January 27th is the feast day of Saint Li Ban Muirgen of Ireland. She is a lesser-known mermaid Saint of Ireland and her story is miraculous and mystifying.
Saint Li Ban Muirgen’s story dates back to the 6th century and passed down generation to generation with the oral tradition of scéalaíocht or storytelling. It was also was preserved in the medieval manuscript of Annals of the Four Masters, which isa compilation of medieval Irish legends written by Irish monks in the 17th century.
So, who was this mermaid Saint?
Our story begins in the year 558. Li Ban (meaning beautiful woman in old Irish) was the daughter of Eochaidh, King of Ulster. When her father’s kingdom flooded, drowning all its inhabitants except for Li Ban and her dog, forming the Lough Neagh Lake.
Li Ban spent the next year, living under the lough with her dog. She would pray to the goddess Danu, asking to be turned into a salmon, so she could swim with the fish for company. Danu, did grant Li Ban’s wish, but only half of it. Li Ban’s dog became an otter and she was transformed into a mermaid.
Li Ban swam out of the lough and out into the sea. She lived in an underwater cave and like most mermaids, had the most beautiful singing voice. Li Ban drifted for three-hundred years, fulfilling a prophecy:
Liban will swim eastwards, westwards, hither, thither, over each sea.
300 years had passed, when Comgall had founded the monastery in Bangor, that is known as the Bangor Mor. The Bangor Mor was revered throughout all of Ireland and became a place, where many young men came to study.
One day, Comgall sent Beoan and the monks to Rome with a message for Pope Gregory. While they were out at sea, Beoan caught Li Ban in his fishing net and she promised to return to them in a year.
A year had passed, Li Ban came ashore as promised, and Comgall baptized her with the name Muirgen. Li Ban passed away not long after her baptism. Comgall had promised Li Ban a heavenly reward and she became known as the Mermaid Saint.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Saint Li Ban Muirgen’s story is that there are remnants of it today. If you journey to Bangor, there is an abbey that remembers Comgall and the mermaid with a quilt, hanging on the transept wall, depicting the story of the mermaid.
On the Faroe Island of Kalsoy, a territory of Denmark, there is a small village, called Mikladalur. In Mikladalur, there is a legend about a young farmer who falls for a Kópakonan or selkie and how he tricks her to be his wife.
Legend has it, that a young farmer grew up listening to stories about the selkies, so he decided to wait for them to come to land, to see if the stories were true.
Every year, on the 13th night of the year, the selkies are permitted one night on land, where are permitted to go to land and have fun.
The young man watched in astonishment, as the selkies swam in a large group towards the rocks in a great magnitude. They shed their skin (sealskin/pelts) on the rocks, and they appeared to be normal human beings. The selkies frolicked and danced on the shore and the young farmer was mesmerized, by what he was seeing. The selkies, did in fact exist, and they were enchanting.
For a selkie, their sealskin or pelt, was what made them what they were. It was apart of them, as much as the ocean was. Steal or possess their skin and you possessed them.
One beautiful selkie, in particular, caught the young farmer’s attention, so he snuck up, and stole her sealskin.
As the sun, began to rise, the selkies began to gather their sealskins and retreated back to the sea. That is, all for one. The selkie, whose skin was stolen by the young farmer, couldn’t find hers and she panicked, since she could smell it, but couldn’t find it. It was then, that the young farmer, came out from where he was hiding, holding her skin. She begged and pleaded for him to give her her sealskin back, but he refused and made her return to his farm with him.
He married the selkie and she had several children with him. To guarantee that the selkie would be his forever, he locked away her sealskin in a chest, so she couldn’t return to the sea. The chest was locked with a key, which he kept on him at all times, on his belt.
One day, the man forgot his key, when he went on a fishing trip with his friends. He was devastated, at the realization, that his selkie wife would return to the sea. He cried to his fellow fishermen, “Today my wife shall lose my wife!”-the man explained the story to the men, and they took him back to shore. He was distraught to see that his children were abandoned and that his wife was gone.
His wife went to the shore, with her sealskin and dove into the water. In the water, waiting for her, was a bull seal, who had waited many years for her return, for he had loved her very much. The children, she had with the Mikladalur man, went to the shore and a seal prevented them from entering the water. It is believed that the seal who stopped them, was their mother.
Many years had passed, since the Mikladalur man had seen his selkie wife. He was planning to go with the other Mikladalur men on a seal hunting excursion in the caverns. One night, his selkie wife, came to him, in his dreams. She warned him, not to kill the large bull seal for he was her husband and not to kill two seal pups for they were her sons. She described their skins to the man, so he would know, what they looked like and know not to harm them. The man woke up, not taking the warnings in the dream seriously and went to the caverns with his friends to hunt seals. They killed the bull seal and the two seal pups and divided the bounty amongst themselves.
That evening, as the man cooked head of the bull seal and the flippers of the seal pups over a large fire, the seal woman appeared in the form of a terrifying troll. She was mortified when she saw the head of her husband and limbs of her children. She yelled and cursed to the farmer in her grief, “Here lie the head of my husband with his broad nostrils, the hand of Hárek and the foot of Fredrik! Now there shall be revenge, revenge on the men of Mikladalur, and some will die at sea and others fall from the mountain tops, until there be as many dead as can link hands all round the shores of the isle of Kalsoy!”
Shortly after placing her petrifying curse, she vanished, and there was thunder. She was never seen again. The eerie part though, is that every once in a while, men of Mikladalur are drowned at sea or fall of the cliffs. It is unknown, if this is related to the curse of the selkie, but its an eerie coincidence to say the least.
In August 2014, a statue of Kópakonan or Selkie was raised in Mikladalur, on the Faroe Island of Kalsoy, in honor of the legend. The statue can withstand 13 meters of waves.
Remarkably, in 2015, there was a terrible storm and the statue was able to withstand a 11.5 meter wave. The statue remained firm and there was no damage whatsoever.
The statue of Kópakonan is as strong as the Kópakonan herself.