Seal-woman, The

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  • Teideal (Title): Seal-woman, The.
  • Uimhir Chatalóige Ollscoil Washington (University of Washington Catalogue Number): 840113.
  • Uimhir Chnuasach Bhéaloideas Éireann (National Folklore of Ireland Number): none.
  • Uimhir Roud (Roud Number): none.
  • Uimhir Laws (Laws Number): none.
  • Uimhir Child (Child Number): none.
  • Cnuasach (Collection): Joe Heaney Collection, University of Washington, Seattle.
  • Teanga na Croímhíre (Core-Item Language): English.
  • Catagóir (Category): story.
  • Ainm an té a thug (Name of Informant): Joe Heaney.
  • Ainm an té a thóg (Name of Collector): unavailable.
  • Dáta an taifeadta (Recording Date): 22/11/1983.
  • Suíomh an taifeadta (Recording Location): University of Washington, United States of America.
  • Ocáid an taifeadta (Recording Occasion): evening class.
  • Daoine eile a bhí i láthair (Others present): unavailable.
  • Stádas chóipcheart an taifeadta (Recording copyright status): unavailable.

There is a village in Iorrus Mór1 in Conamara where every family has the surname Coneeley (Ó Confhaola). One young man, a Coneeley, was a fisherman; and one day when he went down to the shore he saw three seals coming up into a cove2. Shortly afterwards, there emerged from the cove the three most beautiful women he ever saw. They went into the sea to swim. Looking into the cove, the young fisherman saw three scarves lying on the beach. Eventually, the three young women came back in to the cove, re-emerged as seals, and swam away.

The young man returned repeatedly to the shore over the ensuing month, and fell desperately in love with what he took to be the youngest of the three. He sought advice from an old man, who told him he’d have to steal the scarf belonging to the girl he wanted. He managed to do this; he married the girl, they had five children, and they prospered. But one day he came back to find the house on fire, and one of the children told him that their mother had escaped and gone down to the sea. Hidden in the rafters, the scarf had fallen down when the fire started, and the woman seized it and headed for the water.

Broken-hearted, the man went down to the sea and called his wife, who came back to tell him that she could never return to him, but that the children could come down and talk to her every day at the shore, and that they would always have plenty of fresh fish and everything they needed.


1 Iorras Mór (Errismore) is at the southwestern extremity of Conamara, from Ballyconeeley westwards to Slyne Head. The village of Ballyconeeley – in Irish, Baile Uí Chonfhaola ‘The dwelling-place of the Coneeleys’ – seems likely to be the place Joe is referring to in this story.

2 Eventually Joe changes ‘cove’ to ‘cave,’ which makes more sense in the context of the narrative.

Seals were believed to be magical creatures; see Joe’s story about The woman who removed the thorn from the seal’s fin. Other stories involving the enchantment of people into different forms include Oisín in Tír na nÓg and The Twelve Swans; in The Witch in the Stone Boat the enchanted character is the witch herself.

This story represents an international tale-type, AT 400 ‘The Swan Maiden.’