Mermaid and Other Water Spirit Tales From Around the World has a slight connection to an album that was in standard rotation for me when I was in college, The Soul Cages by Sting. Sting's music was perfect for that period in my life.
As I gathered stories of mermaids, merrows and such, I came across The Soul Cages by Thomas Croker. It's a long story about souls being caged and rescued. Sting's version involves a demonic fisherman as the villain and Croker's tells of a merrow who cages the souls that are ultimately freed by Jack, the protagonist. You can read the lyrics to Sting's song here. The tale is not unique to County Kerry, Ireland, the source of Croker's tale. In his notes, for example, Croker includes a translation of a similar tale from Grimm’s Deutche Sagan (Croker's spelling, which should be Deutsche Sagen). And the question of souls is common in many mermaid tales, whether it be those of the merrow folk or captive humans. Even Hans Christian Andersen was inspired by the state of the immortal soul in his Little Mermaid which in itself led to the simplified Poor Unfortunate Souls in Disney's version of the tale.
But I'll stop there to make room for this long tale, notes not included, but the tale is fascinating all unto itself.
The Soul Cages
by Thomas Croker
JACK Dogherty lived on the coast of the county Clare. Jack was a fisherman, as his father and grandfather before him had been. Like them, too, he lived all alone (but for the wife), and just in the same spot. People used to wonder why the Dogherty family were so fond of that wild situation, so far away from all human kind, and in the midst of huge shattered rocks, with nothing but the wide ocean to look upon. But they had their own good reasons for it.
The place was just the only spot on that part of the coast where anybody could well live. There was a neat little creek, where a boat might lie as snug as a puffin in her nest, and out from this creek a ledge of sunken rocks ran into the sea. Now when the Atlantic, according to custom, was raging with a storm, and a good westerly wind was blowing strong on the coast, many a richly-laden ship went to pieces on these rocks; and then the fine bales of cotton and tobacco, and such like things, and the pipes of wine and the puncheons of rum, and the casks of brandy, and the kegs of Hollands that used to come ashore! Dunbeg Bay was just like a little estate to the Doghertys.
Not but they were kind and humane to a distressed sailor, if ever one had the good luck to get to land; and many a time indeed did Jack put out in his little corragh (which, though not quite equal to honest Andrew Hennessy’s canvas life-boat would breast the billows like any gannet), to lend a hand towards bringing off the crew from a wreck. But when the ship had gone to pieces, and the crew were all lost, who would blame Jack for picking up all he could find?
“And who is the worse of it?” said he. “For as to the king, God bless him! everybody knows he’s rich enough already without getting what’s floating in the sea.”
Jack, though such a hermit, was a good-natured, jolly fellow. No other, sure, could ever have coaxed Biddy Mahony to quit her father’s snug and warm house in the middle of the town of Ennis, and to go so many miles off to live among the rocks, with the seals and sea-gulls for next-door neighbours. But Biddy knew that Jack was the man for a woman who wished to be comfortable and happy; for to say nothing of the fish, Jack had the supplying of half the gentlemen’s houses of the country with the Godsends that came into the bay. And she was right in her choice; for no woman ate, drank, or slept better, or made a prouder appearance at chapel on Sundays, than Mrs. Dogherty.
Many a strange sight, it may well be supposed, did Jack see, and many a strange sound did he hear, but nothing daunted him. So far was he from being afraid of Merrows, or such beings, that the very first wish of his heart was to fairly meet with one. Jack had heard that they were mighty like Christians, and that luck had always come out of an acquaintance with them. Never, therefore, did he dimly discern the Merrows moving along the face of the waters in their robes of mist, but he made direct for them; and many a scolding did Biddy, in her own quiet way, bestow upon Jack for spending his whole day out at sea, and bringing home no fish. Little did poor Biddy know the fish Jack was after!
