Ó Conghaile and the Seals


FOREWORD: In the Folklore of Ireland and other maritime countries, there is a profusion of stories concerning seals. Possibly due to the fact that they come ashore and that their head, when seen at a distance above water, bears a resemblance to a human head, it was said that they were human beings under a spell. In other tales they were called Selkies, mythological creatures who could take on a human form.

A Selkie on Inis Oírr wearing her hood!


Many years ago, there was one family of Conneelys (Ó Conghaile) living in Errismore very close to the sea. They had one son, a fine young man. On May Day each year, three seals used to come ashore on a very big flat rock that was high above the tide. There was a cave, five or six yards deep, at the back of the rock, under a cliff.

When the seals came up on the rock, each of them used to take off the hood that was tied about its neck and throw it into the cave behind them. As soon as they took off the hoods, they became the three finest women that the sun had ever shone upon, and they would go out swimming, each with a golden head of hair. The third woman was the most beautiful of all. When they grew tired after swimming for two or three hours, they would come back on to the rock again. Each of them would then take her own hood and tie it about her neck. She would become a seal immediately. After spending about half an hour on the rock, the three seals would dive into the sea together and disappear from sight.

Young Conneely used to watch them every May Day. He liked the youngest woman best of all. He was working in the field one day at the end of Spring when he met an old man who he never saw before. He spoke to the old man, each of them telling his own story. Conneely told him about the three seals that used to come to the rock every May Day.

‘There’s one of them a lot nicer and more beautiful than the other two,’ said he.

‘I’d say that you have a liking for her,’ said the man.

‘Indeed, I have,’ said Conneely. ‘I’m in love with her, but I’ve no chance of ever getting her.’

‘I have an idea who they are’ said the man. ‘I have heard talk about them. What would you give to the person who would tell you the way you might get the one you want?’

‘Oh, I’m only a poor man,’ said Conneely. ‘All I could give you as a reward is my seven thousand blessings.’

‘That’s a good reward,’ said the man. ‘I’ll tell you what you must do. When next May Day comes, hide yourself in the cave early in the morning, and when they throw their hoods into it, you must put the young seals hood inside your shirt. Keep the other two hoods in your hands. The three women will be screaming and wailing, each of them asking for her own hood, and saying that their father will kill them if they aren’t home by a certain hour. They are the three daughters of the King of the Sea. You mustn’t give the youngest woman her hood, at any price, no matter what screaming and complaining she does. Give the hoods to the other two. Then walk towards your house, and the youngest one will follow you. You must hide the hood in a place she’ll never see it. If she does, you’ll have finished with her.’

‘You may be sure that I’ll never give her the hood,’ said Conneely. ‘I love her too much for that!’

The old man then stood up and left, and Conneely never laid eyes on him again. May Day came, and at dawn, Conneely hid himself in the cave. Soon the three seals came up to the rock. Each of them took off the hood, and threw it into the cave, and they were the finest women to have ever raised their faces to the sky. The youngest was the most beautiful of all. When the three women jumped in to swim, Conneely picked up her hood and shoved it inside his shirt. He kept the other two in his hands. He waited until they came back to the rock. When they saw him with the hoods in his hands, they asked him for them, but he refused. They started to wail at the top of their voices, saying that their father would kill them if they weren’t home early in the evening. He threw her hood to the eldest, and to the second eldest. The two seals jumped into the sea together and swam off.

The youngest seal was left behind, and her cries could be heard for miles. He told her that he wouldn’t give her the hood and he asked her to go home with him. She had no wish to, but she had no option but to follow him to his house. She spent the night there, and they got married the next day. He hid the hood in the roof of the house, between the thatch and the sods. They lived happily together, and five sons were born to them. There wasn’t a better worker to be found. But each day, when he was out at sea, fishing, she would weep her fill.

One fine summer’s day, the husband was out at sea, fishing, and his wife was working in the fields. When she looked back at the house, it was on fire. There were two or three other houses nearby and she shouted to them for help. Two or three men came and started throwing water on the burning thatch, while she stood watching them. Suddenly, a large clump of thatch fell down near her and in it was the hood. She grabbed it, tied it about her neck and she was immediately turned into a seal. She ran down to the sea and was gone.

Her five sons followed her to the shore but failed to find her. They returned home, crying for their mother. When Conneely returned home in the evening, the house was half burned, his wife had gone and the children were waiting for him. He sat down with them, and he too cried his fill until morning. As soon as the children got up in the morning, they went down to where they had seen their mother go into the sea, hoping to see her. And they did. She came in close to the shore where they were and spoke to them. And there wasn’t a day that came during the next five years that they didn’t go down to the sea, and she came every day and talked to them. When the five years were up, she told them that they would never see her again.

There were very few Conneelys in Errismore at that time. But you couldn’t count all of them now, that descended from the five sons of the seal-woman. That’s why, to this very day, it is said that the Conneelys are related to the seals.

You can read about the seal colony on Inis Oírr here.

Irish Seals: The Three Daughters of the King of the Sea – An article provided by The Information about Ireland Site.

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