A Fishtale from the Irish Seaside
Hundreds of years ago, many water spirits were said to inhabit the seas. Some looked like dragons with fins, others like giant serpents. And then there were the ones that were half-fish and half-human. They were called mermaids (or mermen if they were male).
In the 16th century, statues of mermaids began appearing on the prows of sailing vessels. Could these sculpted ladies look like creatures that were actually seen by sailors?
No matter what the story, the mermaids mostly look the same: often seen sitting on rocks surrounded by water, holding a mirror and combing her long, straight hair. (Hair accessories make excellent birthday presents for mermaids, by the way.)
Because of their delicate skin and tender, shiny scales, mermaids tend to be very emotional creatures. Showing their feelings makes them powerful in a unique way. Their laughter is musical, and their tears have healing powers. Did you know that even happiness can make them cry because it can be so big and wonderful that they can’t hold it in?
Here’s a story from the bonnie coast of Ireland about a man who met one curious and sensitive mermaid:
One fine day, Dick Fitzgerald stood on the shore of Smerwick Harbor. "'Tis just the pattern of a pretty morning," said Dick, looking towards the distant ocean. Thinking for a moment, he continued, "'Tis mighty lonesome to be talking to oneself by way of company and not to have another soul to answer! If I had a friend it would not be this way with me! And what in the wide world is a man without a friend?” And he stared down at the rocks at the water’s edge.
To his astonishment, just at the foot of that rock, a beautiful young creature sat combing her sea-green hair.
Dick guessed at once that she was a mermaid, although he had never seen one before. He spied her little enchanted cap, which the sea people use for diving down into the ocean, lying upon the rocks near her. He had heard that, if he could take away her cap, she would lose the power to return to the water.
So he quickly snatched it.
When the mermaid saw that her little diving-cap was gone, salty tears came trickling down her cheeks, and she began a tender, mournful cry. Dick could not help pitying her; and when she looked up in his face, with her cheeks moist with tears, it was enough to melt the hardest of hearts.
"Don’t cry my darling," said Dick Fitzgerald. But the mermaid only cried the more for that. Dick sat down by her side, and took hold of her hand to comfort her. It was a strange-shaped hand; there was a small web between the fingers, as there is in a duck’s foot, and it was as thin and as white as the skin between egg and shell.
"What’s your name, my darling?” said Dick. At first she said nothing. Then she spoke, "Man, are you planning to you eat me?"
Dick jumped up in amazement, "No! I'd as soon eat myself!”
"Then," said the mermaid, "what will you do with me if you won’t eat me?"
Dick said, "I’ll make you Mistress Fitzgerald before all the world! That’s what I'll do."
The mermaid had always been fascinated with the lives of humans, and she felt a great fondness looking into the man’s face. She thought very carefully and said, "If you promise to always be kind, I’m ready and willing to go with you, Mister Fitzgerald. First allow me to twist up my hair." When she was done, the mermaid put the comb in her pocket, then bent down and whispered some words to the water that was close to the foot of the rock. Dick saw her murmur words upon the top of the sea, and he said in great wonder, "Are you speaking to the salt water?"
The mermaid said, "I’m just sending word home to my father not to be waiting breakfast for me. I don’t want him to worry."
"And who’s your father?" said Dick.
"Why," said the mermaid. "he’s the king of the waves to be sure!"
"If you are a real princess, said Dick, “then he has all the money that’s down at the bottom of the sea!"
"What’s money?" asked the mermaid.
"'Tis no bad thing to have when one wants it," replied Dick "and do the fishes bring up whatever you ask them?"
"Oh yes," said the mermaid "they bring me whatever I want."
Then Dick said, “To be truthful, my home is a simple one. It is not fitting for a king’s daughter; so, would you mind calling for a feather bed and some soft blankets? Do you have such things as beds down under the water?"
"By all means, Mr. Fitzgerald,” she said. “Plenty of beds at your service. I have fourteen oyster-beds of my own.”
And away they went, across the rocks, from Gollerus to Ballinrunning, where they sought out the minister so they could be married. At first, the minister was astonished and said, “Send the scaly creature home to her own people; that’s my advice to you."
Dick had the little enchanted cap in his hand, and was about to give it back to the mermaid, who looked longingly at it. But he thought for a moment, and then said, "Please your Reverence, she’s a King daughter."
The minister said, "If she was the daughter of fifty kings, I tell you, you can’t marry her. Goodness… She’s a fish!"
Trying to find a way to convince the minister, he answered, "But she has all the gold that’s down in the sea, only for the asking, and…" said Dick, looking up slyly, "I can make it worth your while to do the job."
"Oh! That changes things entirely," replied the minister. "Now it all makes sense. Why didn’t you tell me this before? Marry her by all means. Money, you know, is not to be refused."
While Dick did not necessarily agree, he was glad to have convinced the minister.
So, Dick Fitzgerald was married to the mermaid, and they returned to Gollerus well pleased with each other. Everything prospered with Dick. He was at the sunny side of the world. The mermaid found life on land quite fascinating and new, and they lived together in the greatest contentment.
For three years Dick was a happy man, and so he might have been to the end of his days. But one day when Dick had to go away for business, he left the mermaid at home, thinking she had plenty of her own work to do in his absence.
No sooner was he gone than Mrs. Fitzgerald sat about cleaning up the house, and pulling down an old fishing-net, what should she find behind it in a hole in the wall but her own little enchanted cap. She took it out and looked at it, and then she thought of her father the king, and her mother the queen, and her brothers and sisters, and she felt a longing to go back to them.
She got up and went towards the door, but came back again to look once more at the world upon the land. Such a pleasant world it had been. But she had a longing to return to her watery home. As she came to the water’s edge, she looked into the sea, all her memories came flooding back. Dick was instantly forgotten. She placed the little enchanted cap on her head and plunged in.
Dick came home in the evening, and missing his wife, he looked high and low for her. He went to ask the neighbors if they knew where she’d gone, and they told him they has seen her going towards the water with a strange-looking thing little hat on her head. He returned to his cabin to try and find the little enchanted cap. It was gone, and the truth became clear to him.
Year after year did Dick Fitzgerald wait, hoping his wife might return, but he never saw her again. And each time he saw someone crying he remembered fondly the mermaid’s tears that first day he saw her sitting on the rocks.
While she was with him, she was so good in every respect that to this day she is spoken of like royalty and lovingly called The Lady of Gollerus.