It was rather annoying to Jack that, though living in a place where the Merrows were as plenty as lobsters, he never could get a right view of one. What vexed him more was that both his father and grandfather had often and often seen them; and he even remembered hearing, when a child, how his grandfather, who was the first of the family that had settled down at the creek, had been so intimate with a Merrow that, only for fear of vexing the priest, he would have had him stand for one of his children. This, however, Jack did not well know how to believe.
Fortune at length began to think that it was only right that Jack should know as much as his father and grandfather did. Accordingly, one day when he had strolled a little farther than usual along the coast to the northward, just as he turned a point, he saw something, like to nothing he had ever seen before, perched upon a rock at a little distance out to sea. It looked green in the body, as well as he could discern at that distance, and he would have sworn, only the thing was impossible, that it had a cocked hat in its hand. Jack stood for a good half-hour straining his eyes, and wondering at it, and all the time the thing did not stir hand or foot. At last Jack’s patience was quite worn out, and he gave a loud whistle and a hail, when the Merrow (for such it was) started up, put the cocked hat on its head, and dived down, head foremost, from the rock.
Jack’s curiosity was now excited, and he constantly directed his steps towards the point; still he could never get a glimpse of the sea-gentleman with the cocked hat; and with thinking and thinking about the matter, he began at last to fancy he had been only dreaming. One very rough day, however, when the sea was running mountains high, Jack Dogherty determined to give a look at the Merrow’s rock (for he had always chosen a fine day before), and then he saw the strange thing cutting capers upon the top of the rock, and then diving down, and then coming up, and then diving down again.
Jack had now only to choose his time (that is, a good blowing day), and he might see the man of the sea as often as he pleased. All this, however, did not satisfy him—“much will have more”; he wished now to get acquainted with the Merrow, and even in this he succeeded. One tremendous blustering day, before he got to the point whence he had a view of the Merrow’s rock, the storm came on so furiously that Jack was obliged to take shelter in one of the caves which are so numerous along the coast; and there, to his astonishment, he saw sitting before him a thing with green hair, long green teeth, a red nose, and pig’s eyes. It had a fish’s tail, legs with scales on them, and short arms like fins. It wore no clothes, but had the cocked hat under its arm, and seemed engaged thinking very seriously about something.
Jack, with all his courage, was a little daunted; but now or never, thought he; so up he went boldly to the cogitating fishman, took off his hat, and made his best bow.
“Your servant, sir,” said Jack.
“Your servant, kindly, Jack Dogherty,” answered the Merrow.
“To be sure, then, how well your honour knows my name!” said Jack.
“Is it I not know your name, Jack Dogherty? Why man, I knew your grandfather long before he was married to Judy Regan, your grandmother! Ah, Jack, Jack, I was fond of that grandfather of yours; he was a mighty worthy man in his time: I never met his match above or below, before or since, for sucking in a shellful of brandy. I hope, my boy,” said the old fellow, with a merry twinkle in his eyes, “I hope you’re his own grandson!”
‘Never fear me for that,” said Jack; “if my mother had only reared me on brandy, ’tis myself that would be a sucking infant to this hour!”
“Well, I like to hear you talk so manly; you and I must be better acquainted, if it were only for your grandfather’s sake. But, Jack, that father of yours was not the thing! he had no head at all.”
“I’m sure, said Jack, “since your honour lives down under the water, you must be obliged to drink a power to keep any beat in you in such a cruel, damp, could place. Well, I’ve often heard of Christians drinking like fishes; and might I be so bold as ask where you get the spirits?”
“Where do you get them yourself, Jack?” said the Merrow, twitching his red nose between his forefinger and thumb.
“Hubbubboo,” cries Jack “now I see how it is; but I suppose, sir, your honour has got a fine dry cellar below to keep them in.”
“Let me alone for the cellar,” said the Merrow, with a knowing wink of his left eye.
“I’m sure,” continued Jack, “it must be mighty well worth the looking at.”
“You may say that, Jack,” said the Merrow; “and if you meet me here next Monday, just at this time of the day, we will have a little more talk with one another about the matter.”
