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For other uses, see Merrow (disambiguation).
Irish mermaid (bas-relief, Clonfert Cathedral).

Merrow (from Irish murúch, Middle Irish murdúchann or murdúchu) is an Irish-English term for a mermaid or merman.

The word appears in two tales set in Ireland published in the 19th century. In Lady of Gollerus, a green-haired beautiful merrow is forced to wed a local Kerry man who deprives her of the "magical cap" (cohuleen druith). And in the The Soul Cages a green-bodied grotesque male merrow entertains a fisherman at his home, displaying a collection of castaway human souls.

These tales with commentary were first published in T. C. Croker's Fairy Legends (1828). William Butler Yeats and others writing on the subject borrowed heavily from this work. The latter tale was not genuine folktale but piece invented by Thomas Keightley.

A number of other terms in Irish are used to denote a mermaid or sea-nymph, some tracing back to mythological tracts from the medieval to the post-medieval period. The Middle Irish murdúchann is a siren-like creatures encountered by legendary ancestors of the Irish (either Goidels or Milesians) according to the Book of Invasions. This and suire are terms for the mermaid that appear in onomastic tales of the Dindsenchas. A muirgheilt, literally "sea-lunatic", is the term for the mermaid Lí Ban.


Current scholarship regards merrow as a Hiberno-English term,[1] derived from Irish murúch (Middle Irish murdhúchu or murdúchann[a]) meaning "sea singer" or "siren".[1][2] But this was not the derivation given by 19th century writers.

According to Croker, "merrow" was a transliteration of modern Irish moruadh or moruach,[b] which resolved into muir "sea" + oigh "maid".[4] But as Croker noted, this derivation is cognate with Cornish morhuch,[4] and that term means "sea hog".[5] Yeats added murrúghach as an alternative original,[6] as that word is also synonymous with mermaid.[7]

The corresponding term in the Scots dialect is morrough, derived from the Irish, with no original Scottish Gaelic form suggested.[c][8]


In Croker's commentary on the merrow, the Irish terms murdúchann, muirgeilt, samguba, and suire were listed as synonymous to "mermaid" or "sea nymph".[4] These are Old/Middle Irish terms with examples of usage in medieval tracts. Several other modern Irish terms for mermaid are given in O'Reilly's Dictionary; one of them, maighdean mhara ("sea-maiden"), being the common term for "mermaid" in Irish today.

The Middle Irish murdúchann,[a] (from muir + dúchann "chant, song."[9][10]) with its singing melodies that held sway over seamen was more characteristic of the sirens of classical mythology, and was imported into Irish literature via Homer's Odyssey.[11][9] The term muirgeilt, literally "sea-lunatic", has been applied, among other uses, to Lí Ban, a mythological figure who underwent metamorphosis into a salmon-woman.[12] While samguba signifies "mermaid's melody",[13] O'Clery's Glossary stated it was "name of the nymphs that are in the sea".[14]

Folk tales[edit]

Thomas Crofton Croker's Fairy Legends (1828) laid the groundwork for the folkloric treatment of the merrow. It was immediately translated into German by the Brothers Grimm. Croker's 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.[15] A general sketch 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).[16] She has green hair which she fondly grooms with her comb.[17] She exhibits slight webbing between her fingers, a white and delicate film resembling "the skin between egg and shell".[18]

Said to be of "modest, affectionate, gentle, and [benevolent] disposition,"[16] the merrow is believed "capable of attachment to human beings," with reports of inter-marriage.[19] One such mixed marriage took place in Bantry, producing descendants marked by "scaly skin" and "membrane between fingers and toes".[20][d] 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.[19] And to prevent her acting on impulse, her cohuleen druith (or "little magic cap") must be kept "well concealed from his sea-wife".[20]

O'Hanlon mentioned that a merrow may leave her outer skins behind in order to transform into other beings "more magical and beauteous", [19] But in Croker's book, this is characteristic isn't ascribed to the merrow but to the merwife of the Shetlands (called selkie) and of the Faroese tradition.[22] Another researcher noted that the Irish merrow's device was her cap, as opposed to the Scottish Maid-of-the-Wave who had her salmon-skin.[23]

Yeats claimed that merrows come ashore transformed into "little hornless cows"[24] One stymied investigator conjectured this claim to be an extrapolation on Kennedy's statement that sea-cows are attracted to pasture on the meadowland wherever the merrow resided.[20][25]

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.[6]

Merrow music is known to be heard coming from the farthest depths of the ocean, yet the sound travels floatingly across the surface.[19] Merrows dance to the music, whether ashore on the strand or upon the wave.[26]


While most stories about merrow are about female creatures, a tale about an Irish merman does exist in the form of The Soul Cages, published in Croker's anthology. In it, a merman captured the souls of drowned sailors and locked them in cages under the sea.[27][24] This tale turned out to be an invented piece of fiction, although Thomas Keightley who acknowledged the fabrication claimed that by sheer coincidence, similar folktales were indeed to be found circulated in areas of Cork and Wicklow.[28]

The male merrow in the story, called Coomara (meaning "sea-hound"[29]), has green hair and teeth, a red nose, grows a tail between his scaly legs, and has stubby fin-like arms.[30] Some commentators state categorically that this ugliness ran generally across the entire male populace of its kind,[31][24] the red nose possibly attributable to their love of brandy.[31]

The merrow which signifies "sea maiden" is an awkward term when applied to the male, but has been in use for a lack of a term in Irish slang for merman.[32][6] One scholar has suggested the term macamore might be used as the Irish designation for merman, since it means literally "son of the sea", even though in practice it designated local inhabitants of the Wexford coast.[33] In a similar vein, the Irish word muireadhach can be either a man's name ("Morogh") or a mermaid.[34][e] Gaelic (Irish) words for mermen are murúch fir "mermaid-man" or fear mara "man of the sea".[2]

Cohuleen druith[edit]

Merrows wear a special hat called a cohuleen druith,[f] 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.[36][19][6]

The normalized spelling in Irish is cochallin draíochta, literally "little magic hood" (cochall "cowl, hood, hooded cloak" + -in diminutive suffix, gen. of draíocht).[37][38] Arriving at a different reconstruction, Croker believed that it denoted a hat in the a particular shape of a matador's "montera,"[39] or in less exotic terms, "a strange looking thing like a cocked hat," to quote from the tale The Lady of Gollerus.[40] A submersible "cocked hat" also figures in the invented merrow-man tale The Soul Cages.

The notion that the cohuleen druith is a hat "covered with feathers", stated by O'Hanlon and Yeats[19][6] arises from taking Croker too literally.[25] Even though Croker vaguely pointed to some similarity with "feather dresses of the ladies" two Arabian Nights tales,[g][4] as other commentators point out, both parallel the "feather garment" in swan maiden-type tales, where the supernatural woman bereft of the article of clothing is prevented from escaping her captor.[41][42] The cohuleen druith was considered to be a red cap by Yeats,[6] although this is not indicated by his predecessors such as Croker.

Medieval writings[edit]

It did not escape the notice of 19th century folklorists that attestations of murdúchann occur in Irish medieval and post-medieval literature, although they have been somewhat imprecise in specifying their textual sources.

Croker's remark that "the romantic historians of Ireland" depicted suire (synonym of merrow) playing round the ships of the Milesians[4] 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[26] is a tale in the Dinsenchas.

The Annals of the Four Masters (ed. O'Donovan), an amalgamation of earlier annals, has an entry for the year 887 A.D. which reports that a mermaid was cast ashore on the coast of Scotland (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.[43][26]

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.[44][45][h]

These múrduchand resemble sirens defeated by Odysseus to such a degree, "Homeric influence" is plainly evident.[46][h] 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.[47]

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.[48][i]

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.[50] 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.[51] 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.[52] 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."[52]

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.[46] 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.[53]

Popular culture[edit]

  • In the Puyo Puyo games, "Merrow" (メロウ?) is a type of mermaid, part of the Scales Fish People (うろこさかなびと?). One of the other Scales Fish People is Seriri, a blue haired mermaid. Unlike Seriri, Merrow has a pink hair and a more haughty look. A pink mermaid is the first mermaid to appear in the Madou Monogatari games, that predate the Puyo Puyo games.
  • In Jennifer Donnelly's fantasy series the Waterfire Saga has an ancient mermaid ruler in its mythology named Merrow. Merrow was the first regina in the fictional place of Miromara in the series. The Waterfire Saga is published by Disney Publishing Worldwide.

See also[edit]

Explanatory notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b 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.[9] The Dictionary of the Irish Language list the headword under "murdúchann, murdúchu" in that order.
  2. ^ Croker gives "morúach, morúadh", but the form without diacriticals conform with O'Reilly's dictionary.[3]
  3. ^ Scottish National Dictionary: Morrough, n. A mythical sea-being [Ir. murbhach, murdhuach, mermaid]
  4. ^ Croker notes that the O'Flaherty and the O'Sullivan clans of County Kerry believed themselves descended from a mixed marriage (with the merrow-kind), and the Macnamaras of County Clare believed their name derived from such ancestry.[21]
  5. ^ patronymic Macnamara "son of sea hound" is associated with purported mermaid ancestry.[35]
  6. ^ The spellings vary from cohuleen driuth" (Croker), "cohuleen druith" (O'Hanlon, Kennedy), to "cohullen duith" (Yeats).
  7. ^ The tales of Jahanshah and Hassan of Bassora.
  8. ^ 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.[10]
  9. ^ Cf. Whitley Stokes' note to the Dindsenchas of Port Láirge, where description of the siren in Medieval Lore (epitome to Bartholomaeus) is compared.[49]



