The Lady of Gollerus: A Folktale of Ard na Caithne, Ireland

Ard na Caithne - Ireland
Pinpoint Location: Ard na Caithne, County Kerry / Map data ©2017 Google

This folktale from Ard na Caithne tells the tale of Dick Fitzgerald, who wished to marry a Merrow to end his loneliness.

On the shore of Smerwick harbour, one fine summer’s morning at daybreak, Dick Fitzgerald stood smoking his pipe. The sun was gradually rising, the dark sea was getting green in the light, and the mists clearing away out of the valleys went rolling and curling like the smoke from the corner of Dick’s mouth.

To his astonishment he saw, just then, at the foot of a rock upon the strand, a beautiful young creature combing her hair, which was of a sea-green colour. Dick knew she was a Merrow, for he spied her cohuleen driuth (enchanted cap) lying on the beach near her.

He once heard that if he could take the cap, she would be unable to return to the water; so he seized it with all speed, and she, hearing the noise, turned around at once.

When the Merrow saw that her little diving-cap was gone, the salt tears came trickling down her cheeks, and she began a low mournful cry with just the tender voice of a newborn infant.

As she looked up at his face, her cheeks all moist with tears, Dick could not help pitying her. “Don’t cry, darling,” he said. But she only cried louder. He sat down by her side and took hold of her hand to comfort her. It was in no way a particularly ugly hand, but there was a small web between the fingers, thin and white as the skin between egg and shell.

“What’s your name, darling?” Dick said, but he got no answer, and he was certain that she either could not speak or did not understand him. He squeezed her hand in his, as the only way he had of talking to her.

“Man,” she said suddenly, “will you eat me?”

“Of course not, my darling!”

“What will you do with me then?”

Dick’s saw, at the first glimpse, that she was handsome; but since she spoke he was fairly in love with her. It was the neat way she called him man that settled the matter.

“Fish,” Dick said, trying to speak to her after her own fashion. “I’ll make you Mistress Fitzgerald, that’s what I’ll do.”

“I’m willing,” she said, “but wait while I twist up my hair.”

It was some time before she had settled her hair entirely to her liking, but when she was done, the Merrow put the comb in her pocket, and bent down her head and whispered some word to the water.

Dick saw the murmur of the words upon the top of the sea, going out towards the wide ocean, just like a breath of wind rippling along, and, in the greatest wonder, said: “Are you speaking to the salt water, my darling?”

“Yes, I’m sending word to my father, to keep him from worrying.”

“Who’s your father, my darling?” Dick asked.

“You never heard of my father? He’s the king of the waves!”

Dick Fitzgerald determined to marry the Merrow, and the Merrow had given her consent. They walked across the beach from Gollerus to Ballinrunnig, where Father Fitzgibbon happened to be that morning.

“Dick Fitzgerald,” his Reverence said, looking mighty glum. “It is a fishy woman you’d marry? Send the scaly creature home to her own people, that’s my advice to you.”

Dick had the cohuleen driuth in his hand and was about to give it back to the Merrow, who looked covetously at it, but he thought for a moment and then said: “Please, your Reverence, she’s a king’s daughter.”

“If she was the daughter of fifty kings,” Father Fitzgibbon said, “you still can’t marry her. She’s a fish and you are a man.”

“Please,” Dick said again, in an undertone, “she is as mild as the moon.”

“If she was as mild as the sun, moon, and stars, all put together, I’d still tell you, Dick Fitzgerald,” the Priest said, stamping his right foot, “you can’t marry her. She’s a fish!”

“But she has all the gold that’s down in the sea,” Dick said, looking up slyly, “I can make it worth anyone’s while to perform the ceremony.”

“Oh! that alters the case entirely,” the Priest replied, “there’s some reason now in what you say. Marry her by all means, if she was ten times a fish.”

So Father Fitzgibbon married Dick Fitzgerald to the Merrow, and they returned to Gollerus well pleased with each other. Dick was at the sunny-side of the world; the Merrow made the best of wives, and they lived together in great prosperity and contentment. At the end of three years there were as many young Fitzgeralds — two boys and a girl.

In short, Dick was a happy man, and so he might have been to the end of his days if only he had the sense to take care of what he had.

One day, when Dick was obliged to go to Tralee, he left his wife minding the children at home, thinking she had plenty to do without disturbing his fishing tackle. But Mrs. Fitzgerald set about cleaning the house, and pulling down a fishing-net, she found her cohuleen driuth hidden behind it. 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.

Sitting down on a little stool, she recalled the happy days she had spent under the sea; then she looked at her children and thought of the love and affection of poor Dick, and how it would break his heart to lose her.

“But,” she said, “I’ll return to him. Who can blame me for going to see my father and my mother after being away for so long?”

She kissed her children gently, and for an instant a tear trembled in her eye and then fell on its rosy cheek. She wiped away the tear, and turning to the eldest little girl, told her to take good care of her brothers until she came back.

The Merrow went down to the beach. The sea was lying calm and smooth, just heaving and glittering in the sun, and she thought she heard a faint, sweet singing, inviting her to come down. Dick and her children were instantly forgotten, and placing the cohuleen driuth on her head she plunged in.

Dick came home in the evening and asked Kathelin, his little girl, where her mother had gone, but she could not tell him. From the neighbours he learned that she was seen going towards the beach with a strange looking thing like a cocked hat in her hand. He returned to his cabin to search for the cohuleen driuth. It was gone, and the truth flashed upon him.

Year after year Dick Fitzgerald waited, expecting the return of his wife. Although he never saw her again, Dick never remarried, always believing that the Merrow would sooner or later return to him.

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