Jack and the Merrow parted the best friends in the world. On Monday they met, and Jack was not a little surprised to see that the Merrow had two cocked hats with him, one under each arm.
“Might I take the liberty to ask, sir,” said Jack, “why your honour has brought the two hats with you today? You would not, sure, be going to give me one of them, to keep for the curiosity of the thing?”
“No, no, Jack,” said he, “I don’t get my hats so easily, to part with them that way; but I want you to come down and dine with me, and I brought you that hat to dive with.”
“Lord bless and preserve us!” cried Jack, in amazement, would you want me to go down to the bottom of the salt sea ocean? Sure, I’d be smothered and choked up with the water, to say nothing of being drowned! And what would poor Biddy do for me, and what would she say?”
“And what matter what she says, you pinkeen? Who cares for Biddy’s squalling? It’s long before your grandfather would have talked in that way. Many’s the time he stuck that same hat on his head, and dived down boldly after me; and many’s the snug bit of dinner and good shellful of brandy he and I have had together below, under the water.”
“Is it really, sir, and no joke?” said Jack; “why, then, sorrow from me for ever and a day after, if I’ll be a bit worse man nor my grandfather was! Here goes—but play me fair now. Here’s neck or nothing!” cried Jack.
“That’s your grandfather all over,” said the old fellow; “so come along, then, and do as I do.”
They both left the cave, walked into the sea, and then swam a piece until they got to the rock, The Merrow climbed to the top of it, and Jack followed him. On the far side it was as straight as the wall of a house, and the sea beneath looked so deep that Jack was almost cowed.
“Now, do you see, Jack,” said the Merrow: “just put this hat on your head, and mind to keep your eyes wide open. Take hold of my tail, and follow after me, and you’ll see what you’ll see.”
In he dashed, and in dashed Jack after him boldly. They went and they went, and Jack thought they’d never stop going. Many a time did he wish himself sitting at home by the fireside with Biddy. Yet where was the use of wishing now, when he was so many miles, as he thought, below the waves of the Atlantic? Still he held hard by the Merrow’s tail, slippery as it was; and, at last, to Jack’s great surprise, they got out of the water, and he actually found himself on dry land at the bottom of the sea. They landed just in front of a nice house that was slated very neatly with oyster shells! and the Merrow, turning about to Jack, welcomed him down.
Jack could hardly speak, what with wonder, and what with being out of breath with travelling so fast through the water. He looked about him and could see no living things, barring crabs and lobsters, of which there were plenty walking leisurely about on the sand. Overhead was the sea like a sky, and the fishes like birds swimming about in it.
“Why don’t you speak, man?” said the Merrow: “I dare say you had no notion that I had such a snug little concern here as this? Are you smothered, or choked, or drowned, or are you fretting after Biddy, eh?”
“Oh! not myself indeed,” said Jack, showing his teeth with a good-humoured grin—“but who in the world would ever have thought of seeing such a thing?”
“Well, come along, and let’s see what they’ve got for us to eat?”
Jack really was hungry, and it gave him no small pleasure to perceive a fine column of smoke rising from the chimney, announcing what was going on within. Into the house he followed the Merrow, and there he saw a good kitchen, right well provided with everything. There was a noble dresser, and plenty of pots and pans, with two young Merrows cooking. His host then led him into the room, which was furnished shabbily enough. Not a table or a chair was there in it; nothing but planks and logs of wood to sit on, and eat off. There was, however, a good fire blazing upon the hearth—a comfortable sight to Jack.
“Come now, and I’ll show you where I keep—you know what,” said the Merrow, with a sly look; and opening a little door, he led Jack into a fine cellar, well filled with pipes, and kegs, and hogsheads, and barrels.
“What do you say to that, Jack Dogherty?—Eh!—may be a body can’t live snug under the water?”
“Never the doubt of that,” said Jack, with a convincing smack of his upper lip, that he really thought what he said.
