The Mermaid by James Owen Hannay
An Extract from - Our Casualty And Other Stories
We were on our way home from Inishmore, where we had spent two days;
Peter O'Flaherty among his relativesfor everyone on the island was
kin to himI among friends who give me a warm welcome when I go to
them. The island lies some seventeen miles from the coast We started on
our homeward sail with a fresh westerly wind. Shortly after midday it
backed round to the north and grew lighter. At five o'clock we were
stealing along very gently through calm water with our mainsail boom
out against the shroud. The jib and foresail were drooping in limp
folds. An hour later the mainsheet was hanging in the water and the
boat drifted with the tide. Peter, crouching in the fore part of the
cockpit, hissed through his clenched teeth, which is the way in which
he whistles for a wind. He glanced all round the horizon, searching for
signs of a breeze. His eyes rested finally on the sun, which lay low
among some light, fleecy clouds. He gave it as his opinion that when it
reached the point of setting it might draw a light air after it from
the eastward. For that it appeared we were to wait I shrank from toil
with the heavy sweeps. So, I am sure did Peter, who is a good man in a
boat but averse from unnecessary labour. And there was really no need
to row. The tide was carrying us homeward, and our position was
pleasant enough. Save for the occasional drag of a block against the
horse we had achieved unbroken silence and almost perfect peace.
We drifted slowly past Carrigeen Glos, a low, sullen line of rocks.
A group of cormorants, either gorged with mackerel fry or hopeless of
an evening meal, perched together at one end of the reef, and stared at
the setting sun. A few terns swept round and round overhead, soaring or
sliding downwards with easy motion. A large seal lay basking on a bare
rock just above the water's edge. I pointed it out to Peter, and he
said it was a pity I had not got my rifle with me. I did not agree with
him. If I had brought the rifle Peter would have insisted on my
shooting at the seal. I should certainly not have hit it on purpose,
for I am averse from injuring gentle creatures; but I might perhaps
have killed or wounded it by accident, for my shooting is very
uncertain. In any case I should have broken nature's peace, and made a
horrible commotion. Perhaps the seal heard Peter's remark or divined
his feeling of hostility. It flopped across the rock and slid
gracefully into the sea. We saw it afterwards swimming near the boat,
looking at us with its curiously human, tender eyes.
A man might mistake it for a mermaid, I said.
He'd have to be a fool altogether that would do the like, said
He was scornful; but the seal's eyes were human. They made me think
Them ones, said Peter, is entirely different from seals. You
might see a seal any day in fine weather. They're plenty. But the other
onesBut sure you wouldn't care to be hearing about them.
I've heard plenty about them, I said, but it was all poetry and
nonsense. You know well enough, Peter, that there's no such thing as a
Peter filled his pipe slowly and lit it I could see by the way he
puffed at it that he was full of pity and contempt for my scepticism.
Come now, I said: did you ever see a mermaid?
I did not, said Peter, but my mother was acquainted with one.
That was in Inishmore, where I was born and reared.
I waited. The chance of getting Peter to tell an interesting story
is to wait patiently. Any attempt to goad him on by asking questions is
like striking before a fish is hooked. The chance of getting either
story or fish is spoiled.
There was a young fellow in the island them times, said Peter,
called Anthony O'Flaherty. A kind of uncle of my father's he was, and
a very fine man. There wasn't his equal at running or lepping, and they
say he was terrible daring on the sea. That was before my mother was
born, but she heard tell of what he did. When she knew him he was like
an old man, and the heart was gone out of him.
At this point Peter stopped. His pipe had gone out. He relit it with
immense deliberation. I made a mistake. By way of keeping the
conversation going I asked a question.
Did he see a mermaid?
He did, said Peter, and what's more he married one.
There Peter stopped again abruptly, but with an air of finality. He
had, so I gathered, told me all he was going to tell me about the
mermaid. I had blundered badly in asking my question. I suppose that
some note of unsympathetic scepticism in my tone suggested to Peter
that I was inclined to laugh at him. I did my best to retrieve my
position. I sat quite silent and stared at the peak of the mainsail.
The block on the horse rattled occasionally. The sun's rim touched the
horizon. At last Peter was reassured and began again.
It was my mother told me about it, and she knew, for many's the
time she did be playing with the young lads, her being no more than a
little girleen at the time. Seven of them there was, and the second
eldest was the one age with my mother. That was after herself left
Herself was vague enough; but I did not venture to ask another
question. I took my eyes off the peak of the mainsail and fixed them
inquiringly on Peter. It was as near as I dared go to asking a
Herself, said Peter, was one of them ones.
He nodded sideways over the gunwale of the boat. The sea, though
still calm, was beginning to be moved by that queer restlessness which
comes on it at sunset. The tide eddied in mysteriously oily swirls. The
rocks to the eastward of us had grown dim. A gull flew by overhead
uttering wailing cries. The graceful terns had disappeared. A
cormorant, flying so low that its wing-tips broke the water, sped
across our bows to some far resting-place. I fell into a mood of real
sympathy with stories about mermaids. I think Peter felt the change
which had come over me.
Anthony O'Flaherty, said Peter, was a young man when he saw them
first. It was in the little bay back west of the island, and my mother
never rightly knew what he was doing there in the middle of the night;
but there he was. It was the bottom of a low spring tide, and there's
rocks off the end of the bay that's uncovered at the ebb of the
springs. You've maybe seen them.
I have seen them, and Peter knew it well I have seen more of them
than I want to. There was an occasion when Peter and I lay at anchor in
that bay, and a sudden shift of wind set us to beating out at three
o'clock in the morning. The rocks were not uncovered then, but the
waves were breaking fiercely over them. We had little room for tacking,
and I am not likely to forget the time we went about a few yards to
windward of them. The stretch of wild surf under our lee looked ghastly
white in the dim twilight of the dawn. Peter knew what I was thinking.
It was calm enough that night Anthony O'Flaherty was there, he
said, and there was a moon shining, pretty near a full moon, so
Anthony could see plain. Well, there was three of them in it, and they
This time my voice expressed full sympathy. The sea all round us was
rising in queer round little waves, though there was no wind. The boom
snatched at the blocks as the boat rocked The sail was ghostly white.
The vision of a mermaid would not have surprised me greatly.
The beautifulest ever was seen, said Peter, and neither shift nor
shirt on them, only just themselves, and the long hair of them.
Straight it was and black, only for a taste of green in it. You
wouldn't be making a mistake between the like of them and seals, not if
you'd seen them right the way Anthony O'Flaherty did.
Peter made this reflection a little bitterly. I was afraid the
recollection of my unfortunate remark about seals might have stopped
him telling the story, but it did not.
Once Anthony had seen them, he said, he couldn't rest content
without he'd be going to see them again. Many a night he went and saw
neither sight nor light of them, for it was only at spring tides that
they'd be there, on account of the rocks not being uncovered any other
time. But at the bottom of the low springs they were there right
enough, and sometimes they'd be swimming in the sea and sometimes
they'd be sitting on the rocks. It was wonderful the songs they'd
singlike the sound of the sea set to music was what my mother told
me, and she was told by them that knew. The people did be wondering
what had come over Anthony, for he was different like from what he had
been, and nobody knew what took him out of his house in the middle of
the night at the spring tides. There was a girl that they had laid down
for him to marry, and Anthony had no objection to her before he seen
them ones; but after he had seen them he wouldn't look at the girl. She
had a middling good fortune too but sure he didn't care about that.
I could understand Anthony's feelings. The air of wind which Peter
had promised, drawn from its cave by the lure of the departing sun, was
filling our head-sails. I hauled in the main-sheet gently hand over
hand and belayed it The boat slipped quietly along close-hauled. The
long line of islands which guards the entrance of our bay lay dim
before use. Over the shoulder of one of them I could see the
lighthouse, still a distinguishable patch of white against the looming
grey of the land. The water rippled mournfully under our bows and a
long pale wake stretched astern from our counter. Fortune, banked
money, good heifers and even enduringly fruitful fields seemed very
little matters to me then. They must have seemed still less, far less,
to Anthony O'Flaherty after he had seen those white sea-maidens with
their green-black hair.
There was a woman on the island in those times, said Peter, a
very aged woman, and she had a kind of plaster which she made which
cured the cancer, drawing it out by the roots, and she could tell what
was good for the chin cough, and the women did like to have her with
them when their children was born, she being knowledgable in them
matters. I'm told the priests didn't like her, for there was things she
knew which it mightn't be right that anyone would know, things that's
better left to the clergy. Whether she guessed what was the matter with
Anthony, or whether he up and told her straight my mother never heard.
It could be that he told her, for many a one used to go to her for a
charm when the butter wouldn't come, or a cow, maybe, was pining; so it
wouldn't surprise me if Anthony went to her.
Peter crept aft He took a pull on the jib-sheet and belayed it
again; but I do not believe that he really cared much about the set of
the sail. That was his excuse. He wanted to be nearer to me. There is
something in stories like this, told in dim twilight, with dark waters
sighing near at hand, which makes men feel the need of close human
companionship. Peter seated himself on the floorboards at my feet, and
I felt a certain comfort in the touch of his arm on my leg.
Well, he went on, according to the old hagand what she said was
true enough, however she learnt itthem ones doesn't go naked all the
time, but only when they're playing themselves on the rocks at low
tide, the way Anthony seen them. Mostly they have a kind of cloak that
they wear, and they take the same cloaks off of them when they're up
above the water and they lay them down on the rocks. If so be that a
man could pat his hand on e'er a cloak, the one that owned it would
have to follow him whether she wanted to or not. If it was to the end
of the world she'd have to follow him, or to Spain, or to America, or
wherever he might go. And what's more, she'd have to do what he bid
her, be the same good or bad, and be with him if he wanted her, so long
as he kept the cloak from her. That's what the old woman told Anthony,
and she was a skilful woman, well knowing the nature of beasts and men,
and of them that's neither beasts nor men. You'll believe me now that
Anthony wasn't altogether the same as other men when I tell you that he
laid his mind down to get his hand down on one of the cloaks. He was a
good swimmer, so he was, which is what few men on the island can do,
and he knew that he'd be able to fetch out to the rock where them ones
I was quite prepared to believe that Anthony was inspired by a
passion far out of the common. I know nothing more terrifying than the
chill embrace of the sea at night-time. To strike out through the slimy
weeds which lie close along the surface at the ebb point of a spring
tide, to clamber on low rocks, half awash for an hoar or two at
midnight, these are things which I would not willingly do.
The first time he went for to try it, said Peter, he felt a bit
queer in himself and he thought it would do him no harm if he was to
bless himself. So he did, just as he was stepping off the shore into
the water. Well, it might as well have been a shot he fired, for the
minute he did it they were off and their cloaks along with them; and
Anthony was left there. It was the sign of the cross had them
frightened, for that same is what they can't stand, not having souls
that religion would be any use to. It was the old woman told Anthony
that after, and you'd think it would have been a warning to him not to
make or meddle with the like of them any more. But it only made him the
more determined. He went about without speaking to man or woman, and if
anybody spoke to him he'd curse terrible, till the time of the next
spring tide. Then he was off to the bay again, and sure enough them
ones was there. The water was middling rough that night, but it didn't
daunt Anthony. It pleased him, for he thought he'd have a better chance
of getting to the rocks without them taking notice of him if there was
some noise loud enough to drown the noise he'd be making himself. So he
crept out to the point of the cliff on the south side of the bay, which
is as near as he could get to the rocks. You remember that?
I did. On the night when we beat out of the bay against a rising
westerly wind we went about once under the shadow of the cliff, and,
almost before we had full way on the boat, stayed her again beside the
rocks. Anthony's swim, though terrifying, was short.
That time he neither blessed himself nor said a prayer, but slipped
into the water, and off with him, swimming with all his strength. They
didn't see him, for they were too busy with their playing to take much
notice, and of course they couldn't be expecting a man to be there.
Without Anthony had shouted they wouldn't have heard him, for the sea
was loud on the rocks and their own singing was louder. So Anthony got
there and he crept up on the rock behind them, and the first thing his
hand touched was one of the cloaks. He didn't know which of them it
belonged to, and he didn't care. It wasn't any one of the three in
particular he wanted, for they were all much about the same to look at,
only finer than any woman ever was seen. So he rolled the cloak round
his neck, the way he'd have his arms free for swimming, and back with
him into the water, heading for shore as fast as he was able.
And she followed him? I asked.
She did so. From that day till the day she left him she followed
him, and she did what she was bid, only for one thing. She wouldn't go
to mass, and when the chapel bell rang she'd hide herself. The sound of
it was what she couldn't bear. The people thought that queer, and there
was a deal of talk about it in the bland, some saying she must be a
Protestant, and more thinking that she might be something worse. But
nobody had a word to say against her any other way. She was a good
enough housekeeper, washing and making and mending for Anthony, and
minding the children. Seven of them there was, and all boys.
