairy creature, and look strange to me. Furthermore, I am afraid for my village, as we do not have enough food to last us through winter.”

“Yes,” she replied, “most of the sea creatures have left this place. Even so, I can show you where you need to fish, and I can help fill your fish-barrels.”

The fisherman ran to his boat, and paddled over to the water near the merrow. She dove into the water, and was soon bobbing in the water next to him, wearing her cohuleen druith. She led his boat to a deep channel, and at her command he lowered his nets. When he pulled them up, they were filled with more fish than he had seen in years. In joy he returned to his village, and he was celebrated as a hero.

A few years later he was once again walking along the seashore, when he heard a sobbing coming from the rocks. It was the merrow, shuddering with weeping. He slowly sat down next to her, and asked her why she was so upset. “I have lost my cap,” she replied, “and without it I cannot return home.”

He took her small webbed hand in his to comfort her, and said “well my friend, since you seem to be stranded, you may stay with me for as long as you wish.”

She stayed with the fisherman, and they built a small house on the beach, so that she could hear the water. The fisherman and the merrow were a loving couple, and had three children, but she was sad and lonely, longing for the home she left behind in the deep ocean. Their children had their mother’s hands and hair, but their father’s bloodline separated them by a generation from that of their mother’s people. Their hair was a a softer color, the greenness only obvious in bright sunlight. Their hands had only a light, transparent webbing between their fingers and toes.

The villagers treated with her suspicion, and tossed cruel words and small stones at the family. They had forgotten the time she had saved them from starvation.

Three years after her arrival, the merrow was wading with her children on the seashore. She looked down and saw a cohuleen druith, the magical cap, wash up on the shore next to her. In joy she pulled it from the water, and clutched it tightly. She rushed her children to their home on land, and called to their father. At her cry he ran to her side, and saw the cohuleen druith in her hands.

“Are you leaving us?” he asked, with fear and sadness in his eyes.

“Yes,” she replied. “I cannot stay in this hot dry land any longer.”

“What about our children? They will miss you, as will I.”

“Our children need to stay above the water with you. They are neither of your world nor of mine. But they can survive here and have lives with your people. If they come with me, they will drown.” Then with tears in her eyes she turned from the house, put on her cap, and dove into the sea.

The fisherman went into a deep mourning. He spent his days curled in his bed, while his children cried for their mother. In the depth of his grief he decided to go search for his love. He built a large boat, and with his children sailed off onto the sea. The tears from the family fell into the salt water, and the merrow smelled their grief stricken tears drop into the sea, and they led her to the boat.

The family then spent their days and nights on the water, with her in the sea, and he above it. Their children eventually moved to land, and intermarried with other young men and women from the village. Their offspring looked human, but for small webbing between their hands and toes. They were expert fisher folk, and for generations on would live on the edge of the sea.

Source: Thomas Crofton Croker, Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland, vol. 2 (London: John Murray, 1828), pp. 3-13.  A digitized copy of the text is found on Google Books:

The theme of a fairy lover occurs regularly, usually to emphasize the dangers of loving or trusting outsiders.  Oftentimes, one party (normally the man) forces the relationship through duress.  In the case of the original version of this story, the fisherman stole the merrow’s cap, so she would be unable to leave him.  This is also seen in the stealing of sealskins from Selkies, and the feather gowns of the bird fairies.  

Normally in the case of these stories, the man sees a beautiful fairy woman dancing or sleeping alone.  He falls in love, and steals her magical garment, so she is unable to return to her home.  He then marries her, and she serves as his wife for a few years.  Eventually, she discovers her lost garment, and escapes.  

In this case, I turned it into a love story, where two individuals willingly became a couple, and had a family together.  How would the couple stay together, given how much was against them?  What would it be like for this poor woman, lost and isolated in a foreign world?  What would happen to their children?  What world would they occupy? 


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