The Mermaid by George A. Birmingham
We were on our way home from Inishmore, where we had spent two days; Peter
O'Flaherty among his relatives—for everyone on the island was kin to
him—I 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
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
"A man might mistake it for a mermaid," I said.
"He'd have to be a fool altogether that would do the like," said Peter.
He was scornful; but the seal's eyes were human. They made me think of
"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 ones—But
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 him."
"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 question.
"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
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 playing
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 sing—like 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
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
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 hag—and what she said was
true enough, however she learnt it—them 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 played themselves."
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
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 her—there was a priest in it them times that was too fond
of interfering, and that's what some of them are—or whether there
was goings-on within in the inside of the house that nobody knew anything
about—and 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
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 time."
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
"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
"Let her away a bit yet," said Peter. "Now luff her, luff her all you
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
"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."