The island of Ireland was in its past a place of vast and dark forests, rolling hills and mountains and of course many lakes and rivers. As the peoples of the past came into the island they began to shape the land to the needs of the growing populace and with the arrival of early farming the importance of tree clearing and irrigation became of central concern to many tribes. Yet for all of the efforts of early humans, there were still many dangers in the forests of our mythical past and though water was a serious necessity, it also had its water beings in Irish folklore.
The Lúchorpain and the Muirdris
There is an old tale of an Ulster king called Fergus who once fell asleep by water. The lúchorpain, or ‘little bodies’ came to drag him below the waters but when we woke he took their Queen as a lover despite her small body. She gave him the power to breathe under water but told him not to do so in Loch Rudraige. He defied her and whilst diving found a horrific monster called the Muirdris. The site of it twisted his face up in terror. Though his folk tried to keep the disfigurement from him, he found out and returned to battle the beast. Though he did slay it, he too died from the efforts.
The story of these water beasts is an odd one indeed. The story says that a wealthy farmer from Connacht once fell asleep by a river. When we woke he had a fierce hunger upon him. Rushing home he called for a great meal, yet no matter how much he ate, he was never full. Indeed he began to lose weight and sicken. He spent all his wealth on food and doctors neither of which could cure him. Eventually he met a beggar man who told him ailment was an alp-luachra. The farmer was told to eat as much salted meat as he could, then go and lie on his stomach by a river and open his mouth as wide as he could. As the thirst grew more intense he felt his stomach lurch as something moved inside him. Eventually with great pain and much retching a swarm of creatures came up out of him and rushed to the river to slake their thirst. The man was said to have survived and recovered after a healthy meal.
Loch Bel Dracon and The Serpent of Loch Chraili
People all over the world know of the famous monster of Loch Ness, but Ireland also has its share of lake monsters. Many of these beasts for the lakes or rivers by their actions and that is why we remember them even today.
Loch Bel Dracon or the ‘lake of the dragon’s mouth’ is said to have been formed when a harper by the name of Cliach attempted to woo the daughter of Bodb Dearg for his master. Bodb’s magic prevented the harper’s power for over a year until the earth tore open. A dragon had been roused by the music and tore the land to reach the harper. Cliach died in terror right then and a lake formed from the hole the dragon left.
The serpent of Loch Chraili was said to be a fearsome beast and that it would rise from the lake and destroy fortresses and consume all the men and cattle within them. It was so feared that even Cú Chulainn was said to have leapt from a fortress wall upon seeing it coming saying ‘These be no friends of mine’. The serpent was later tricked St. Cuan who managed to get a cauldron put on its head. The cauldron is so heavy that the serpent can no longer raise its head from the water, but once a year its back can still be seen rising from the loch as it struggles to be free.
The White Trout of Cong and the Li Ban
Yet not all tales of water beings are of viscous monsters, some speak instead of women who were changed by the sidhe, or the Gods.
In one story a young maid is set to wed a prince, but on the day of the wedding he is slain and thrown into an underground river. The women wept by the river until the sidhe came and turned her into a white trout. Forever after she stayed in that spot on the river and the locals knew not to bother her. One day a soldier came to the area and upon hearing the story, was determined to catch and eat the trout. He did catch her yet when he tried to fry her she screamed a very human scream. The soldier took his knife to the trout and cut her when she suddenly became human again and threatened a curse upon him unless he put her back. From then on all white trout have the same red spot.
The tale of Li Ban is even stranger. She was said to be a daughter of a king of Tara who lived near Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland. There was a sacred well there and one day it was not covered over as it should be. The well overflowed, flooding the whole area and drowning Li Ban’s family and destroying the whole land. She was swept to sea in a bubble with just her dog for company. After two years underwater in the bubble she saw salmon swimming by and prayed to be made like them. The Gods answered her and she was transformed. She retained her human head but had the body of a salmon. Even her dog was changed and became a ‘madra uisce’ which is ‘water dog’ or more commonly, an otter.
There are many more tales of water beings from, mermaids to merrows, selkies, the dobarchu and also deities associated with water. If you would like to explore more of this fascinating aspect of Irish myth and folklore you can take the class at the Irish Pagan School called, Sea-Maidens to Seal-Folk, Irish Folklore of the Ocean with the amazing Morgan Daimler.
Where To Now?
If you think that Ireland is interesting, and might even be something you’d like to explore further, you can always: