Ireland is a small island nation, but it is rich in mythology. Through this series of Ireland’s Myths and Legends, we share some of the most interesting stories and legends of the Emerald Isle.
The legend of a selkie is one that we in Ireland share with our neighbours in Scotland, but there are dozens of varieties and hundreds of stories. In short, the legend of the selkie is Ireland’s concept of a mermaid.
What is a selkie? Also called the seal people, the sea people or the mermaid – a selkie is a marine legend that tells of people who are half fish, and half-human. In the water, they are seals, but on land, they shed their skin and take on human form. And for some reason, they are irresistible to ordinary humans, who are apt to fall in love with the seal people.
Popular on islands and rural coastal communities, the legend of selkie has endured over the age, and though less, there are still supposed sightings even in relatively modern times.
At its core, the legend is that of a creature that is half fish or seal, and half-human.
Selkies are often sighted by those living in remote coastal areas. Legend has it that in order to come ashore, selkies must first shed their skin or tail. And if you manage to find that skin and hide it away, the seal person cannot return to the sea. Irish folklore is littered with tales of men and women (usually men) finding a selkie skin and hiding it, then marrying the selkie woman.
There are many famous stories that revolve around selkies in Ireland. One particular one is that of Thady Rua O’Dowd, a clan chieftain who was tasked with finding himself a bride upon rising to clan leadership. Apparently, choosing a wife was more difficult than he realised, and he could not makeup his mind.
Out walking on the beach to clear his head, Thady stumbled upon a beautiful maiden combing her hair. Though unclothed, she had a magical cape or coat next to her. Of course all in Ireland knew of the sea people, the selkies, and Thady was no different. He quickly snatched up her selkie cloak to hide away, professing his love at first sight for her. Without her fishtail, the selkie called Eve had no choice but to return his love and marry him. Together, they ruled the lands and raised their seven children but Eve always longed for the sea.
Legend has it that though the selkie cloak was well hidden, one of their children spotted Thady checking on it, and told his mother of the “bag of gold.” When Thady was away from home, Eve checked the spot her child told her about – and lo and behold, her fishtail. With the return of fishtail, Eve could not resist the temptation of the sea.
And so she left to go back to the ocean with her children. But she could not take them all, and instead turned five of them into rocks, swimming off into the waves with the remaining children under each arm.
Some say that the origins of the selkie myth actually stem from Scottish and Irish ancient peoples coming into contact with Finnish and/or Sami travellers who were thought to be selkies for their use of sealskin coats and kayaks.
As they became waterlogged, the boats would start to submerge, and so the Sami traveller would be required to stop and dry their sealskin clothing and boats out before continuing onwards.
Take their “fishtails” away from them, and it’s true enough that the “selkie” cannot return to the sea. Spot a person removing their sealskin clothing and setting it down to dry on the rocks and you just might think that you’ve witnessed transformation from seal to man (or woman). This idea was proposed by a Victorian-era folklorist, but it’s still quite a tantalising concept to consider!
No matter where you go on the shores of Ireland or Scotland, if you start talking to the people there about local mythology, you’ll likely hear at least one mermaid/selkie tale or two!
While it’s unlikely you’ll encounter an actual selkie while you’re in Ireland, anyone interested in Irish folklore will hear about them. If you’re spending time on Ireland’s coasts, you might get a chance to spot the seals instrumental in the myth. No matter where you go on the shores of Ireland or Scotland, if you start talking to the people there about local mythology, you’ll likely hear at least one mermaid/selkie tale or two.
What better place to hear the tale of these mystical selkies than on remote Irish shores or small island communities? Perhaps you’d like to head out on the waves in a kayak to connect with this iconic part of Irish folklore.
Check out the rest of this series on the fascinating myths and legends of Ireland. Stay tuned for the next article!
Want more myths and legends of Ireland?
From the Hag of Beara to the mighty warrior Cuchulainn or the giant credited with forming the iconic Giant’s Causeway, Irish mythology offers a plethora of amazing tales.
Selkie mythology is part of an ongoing series to explore the various stories connected to the Emerald Isle.