Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Irish Folklore: The Silkie

Norse and Scottish mythology have similar stories, but this one is about the Irish version of a myth of the seal who becomes a girl.

Free and in public domain: Legendary Fictions of the Irish Celts By Patrick Kennedy, Macmillan and Co., 1866.

The Silkie Wife:

Those in Shetland and Orkney Islands who know no better, are persuaded that the seals, or silkies, as they call them, can doff their coverings at times, and disport themselves as men and women. A fisher once turning a ridge of rock, discovered a beautiful bit of green turf adjoining the shingle, sheltered by rocks on the landward side, and over this turf and shingle two beautiful women chasing each other. Just at the man's feet lay two seal-skins, one of which he took up to examine it. The women, catching sight of him, screamed out, and ran to get possession of the skins. One seized the article on the ground, donned it in a thrice, and plunged into the sea; the other wrung her hands, cried, and begged the fisher to restore her property; but he wanted a wife, and would not throw away the chance. He wooed her so earnestly and lovingly, that she put on some woman's clothing which he brought her from his cottage, followed him home, and became his wife.

Some years later, when their home was enlivened by the presence of two children, the husband awaking one night, heard voices in conversation from the kitchen. Stealing softly to the room door, he heard his wife talking in a low tone with some one outside the window. The interview was just at an end, and he had only time to ensconce himself in bed, when his wife was stealing across the room. He was greatly disturbed, but determined to do or say nothing till he should acqui
re further knowledge. Next evening, as he was returning home by the strand, he spied a male and female phoca sprawling on a rock a few yards out at sea. The rougher animal, raising himself on his tail and fins, thus addressed the astonished man in the dialect spoken in these islands:--"You deprived me of her whom I was to make my companion; and it was only yesternight that I discovered her outer garment, the loss of which obliged her to be your wife.

I bear no malice, as you were kind to her in your own, fashion; besides, my heart is too full of joy to hold any malice. Look on your wife for the last time." The other seal glanced at him with all the shyness and s
orrow she could force into her now uncouth features; but when the bereaved' husband rushed toward the rock to secure his lost treasure, she and her companion were in the water on the other side of it in a moment, and the poor fisherman was obliged to return sadly to his motherless children and desolate home.

We picked this CD up at the library last week which is appropriate for younger children: Seal Maiden: A Celtic Musical. A review from

Using such traditional Irish instruments as uilleann pipes, the low whistle, the concertina, and the violin, as well as some of the purest, sweetest voices to be heard on a children's recording in recent memory, Seal Maiden: A Celtic Musical relates a mystical tale. Despite her mother's warnings, a playful seal pup frolics too close to the shore, magically molts her sealskin, and turns into a human. The Seal Maiden's humanness leaves her heartsick and discontented; she misses her mother and can't shrug off an atavistic affinity for biting off eels' heads and devouring them whole, as well as other strictly-for-the-seals behavior. Eventually, though, she marries and has a son. When he discovers his own hidden sealskin, he becomes her gateway back to the sea and the slippery, song-filled life she left behind. If this Emerald Isle legend sounds familiar, that's probably because it was recently given silver-screen treatment in John Sayles's The Secret of Roan Inish. Narrator and lead singer Karan Casey (of the traditional Irish group Solas) is enchanting, especially on "The Song of the Seal" and "Seoithin." Musicians Martin Hayes (violin) and Dennis Cahill (guitar) display near-magical heart-melting powers on "Port Na bPucal," which captures the Celtic spirit beautifully. And then there's this album's intended audience--kids--to consider. Children ages 6 and up will be left spellbound by the Seal Maiden's fantastic saga, and those under 6 will be lulled into sweet dreams by its gentle-voiced, exceptionally talented singers, whose far-off land of salty waves and endless possibilities they evoke so gracefully. --Tammy La Gorce

And there is a 1995 movie about this as well, The Secret of Roan Inish An Amazon Review:
As one of the most respected American independent filmmakers, John Sayles has created a body of work as distinguished in its diversity as for its consistent quality and inspiring originality. He's never been one to march to the commercial beat, but chooses instead to follow his creative impulse wherever it leads him. The Secret of Roan Inish led Sayles to the beautiful and moody West Coast of Ireland; it is a tale of a girl who discovers that her family has been touched by myth and magic throughout the years. Following the death of her mother, young Fiona (Jeni Courtney) is sent to live with her grandparents on the Irish coast across from Roan Inish, the island where her family once lived. She's told stories about the selkies--seals that can turn into humans--who have been connected with Fiona's family over the ages. At first she's not sure if the selkies are real or mythological, but she later realizes that they hold the key to reclaiming her family heritage.

What's remarkable about this film (which Sayles adapted from Rosalie Fry's novel, Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry) is that it's not told as a cute fantasy for children, but as a straightforward, unsentimental story of a young girl's family history. That gives the film--which was beautifully photographed by master cinematographer Haskell Wexler--an understated charm that is completely absorbing in its atmosphere and subtle tone. There's magic as well, to be sure--you could almost swear that the seals and seagulls in the film took direction from Sayles as well as any human actor! --Jeff Shannon

HT to Anne for the movie! I plan to order this via Netflix.

Free Celtic music sampler at Amazon: Celtic Sampler Summer 2009

About Me

My photo

I'm a homeschooling mom of two, a teen and a little. I hope this collection of mine helps you as much as it has helped us. I have an Etsy shop here: And a blog: