Idir gaoth is idir tonn
Idir tuilleadh is idir gann
Casann sí dhom
Amhrán na Farraige
Between the winds, between the waves
Between the sands, between the shore
From the shell
A song of the sea
— Saoirse’s song, Song of the Sea (2014)
Thady O’Dowd had a lot on his mind that morning. The chief of the O’Dowd clan had reached that stage of life where he should be married, but he’d not yet found the woman to suit him. So he took a walk along the long strand at Enniscrone, hoping the sea air would clear his head
Whatever he’d been expecting to find on Enniscrone beach, he surely hadn’t expected a woman as naked as the day she was born! Yet there she was, her shimmering skin hidden only by her long hair. Even when she saw him she made no move to cover herself, just smiled shyly and continued to brush that lustrous hair. He had never seen anyone so beautiful in his life.
On a rock nearby, he spotted a green cloak and reached towards it. Her eyes flashed a sudden anger.
“Leave that be!” she said.
He realised what she was now, a mermaid who could only return to her aquatic form if she had her magical cloak.
A mermaid found a swimming lad,
Picked him up for her own,
Pressed her body to his body,
Laughed; and plunging down
Forgot in cruel happiness
That even lovers drown.
— The Mermaid by W. B. Yeats (1928)
He draped the garment over his arm and grinned.
“You’ll have to come and get it then.”
So the woman followed Thady home. Her name was Eileen; she became his wife and bore him seven strong children. She seemed as pleased with her life as he was, except for moments when she would stare absently at the sea or inquire about her magical cloak.
One day his chieftain called Thady away to fight. When he opened the chest where he stored his armour, he found it wrapped in the green cloak that he’d taken from Eileen. He stroked the soft and strangely cool material. He really should hide it somewhere less obvious.
That night, he slipped away from his sleeping wife and took the cloak outside to bury it near the well. As he returned to the castle, he was startled by his youngest boy.
“Da? What did you put in the ground?”
“Treasure,” said Thady. “We need to hide it from thieves.”
The child rubbed his bleary eyes as Thady kissed his forehead and led him back up to bed. The boy was surely too sleepy and too young to remember anything.
But when Thady was away, swinging his sword for his chieftain’s honour, his youngest child told Eileen about the “treasure” that was buried by the well.
She dug it up with her bare hands and her fingernails were filthy by the time she dragged the cloak out of the earth. And yet the cloak itself seemed untouched, its material still cool and shimmering.
“Is that the treasure, Ma?” the little boy asked.
His siblings came out of the castle and surrounded her. They were squabbling about some fight that each blamed on the other, but all she could hear was the rushing of waves from the beach. A tear fell upon the cloak, and the salt taste in her mouth was just like the sea.
I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
— Sea Fever by John Masefield (1902)
“Come, children,” she said. “It’s time to go home.”
They were so startled that they stopped arguing and followed her towards the sea. At the top of a hill, they overlooked the long golden strand of Enniscrone where their father had first met their mother.
Eileen realised that she couldn’t take all of her children with her, so she turned the eldest five into stones. As they moved towards the shore, another child was turned into a rock. She lifted the youngest into her arms, tucked him inside her cloak, and swam away, never to be seen again.
When Thady returned, all he found of his family were five stones in a circle, and one looking out over the bay. He sank to his knees and wept for a day and a night before his servants took him home.
The stones can still be found in a brush beside the road about a mile from Enniscrone. It is said that, to this day, the stones weep whenever an O’Dowd passes away.