Have you ever noticed any seals while exploring the Irish coastline? Has one ever spoken to you? According to several legends collected by the Irish Folklore Commission (IFC), this strange occurrence was experienced by fishermen and seal hunters in times gone by.
Legends featuring speaking seals were collected by the IFC, as well as legends revealing that the seal can take a human form. Not all accounts refer to talking seals, however. The material collected covers a broad range of content, from nuisance seals to weather predictions based on seals’ behaviour. Most of these accounts can be found along the west coast of Ireland, with the majority of them having been collected in the Irish language.
Many accounts make reference to the practical uses made of seals in the past. Seals were hunted for their skins, which would be used for covering boats, and for making items of clothing, such as shoes and waistcoats. Seal oil was also a coveted substance, as it was used to ease rheumatism, by being rubbed on the skin to ease pains in the joints, as well as burns. The oil could be used in case of emergency for light if no paraffin oil was available. Seal meat was relished by some, though often considered by others to be a food that was only eaten in hard times.
Though seals were hunted, a belief remained that this wasn’t altogether appropriate. Many accounts point out that it was, in fact, bad luck to hunt seals, as they were believed to share a kinship with humans, and are often described as being humans under enchantment. As Liam Mac Coisdeala, one of the full-time collectors of the IFC writes:
Deir lucht na scéalta liom insa chuile áit gurb é a chualadar fhéin ariamh gur daoine faoi dhraíocht atá ins na rónta, agus dar le cuid mhaith nach bhfuil sé ceart baint dóibh mar gheall air sin / Storytellers everywhere tell me that what they’ve always heard was that seals were people under enchantment and according to many it is not right to interfere with them because of this.
Narratives about talking seals are often told as further evidence of the relationship between seals and humans. In these narratives, seal hunters often find themselves pausing at the sound of the seal speaking just as they were about to deliver a killing blow. Unsurprisingly, they are so shocked by this occurrence that they swear off seal-hunting for the rest of their days. Other stories feature a fisherman who has taken a baby seal into his home, with the intention of turning him into a fantastic waistcoat. Later that night, however, he hears a commotion outside his door, where he then discovers another seal calling out for the captured pup by name. No doubt astounded by the seal’s frantic shouting, not to mention the fact that seals can speak, the fisherman hurriedly leaves the baby seal back where he found him.
Other narratives feature a whirlwind adventure of a fisherman who injures a seal, only for the seal to escape. He later finds himself in a spot of bad weather, which brings him to land his boat on an island he does not recognise. There, he meets a stranger, who tells him that the seal he had injured was, in fact, a person in the form of a seal. The fisherman might then have to heal the injured seal before he can leave, and often he must promise that he will never again hunt another seal.
In Irish folk tradition, the seal can also sometimes be related to the mermaid. A widespread legend in Ireland tells the story of a man who convinces a mermaid to be his bride, often by stealing her cloak, hood or comb, preventing her from returning to the sea. Eventually, however, she does return, leaving the man behind. A handful of versions also mention the seal as a relation of the mermaid. In one version, the mermaid is welcomed back to the sea by a seal, while in another, the mermaid cries at the sight of a dead seal, proclaiming him to be her brother. The illustration of a mermaid above is taken from a copybook in Lahinch School.
So, if you are planning on visiting the Irish coast this summer, keep an eye out for mermaids or talking seals!
The information in this post is part of an upcoming website which will host many accounts on seal lore from the National Folklore Collection, supported by the Irish Seal Sanctuary. The beautiful photographs of the seals were provided by B. Price, Irish Seal Sanctuary.