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For other uses, see Merrow (disambiguation).

Merrow (from Irish moruach, morúadh, murúch, murrúghach; Middle Irish: murdúchann) or Murrough (Galloway) is Irish and Scottish Gaelic equivalent of the mermaid and mermen of other cultures. There are other names pertaining to them in Irish: muir-gheilt, samhghubha, and suire.[1]

In the modern age, T. C. Croker's Fairy Legends (1828) was seminal in expounding upon the "merrow". Later 19th century writings on the merrow by Rev. John O'Hanlon and William Butler Yeats are to a large extent derivative of Croker's fruits of labor.[2]

Literary evidence extend back to medieval texts. The Book of Invasions records siren-like murdúchann encountered while sailing the Caspian Sea, by either Goidels (legendary ancestors of the Irish people) based in Scythia, or by their descendants, the Milesians who were the final wave of the mythological invaders of Ireland.


Merrow is a transliteration of Irish morúadh or murrúghach, which reconciles into muir "sea" + oigh "maid" according to Croker and Yeats,[1][3] But an alternate scheme by Kuno Meyer and Whitley Stokes deconstructs the common Middle Irish form murdúchann straightforwardly into muir + dúchann "chant, song."[4][5] Singing melodies that held sway over seamen was a characteristic of the sirens of classical mythology, and to Meyer who saw murdúchann as having been "introduced into Irish fiction from the Odyssey," it was a satisfactory etymology.[6][4]

In the past, murdúchu (n-stem feminine) was regarded as the canonical form by certain leading lexicographers, but that has undergone a reassessment in favor of the o-stem murdúchann.[4] The Dictionary of the Irish Language list the headword under "murdúchann, murdúchu" in that order.


  • suire - The term súire is glossed as ".i. murdhuchann" in O'Clery's Glossary.[7] The word finds usage in the Metrical Dindsenchas on "Port Láirge" (See below).
  • samhghubha - glossed ".i. anmanna na murdhuchan bhios isin bfairrge" 'names of the nymphs that are in the sea', in O'Clery's Glossary.[7] The word samguba translated "mermaid's melody" occurs in Rennes Dindsenchas #81 on "Ess Rúaid" (Cataract of Assaroe).[8]

Folk tales[edit]

Thomas Crofton Croker's Fairy Legends (1828) laid the groundwork for the folkloric treatment of the merrow. Croker's work on the fairy was translated into German by the Brothers Grimm, and his material on the merrow was to a large measure rehashed by such authors on the fairy-kind as Thomas Keightley, John O'Hanlon, and the poet William Butler Yeats. The generalized pictured of the merrow pieced together by such 19th century authors are as follows.


The merrow-maiden is like the commonly stereotypical mermaid: half-human, a gorgeous woman from waist up, and fish-like waist down, her lower extremity "covered with greenish-tinted scales" (according to O'Hanlon).[9] She has green hair which she fondly groom with her comb.[10] She exhibits slight webbing between her fingers, which were white and delicate like "the skin between egg and shell" (Lady of Gollerus was one such specimen).[11]

Said to be of "modest, affectionate, gentle, and [benevolent] disposition,"[9] the merrow is believed "capable of attachment to human beings," with reports of inter-marriage.[12] Patrick Kennedy reported such a marriage in Bantry, producing descendants marked by "scaly skin" and "membrane between fingers and toes".[13] But after some "years in succession" they will almost inevitably return to the sea, their "natural instincts" irresistibly overcoming any love-bond they may have formed with their terrestrial family.[12] And to prevent her acting on impulse, her cohuleen druith (or "little magic cap") must be kept "well concealed from his sea-wife," so advises Kennedy.[13]

Merrows wear a special hat called a cohuleen druith, which enables them to dive beneath the waves. If they lose this cap, it is said that they will lose their power to return beneath the water.[14][12][a] Merrow are also known to leave their outer skins behind, in order to transform into other beings more magical and beautiful.[12]

Merrow-maidens have also been known to lure young men beneath the waves, where afterwards the men live in an enchanted state. While female merrow were considered to be very beautiful, the mermen were thought to be very ugly. This fact potentially accounted for the merrow’s desire to seek out men on the land.[3] Merrow music is known to be heard coming from just beneath the waves.[12]


Most stories about merrow are about female creatures; however, some tales about mer-men do exist. In The Soul Cages, a merman captured the souls of drowned sailors and locked them in cages under the sea.[15][16] While female merrow were considered to be very beautiful, the mermen were thought to be very ugly. This fact potentially accounted for the merrow’s desire to seek out men on the land.[17][16]

Medieval writings[edit]

The 19th century folklorist have long given notice to a number of attestations of murdúchann in Irish medieval and post-medieval literature, although they have been less than precise about the identies of the textual sources by today's practices.

