BLOG: A little Irish lore: shape-shifting, skin-shedding seals

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While doing research for a recent article about a local Irish play, I became acquainted with the legend of the magical silkie. Also known as a selkie, selchie or roan, this creature can shape-shift from its true form as a seal into a human by approaching the shore and shedding its skin.

While this certainly is an intriguing and unique mythological creature, it was the rather graphic and bizarre skin-removal-morphing that prompted me to further investigate the seal-folk and explore the depths of Celtic eccentricities.

Silkies, not to be confused with and distinct from mermaids (known as merrows in Irish legends), come from Irish, Scottish, Icelandic and Faroese folklore. They can be either male or female, but most surviving stories revolve around female silkies who have fallen in love with land-dwelling males and end tragically when the silkie is eventually, and instinctively, drawn back to sea.

Arguably the first silkie legend tells how a lonely fisherman found the shed seal skin of a silkie running amok on the beach. Seizing this opportunity to snag a wife, the fisherman kept the skin from the silkie and wooed her to come back to his house. They married and had two children, but a few years later, the silkie’s long lost sea companion found and returned her seal skin. She abandoned her human life for the sea. The fisherman was left alone with his motherless children.

The ancient silkies found their place in contemporary entertainment, too. “Ondine,” a movie about another tragic silkie-human romance, was released in 2009 starring Colin Farrell and a sandy-haired Polish beauty. Though I hadn’t even heard of the movie until an interviewee for my story mentioned it, much less seen it, IMBD’s trailer looks dramatic and romantic enough — bonus points for Irish accents. But ever since “Daredevil,” I try my best to avoid Colin Farrell movies, accent or none.

A less recent, but higher rated, silkie film called “The Secret of Roan Inish” (1994) is much like “And the Sea Shall Provide,” the aforementioned local play (performances starting March 9), with original screenplay by David Wallace. Both feature a character named Fiona (though one is a silkie, the other a little girl) and are set in a small fishing village in Ireland. The similarities end there, and the movie turns into a quasi-She-Wolf story, with silkies instead of wolves.

Silkies are considered fairies (or faire folk) in Celtic mythology, along with goblins, gnomes, banshees and leprechauns. Other imaginative creatures from lore include the dullahan and pooka. A dullahan is a very menacing, unfriendly creature that is, for all intents and purposes, the headless horseman. A pooka is, despite its kind of adorable name, a mischievous little bugger that has several forms: a large, dark horse with yellow eyes; a small, disfigured goblin; a large, hairy “boogeyman” character; a large eagle; and a goat.

This is all but a fraction of a chapter of an enormous volume of Celtic mythology, which can be pleasantly explored for days on end.