They went back to the room, and found dinner laid. There was no tablecloth, to be sure—but what matter? It was not always Jack had one at home. The dinner would have been no discredit to the first house of the country on a fast day. The choicest of fish, and no wonder, was there. Turbots, and sturgeons, and soles, and lobsters, and oysters, and twenty other kinds, were on the planks at once, and plenty of the best of foreign spirits. The wines, the old fellow said, were too cold for his stomach.
Jack ate and drank till he could eat no more: then taking up a shell of brandy, “Here’s to your honour’s good health, sir,” said he; “though, begging you pardon, it’s mighty odd that as long as we’ve been acquainted I don’t know your name yet.”
“That’s true, Jack,” replied he; “I never thought of it before, but better late than never. My name’s Coomara.”
“And a mighty decent name it is,” cried Jack, taking another shellfull: “here’s to your good health, Coomara, and may ye live these fifty years to come!”
“Fifty years!” repeated Coomara; “I’m obliged to you, indeed! If you had said five hundred, it would have been something worth the wishing.”
“By the laws, sir,” cries Jack, “youz live to a powerful age here under the water! You knew my grandfather, and he’s dead and gone better than these sixty years. I’m sure it must be a healthy place to live in.”
“No doubt of it; but come, Jack, keep the liquor stirring.”
Shell after shell did they empty, and to Jack’s exceeding surprise, he found the drink never got into his head, owing, I suppose, to the sea being over them, which kept their noddles cool.
Old Coomara got exceedingly comfortable, and sung several songs; but Jack, if his life had depended on it, never could remember more than
“Rum fum boodle boo,
Ripple dipple nitty dob;
Dumdoo doodle coo,
Raffle taffle chittibob!”
It was the chorus to one of them; and, to say the truth, nobody that I know has ever been able to pick any particular meaning out of it; but that, to be sure, is the case with many a song nowadays.
At length said he to Jack, “Now, my dear boy, if you follow me, I’ll show you my curiosities!” He opened a little door, and led Jack into a large room, where Jack saw a great many odds and ends that Coomara had picked up at one time or another. What chiefly took his attention, however, were things like lobsterpots ranged on the ground along the wall.
“Well, Jack, how do you like my curiosities?” said old Coo.
“Upon my sowkins, sir,” said Jack, “they’re mighty well worth the looking at; but might I make so bold as to ask what these things like lobster-pots are?”
“Oh! the Soul Cages, is it?”
“The what? sir!”
“These things here that I keep the souls in.”
“Arrah! what souls, sir?” said Jack, in amazement; “sure the fish have no souls in them?”
“Oh! no,” replied Coo, quite coolly, “that they have not; but these are the souls of drowned sailors.”
“The Lord preserve us from all harm!” muttered lack, “how in the world did you get them?”
“Easily enough: I’ve only, when I see a good storm coming on, to set a couple of dozen of these, and then, when the sailors are drowned and the souls get out of them under the water, the poor things are almost perished to death, not being used to the cold; so they make into my pots for shelter, and then I have them snug, and fetch them home, and is it not well for them, poor souls, to get into such good quarters?”
Jack was so thunderstruck he did not know what to say, so he said nothing. They went back into the dining-room, and had a little more brandy, which was excellent, and then, as Jack knew that it must be getting late, and as Biddy might be uneasy, he stood up, and said he thought it was time for him to be on the road.
“Just as you like, Jack,” said Coo, “but take a duc an durrus before you go; you’ve a cold journey before you.”
Jack knew better manners than to refuse the parting glass. “I wonder,” said he, “will I be able to make out my way home?”
“What should ail you,” said Coo, “when I’ll show you the way?”
Out they went before the house, and Coomara took one of the cocked hats, and put it upon Jack’s head the wrong way, and then lifted him up on his shoulder that he might launch him up into the water.
“Now,” says he, giving him a heave, “you’ll come up just in the same spot you came down in; and, Jack, mind and throw me back the hat.”
He canted Jack off his shoulder, and up he shot like a bubble—whirr, whiff, whiz—away he went up through the water, till he came to the very rock he had jumped off where he found a landing-place, and then in he threw the hat, which sunk like a stone.