  1. ^ a b Welch, Robert (2000). "sídh". The Concise Oxford Companion to Irish Literature. They also appear on coastlines, as mermaids (murúch, Hiberno-English merrow). 
  2. ^ a b Ó hÓgáin, Dáithí (2006). "mermaids/merman". The lore of Ireland : an encyclopaedia of myth, legend and romance. Boydell. p. 342. 
  3. ^ O'Reilly & O'Donovan (1864), p. 369.
  4. ^ a b c d e Croker (1828), II, 17.
  5. ^ Williams, Robert (1865), Lexicon Cornu-Britannicum, p. 122 
  6. ^ a b c d e f Yeats (1888), p. 61.
  7. ^ O'Reilly & O'Donovan (1864), p. 373.
  8. ^ Scottish National Dictionary, 1976 
  9. ^ a b c Bowen, Charles (1978), "Varia I. Notes on the Middle Irish Word for "Mermaid"", Ériu 29: 142–148 
  10. ^ a b Meyer (1885), p. 77.
  11. ^ Meyer (1885), pp. 77–78,106.
  12. ^ eDIL, muirgeilt
  13. ^ Stokes (1895), RC XVI, 31–33.
  14. ^ Miller, Arthur W. K. (1881–1883), "O'Clery's Irish Glossary", Revue Celtique 5: 41, 50 
  15. ^ 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: 260–261 
  16. ^ a b O'Hanlon (1870), p. 56.
  17. ^ Croker (1828), II, 6, 73The Lady of Gollerus, The Wonderful Tune.
  18. ^ Croker (1828), II, 5The Lady of Gollerus
  19. ^ a b c d e f O'Hanlon (1870), p. 57. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "FOOTNOTEO.27Hanlon187057" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page). Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "FOOTNOTEO.27Hanlon187057" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page). Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "FOOTNOTEO.27Hanlon187057" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page).
  20. ^ a b c Kennedy, Patrick (1866), "The Sea Fairies", Legendary Fictions of the Irish Celts, London: Macmillan and Company, pp. 121–122 
  21. ^ Croker (1828), II, 16.
  22. ^ Croker (1828), II, 13–16.
  23. ^ Kickingereder (2008), p. 60.
  24. ^ a b c Yeats (1888), p. 69.
  25. ^ a b Kinahan (1983), p. 261. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "FOOTNOTEKinahan1983261" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page).
  26. ^ a b c O'Hanlon (1870), pp. 58. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "FOOTNOTEO.27Hanlon187058" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page). Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "FOOTNOTEO.27Hanlon187058" defined multiple times with different content (see the help page).
  27. ^ Keightley (1850), pp. 527–536.
  28. ^ Keightley (1850), pp. 536n.
  29. ^ Croker (1828), II, 55.
  30. ^ Croker (1828), II, 34.
  31. ^ a b Kennedy (1866), p. 121.
  32. ^ Keightley (1850), pp. 370n.
  33. ^ Kinahan (1983), p. 260n: The term "macamores" is glossed in Patrick Kennedy's Banks of the Boro, p. 370
  34. ^ O'Reilly & O'Donovan (1864), p. 371.
  35. ^ Croker (1828), II, 16, 55.
  36. ^ Croker (1828), II, 4.
  37. ^ Zimmermann, Georges Denis (2001), The Irish Storyteller, Four Courts Press, p. 268 
  38. ^ Almqvist, Bo (1990), "Of Mermaids and Marriages. Seamus Heaney's' Maighdean Mara'and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill's' an Mhaighdean Mhara'in the Light of Folk Tradition", Béaloideas 58: 28  JSTOR 20522356
  39. ^ Croker (1828), II, 18"'from cuthdarùn, a sort of montera or monmouth cap"
  40. ^ Croker (1828), II, 13.
  41. ^ Bolte, Johannes; Polívka, Jiří (2014) [1918]. "193. Der Tommler". Anmerkungen zu den Kinder- und Hausmärchen der Brüder Grimm 4. Dieterich. pp. 412–413, 416.  (German)
  42. ^ Leavy, Barbara Fass (1995). In Search of the Swan Maiden: A Narrative on Folklore and Gender. NYU Press. pp. 42–47. ISBN 0814751008. 
  43. ^ Croker (1828), II, 64–65.
  44. ^ 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 
  45. ^ van Hamel, A. G. (1915), "On Lebor Gabála", Zeitschrift für Celtische Philologie 10: 136, 140, 177–178  (van Hamel's Ba redaction = Second Redaction)
  46. ^ 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 
  47. ^ 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 
  48. ^ 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. 
  49. ^ Stokes (1894), RC XV, 434 note.
  50. ^ Keating, Geoffrey (2014). "Foras Feasa ar Éirinn (Book I-II)". CELT: Corpus of Electronic Texts: a project of University College, Cork. Section 17. ; English translation
  51. ^ Vallancey, Charles (1818), An Essay on the Antiquity of the Irish Language (1st ed.), London: Printed for Richard Ryan, Oxford Street, p. 59 
  52. ^ a b Stokes (1894), RC XV, 432–434.
  53. ^ Meyer, Kuno (1888), "The Wooing of Emer", Archaeological Review 1: 155 ; Irish Text (CELT Corpus; Paragraph 46)