Croker's remark that "the romantic historians of Ireland" depicted suire (synonym of merrow) playing round the ships of the Milesians[1] actually leads to the Book of Invasions, which recounts siren-like murdúchann encountered by legendary ancestors of the Irish people while migrating across the Caspian Sea. O'Hanlon's disclosure of "an old tract, contained in the Book of Lecain [sic.]" about the king of the Fomorians encountering them in the Ictian Sea[18] is a tale in the Dinsenchas. Compiled from earlier chronicles, the Annals of the Four Masters (ed. O'Donovan) has an entry for the year 887 A.D. accounting for a mermaid cast ashore on the Scottish coast—Alba. She was 195 feet (59 m) in length and had hair 18 feet (5.5 m) long; her fingers were 7 feet (2.1 m) long as was her nose, while she was as white as a swan.[19][18]

Invasions of Ireland[edit]

The medieval Lebor Gabála Érenn ("The Book of Invasions") relates how a band of Goidels on a migratory voyage were stalled on the Caspian Sea by múrduchand (translated "sirens" by Macalister) who lulled them to sleep with their songs. Wax ear-plugs for the shipmates prescribed by Caicher the Druid proved to be effective prophylactic.

Even though Caicher the Druid is present either case, different sets of voyagers, generationally-shifted from each other are engaged in actions with the sirens, depending on the variant text groups. In the First Redaction of Lebor Gabála, the Goidels settled in Scythia embarking on an exodus, led by men such as Lámfhind were the ones upon which the sirens wreaked havoc, while in the Second and Third Redactions, their progeny the Milesians led by Míl Espáine met the same fate.[20][21][b]

These múrduchand resemble sirens defeated by Odysseus to such a degree, "Homeric influence" is plainly evident.[22][b] But what of their outwardly appearance? The sirens of classical mythology, such as depicted on Greek vases, are decidedly birdlike and a far cry from mermaids. And the medieval scribes of Lebor Gabála eschewed physical descriptions.

However, Michael O'Clery's 17th century recension of the Book of Invasions interpolates a decidedly half-fish half-female depiction of the múrduchand in his copy of the Lebor Gabála:

In this wise are those seamonsters, with the form of a woman from their navels upwards, excelling every female form in beauty and shapeliness, with light yellow hair down over their shoulders; but fishes are they from their navels downwards. They sing a musical ever-tuneful song to the crews of the ships that sail near them, so that they fall into the stupor of sleep in listening to them ; they afterwards drag the crews of the ships towards them when they find them thus asleep, and so devour them...
— tr. Macalister & MacNeil (1916), p. 205.[23]

It may be noted that O'Clery's insertion closely parallels in language the entry for "Siren" as found in medieval European bestiaries, e.g. that of Bartholomaeus Anglicus.[24][c]

Dating around the same time as O'Clery, Geoffrey Keating's History (ca. 1634) offers a reworking of the invasions material, and in critical comparison, favors the version that the Scythian Goidels encountered the sirens.[25] Croker more or less appropriated Vallancey's remark in 1818 about the piece of writing on the suire, except that the latter specified the historian as Keating.[26] Their assertions notwithstanding, the term suire for mermaids does not appear in the passages given above, neither in Keating's history, nor Michael O'Clery's Book of Invasions.


There are tales featuring Irish mermaids in the Dindsenchas, collections of onomastic tales explaining the origins of place names. One tale is what and it explains how the demise of Roth son of Cithang by merrows (murduchann) in the Ictian sea (English Channel) gave birth to the name Port Láirge (now Co. Waterford). The tale corresponds to "Prose Tales from the Rennes Dinsenchas #42" in the critical edition, and Lecan is one of the manuscripts in which the tale is found.[27] The tale states that Roth "went from the lands of the Fomorians' countries" to make circuit of his borders, and encountered the merrows in the Ictian Sea, who sang him beautifully to sleep, "tore his joints apart, sending his thigh to the place which would be known as Port Láirge "Port of the Thigh". Here the merrows are described as "grown-up girls, the fairest of shape and make, with yellow hair and white skins above the waters. But huger than one of the hills was the hairy-clawed bestial lower part which they had beneath."[27]

The onomastic tale for Inber n-Ailbine (estuary of Delvin River, Co. Dublin) is counted as a mermaid tale, though no "mermaid" term specifically occurs.[22] Nine women dwelling in the sea held immobilzed the fleet of three ships led by Rúad son of Rígdonn, a prince of the Fer Muirig people. Rúad lay with the beautiful women, but he made an empty promise to carry on their tryst. The women arrived by boat to exact vengeance on Rúad, but frustrated, slew two of his sons instead, including the child one of them had borne. The episode is also embedded in the story The Wooing of Emer of the Ulster Cycle.[28]