The sun was just going down in the beautiful sky of a calm summer’s evening. Feascor was seen dimly twinkling in the cloudless heaven, a solitary star, and the waves of the Atlantic flashed in a golden flood of light. So Jack, perceiving it was late, set off home; but when he got there, not a word did he say to Biddy of where he had spent his day.
The state of the poor souls cooped up in the lobster-pots gave Jack a great deal of trouble, and how to release them cost him a great deal of thought. He at first had a mind to speak to the priest about the matter. But what could the priest do, and what did Coo care for the priest? Besides, Coo was a good sort of an old fellow, and did not think he was doing any harm. Jack had a regard for him, too, and it also might not be much to his own credit if it were known that he used to go dine with Merrows. On the whole, he thought his best plan would be to ask Coo to dinner, and to make him drunk, if he was able, and then to take the hat and go down and turn up the pots. It was, first of all, necessary, however, to get Biddy out of the way; for Jack was prudent enough, as she was a woman, to wish to keep the thing secret from her.
Accordingly, Jack grew mighty pious all of a sudden, and said to Biddy that he thought it would be for the good of both their souls if she was to go and take her rounds at Saint John’s Well, near Ennis. Biddy thought so too, and accordingly off she set one fine morning at day dawn, giving Jack a strict charge to have an eye to the place.
The coast being clear, away went Jack to the rock to give the appointed signal to Coomara, which was throwing a big stone into the water. Jack threw, and up sprang Coo!
“Good morning, Jack,” said he; “what do you want with me?”
“Just nothing at all to speak about, sir,” returned Jack, “only to come and take a bit of dinner with me, if I might make so free as to ask you, and sure I’m now after doing so.”
“It’s quite agreeable, Jack, I assure you; what’s your hour?”‘
“Any time that’s most convenient to you, sir—say one o’clock, that you may go home, if you wish, with the daylight.”
“I’ll be with you,” said Coo, “never fear me.”
Jack went home, and dressed a noble fish dinner, and got out plenty of his best foreign spirits, enough, for that matter, to make twenty men drunk. Just to the minute came Coo, with his cocked hat under his arm. Dinner was ready, they sat down, and ate and drank away manfully. Jack, thinking of the poor souls below in the pots, plied old Coo well with brandy, and encouraged him to sing, hoping to put him under the table, but poor Jack forgot that he had not the sea over his head to keep it cool. The brandy got into it, and did his business for him, and Coo reeled off home, leaving his entertainer as dumb as a haddock on a Good Friday.
Jack never woke till the next morning, and then he was in a sad way. “’Tis to no use for me thinking to make that old Rapparee drunk,” said Jack, “and how in this world can I help the poor souls out of the lobster-pots?” After ruminating nearly the whole day, a thought struck him. “I have it,” says he, slapping his knee; “I’ll be sworn that Coo never saw a drop of poteen, as old as he is, and that’s the thing to settle him! Oh! then, is not it well that Biddy will not be home these two days yet; I can have another twist at him.”
Jack asked Coo again, and Coo laughed at him for having no better head, telling him he’d never come up to his grandfather.
“Well, but try me again,” said Jack, “and I’ll be bail to drink you drunk and sober, and drunk again.”
“Anything in my power,” said Coo, “to oblige you.”
At this dinner Jack took care to have his own liquor well watered, and to give the strongest brandy he had to Coo. At last says he, “Pray, sir, did you ever drink any poteen?—any real Mountain dew?”
“No,” says Coo; “what’s that, and where does it come from?”
“Oh, that’s a secret,” said Jack, “but it’s the right stuff—never believe me again, if ’tis not fifty times as good as brandy or rum either. Biddy’s brother just sent me a present of a little drop, in exchange for some brandy, and as you’re an old friend of the family, I kept it to treat you with.”
“Well, let’s see what sort of thing it is,” said Coomara.