The easterly breeze freshened as the night fell I could see the
great eye of the lighthouse blinking at me on the weather side of the
boat. It became necessary to go about, but I gave the order to Peter
very reluctantly. He handled the head-sheets, and then, instead of
settling down in his old place, leaned his elbows on the coaming and
stared into the sea. We were steadily approaching the lighthouse. I
felt that I must run the risk of asking him a question.
What happened in the end? I asked.
The end, is it? Well, in the latter end she left him. But there was
things happened before that. Whether it was the way the priests talked
to him about herthere was a priest in it them times that was too fond
of interfering, and that's what some of them areor whether there was
goings-on within in the inside of the house that nobody knew anything
aboutand there might have been, for you couldn't tell what one of
them ones might do or mightn't Whatever way it was, Anthony took to
drinking more than he ought. There was poteen made on the island then,
and whisky was easy come by if a man wanted it, and Anthony took too
much of it.
Peter paused and then passed judgment, charitably, on Anthony's
conduct I wouldn't be too hard on a man for taking a drop an odd
I was glad to hear Peter say that I myself had found it necessary
from time to time, for the sake of an old friendship, not to be too
hard on Peter.
Nobody would have blamed him, Peter went on, if he had behaved
himself when he had a drop taken; but that's what he didn't seem able
to do. He bet her. Sore and heavy he bet her, and that's what no woman,
whether she was a natural woman or one of the other kind, could be
expected to put up with. Not that she said a word. She didn't. Nor
nobody would have known that he bet her if he hadn't token to beating
the young lads along with her. It was them told what was going on. But
there wasn't one on the island would interfere. The people did be
wondering that she didn't put the fear of God into Anthony; but of
course that's what she couldn't do on account of his having the cloak
hid away from her. So long as he had that she was bound to put up with
whatever he did. But it wasn't for ever.
The house was going to rack and ruin with the way Anthony wouldn't
mind it on account of his being three-parts drunk most of the time. At
last the rain was coming in through the roof. When Anthony saw that he
came to himself a bit and sent for my grandfather and settled with him
to put a few patches of new thatch on the worst places. My grandfather
was the best man at thatching that there was in the island in them
days, and he took the job though he misdoubted whether he'd ever be
paid for it. Anthony never came next or nigh him when he was working,
which shows that he hadn't got his senses rightly. If he had he'd have
kept an eye on what my grandfather was doing, knowing what he knew,
though of course my grandfather didn't know. Well, one day my
grandfather was dragging off the old thatch near the chimney. It was
middling late in the evening, as it might be six or seven o'clock, and
he was thinking of stopping his work when all of a sudden he came on
what he thought might be an old petticoat bundled away in the thatch.
It was red, he said, but when he put his hand on it he knew it wasn't
flannel, nor it wasn't cloth, nor it wasn't like anything he'd ever
felt before in all his life. There was a hole in the roof where my
grandfather had the thatch stripped, and he could see down into the
kitchen. Anthony's wife was there with the youngest of the boys in her
arms. My grandfather was as much in dread of her as every other one,
but he thought it would be no more than civil to tell her what he'd
'Begging your pardon, ma'am,' he said, 'but I'm after finding what
maybe belongs to you hid away in the thatch.'
With that he threw down the red cloak, for it was a red cloak he
had in his hand. She didn't speak a word, but she laid down the baby
out of her arms and she walked out of the house. That was the last my
father seen of her. And that was the last anyone on the island seen of
her, unless maybe Anthony. Nobody knows what he saw. He stopped off the
drink from that day; but it wasn't much use his stopping it. He used to
go round at spring tides to the bay where he had seen her first He did
that five times, or maybe six. After that he took to his bed and died.
It could be that his heart was broke.
We slipped past the point of the pier. Peter crept forward and
crouched on the deck in front of the mast I peered into the gloom to
catch sight of our mooring-buoy.
Let her away a bit yet, said Peter. Now luff her, luff her all
The boat edged up into the wind. Peter, flat on his stomach, grasped
the buoy and hauled it on board. The fore-sheets beat their tattoo on
the deck. The boom swung sharply across the boat.
Ten minutes later we were leaning together across the boom gathering
in the mainsail.
What became of the boys? I asked.
Is it Anthony O'Flaherty's boys? The last of them went to America
twenty years ago. But sure that was before you came to these parts.