Popular Culture[edit]

See also[edit]

Explanatory notes[edit]

  1. ^ The spellings vary from cohuleen driuth" (Cocker), "cohuleen druith" (O'Hanlon, Kennedy), to "cohullen duith" (Yeats).
  2. ^ a b Kuno Meyer illustrated the similarity to the Odyssey using a quote from the Lebor Gabála, except he merely referred to it as a "tale of the [Irish] Mythological Cycle" found on LL. p. 3a.[5]
  3. ^ Cf. Whitley Stokes' note to the Dindsenchas of Port Láirge, where description of the siren in Medieval Lore (epitome to Bartholomaeus) is compared.Stokes 1894, RC XV, 434 note



  1. ^ a b c Croker (1828), II, 17.
  2. ^ Kinahan, F. (1983), "Armchair Folklore: Yeats and the Textual Sources of "Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry"", Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. Section C: Archaeology, Celtic Studies, History, Linguistics, Literature, Vol. 83C: 255–267 (260–261) 
  3. ^ a b Yeats (1888), p. 61.
  4. ^ a b c Bowen, Charles (1978), "Varia I. Notes on the Middle Irish Word for "Mermaid"", Ériu 29: 142–148 
  5. ^ a b Meyer (1886), p. 77.
  6. ^ Meyer (1886), pp. 77–78,106.
  7. ^ a b Miller, Arthur W. K. (1881–1883), "O'Clery's Irish Glossary", Revue Celtique 5: 41, 50 
  8. ^ Stokes (1895), RC XVI, 31–33.
  9. ^ a b O'Hanlon (1870), p. 56.
  10. ^ Croker (1828), II, 6, 73The Lady of Gollerus, The Wonderful Tune.
  11. ^ Croker (1828), II, 5The Lady of Gollerus
  12. ^ a b c d e O'Hanlon (1870), p. 57.
  13. ^ a b Kennedy, Patrick (1866), "The Sea Fairies", Legendary Fictions of the Irish Celts, London: Macmillan and Company, pp. 121–122 
  14. ^ Croker (1828), II, 4.
  15. ^ Keightley (1850), pp. 527ff.
  16. ^ a b Yeats (1888), p. 69.
  17. ^ Croker (1828), II, 30–58.
  18. ^ a b O'Hanlon (1870), p. 58.
  19. ^ Croker (1828), II, 64–65.
  20. ^ Macalister, R. A. S., ed. (1857), "§112 (First Redaction), §130 (Second Redaction), §155 (Third Redaction)", Lebor gabála Érenn: The Book of the Taking of Ireland, Part 2, Dublin: Dublin, Published for the Irish Texts Society by the Educational Co. of Ireland, pp. 20–21; 40–43; 68–71 
  21. ^ van Hamel, A. G. (1915), "On Lebor Gabála", Zeitschrift für Celtische Philologie 10: 136, 140, 177–178  (van Hamel's Ba redaction = Second Redaction)
  22. ^ a b Morse, Donald E.; Bertha, Csilla (1991), More Real Than Reality: The Fantastic in Irish Literature and the Arts, Greenwood Press, p. 31, ISBN 9780313266126 
  23. ^ Macalister, R. A. Stewart; MacNeil, John, eds. (1916), Leabhar gabhála: The book of conquests of Ireland. The recension of Micheál O'Cléirigh, Dublin: Hodges, Figgis & company, ltd., p. 205 
  24. ^ Steele, Robert, ed. (1893). Medieval Lore: An Epitome of the Science, Geography, Animal and Plant Folk-lore and Myth of the Middle Age: Being Classified Gleanings from the Encyclopedia of Bartholomew Anglicus On the Properties of Things. E. Stock. p. 136. 
  25. ^ Keating, Geoffrey (2014). "Foras Feasa ar Éirinn (Book I-II)". CELT: Corpus of Electronic Texts: a project of University College, Cork.  |chapter= ignored (help); English translation
  26. ^ Vallancey, Charles (1818), An Essay on the Antiquity of the Irish Language (1st ed.), London: Printed for Richard Ryan, Oxford Street, p. 59 
  27. ^ a b Stokes (1894), RC XV, 432–434.
  28. ^ Meyer, Kuno (1888), "The Wooing of Emer", Archaeological Review 1: 155 ; Irish Text (CELT Corpus; Paragraph 46)