The poteen was the right sort. It was first-rate, and had the real smack upon it. Coo was delighted: he drank and he sung Rum bum boodle boo over and over again; and he laughed and he danced, till he fell on the floor fast asleep. Then Jack, who had taken good care to keep himself sober, snapt up the cocked hat—ran off to the rock—leaped, and soon arrived at Coo’s habitation.
All was as still as a churchyard at midnight—not a Merrow, old or young, was there. In he went and turned up the pots, but nothing did he see, only he heard a sort of a little whistle or chirp as he raised each of them. At this he was surprised, till he recollected what the priests had often said, that nobody living could see the soul, no more than they could see the wind or the air. Having now done all that he could for them, he set the pots as they were before, and sent a blessing after the poor souls to speed them on their journey wherever they were going. Jack now began to think of returning; he put the hat on, as was right, the wrong way; but when he got out he found the water so high over his head that he had no hopes of ever getting up into it, now that he had not old Coomara to give him a lift. He walked about looking for a ladder, but not one could he find, and not a rock was there in sight. At last he saw a spot where the sea hung rather lower than anywhere else, so he resolved to try there. Just as he came to it, a big cod happened to put down his tail. Jack made a jump and caught hold of it, and the cod, all in amazement, gave a bounce and pulled Jack up. The minute the hat touched the water away Jack was whisked, and up he shot like a cork, dragging the poor cod, that he forgot to let go, up with him tail foremost. He got to the rock in no time and without a moment’s delay hurried home, rejoicing in the good deed he had done.
But, meanwhile, there was fine work at home; for our friend Jack had hardly left the house on his soul-freeing expedition, when back came Biddy from her soul-saving one to the well. When she entered the house and saw the things lying thrie-na-helah on the table before her—
“Here’s a pretty job!” said she; “that blackguard of mine—what ill-luck I had ever to marry him! He has picked up some vagabond or other, while I was praying for the good of his soul, and they’ve been drinking all the poteen that my own brother gave him, and all the spirits, to be sure, that he was to have sold to his honour.”—Then hearing an outlandish kind of grunt, she looked down, and saw Coomara lying under the table.—“The Blessed Virgin help me,” shouted she, “if he has not made a real beast of himself! Well, well, I’ve often heard of a man making a beast of himself with drink!—Oh hone—oh hone!—Jack, honey, what will I do with you, or what will I do without you? How can any decent woman ever think of living with a beast?”
With such like lamentations Biddy rushed out of the house, and was going she knew not where, when she heard the well-known voice of Jack singing a merry tune. Glad enough was Biddy to find him safe and sound, and not turned into a thing that was like neither fish nor flesh. Jack was obliged to tell her all, and Biddy, though she had half a mind to be angry with him for not telling her before, owned that he had done a great service to the poor souls. Back they both went most lovingly to the house, and Jack wakened up Coomara; and, perceiving the old fellow to be rather dull, he bid him not to be cast down, for ’twas many a good man’s case; said it all came of his not being used to the poteen, and recommended him, by way of cure, to swallow a hair of the dog that bit him. Coo, however, seemed to think he had had quite enough. He got up, quite out of sorts, and without having the manners to say one word in the way of civility, he sneaked off to cool himself by a jaunt through the salt water.
Coomara never missed the souls. He and Jack continued the best friends in the world, and no one, perhaps, ever equalled Jack for freeing souls from purgatory; for he contrived fifty excuses for getting into the house below the sea, unknown to the old fellow, and then turning up the pots and letting out the souls. It vexed him, to be sure, that he could never see them; but as he knew the thing to be impossible, he was obliged to be satisfied.
Their intercourse continued for several years. However, one morning, on Jack’s throwing in a stone as usual, he got no answer. He flung another, and another, still there was no reply. He went away, and returned the following morning, but it was to no purpose. As he was without the hat, he could not go down to see what had become of old Coo, but his belief was, that the old man, or the old fish, or whatever he was, had either died, or had removed from that part of the country.
Croker, Thomas Crofton. Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland. London: William Tegg, 1859.