Ballad of The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry


In Irish folklore, there are many stories about creatures who can transform themselves from seals to humans. These beings are called selkies.



The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry

Selkies are creatures found in Irish, Scottish, and Icelandic folklore. Selkies live as seals in the sea but shed their skin to become human on land. Male selkies are described as being very handsome in their human form, and having great seductive powers over human women. They typically seek those who are dissatisfied with their lives, such as married women waiting for their fishermen husbands. If a woman wishes to make contact with a selkie male, she must shed seven tears into the sea at the peak of high tide. Stories concerning selkies are generally romantic tragedies. Sometimes the human will not know that their lover is a selkie, and wakes to find them returned to their seal form. In other stories the human will hide the selkie's skin, thus preventing the selkie from returning to its seal form. A selkie can only make contact with one human for a short amount of time before the selkie must return to the sea. The selkie is unable to make contact with that human again for seven years, unless the human steals their selkie skin and hides it.

The haunting ballad ‘The Great Selkie o' Suleskerry’ tells the story of a young maiden who falls in love with a selkie-man.
She has a child by him but, shortly after, the selkie-man disappears, leaving her alone with her baby son.
Some years later the maiden comes across a grey seal by the shore. The seal says to her:
"I'm a man upon the land, I'm a selkie in the sea;
and when I'm far frae every stand, my dwelling is in Suleskerry."
She realizes the seal is actually her selkie lover, but he quickly vanishes beneath the waves.
He returns again seven years later to visit the mother and his son bearing gifts to pay the ‘nursing fee’. He gives the mother a small chest full of gold, and another full of silver.
Then he tells the mother that the boy will go with him back to the sea and live amongst the selkies on the rocky islands, or on the ‘skerry’. The mother asks how will she know her son when he is in seal form. The selkie-man places a chain of gold around the boys neck, and tells the mother she will know her son by the chain he wears.
Then the boy leaves his mother and goes with his selkie-father to the sea. As he leaves, the selkie man predicts that the woman will marry a seal hunter, who will ultimately shoot the selkie man and her son.
The woman marries and sometime later, when her husband is out hunting, he shoots two seals - one old and grey, the other younger. Around the neck of the young seal was a gold chain, which the hunter takes home to give his wife. Upon receiving the gift she realizes her son is dead.
In the movie “The Devil’s Own” with Harrison Ford and Brad Pitt, one of the characters, Rory, says Rory: “Don't look for a happy ending. It's not an American story. It's an Irish one.” Well, I guess that sentiment applies to this tale as well.
So now, here is the Ballad of The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry 
I heard a mother lull her bairn,
and aye she rocked, and aye she sang.
She took so hard upon the verse
that the heart within her body rang.

"O, cradle row, and cradle go, 
and aye sleep well, my bairn within;
I ken not who thy father is,
nor yet the land that he dwells in."

And up then spake a grey selchie
as aye he woke her from her sleep,
"I'll tell where thy bairn's father is:
he's sittin' close by thy bed feet.

"I am a man upon the land;
I am a selchie on the sea,
and when I'm far frae ev'ry strand,
my dwelling is in Sule Skerry.

"And foster well my wee young son,
aye for a twal'month and a day,
and when that twal'month's fairly done,
I'll come and pay the nourice fee."

And when that weary twal'month gaed,
he's come tae pay the nourice fee;
he had ae coffer fu' o' gowd,
and anither fu' o'the white money.

"Upon the skerry is thy son;
upon the skerry lieth he.
Sin thou would see thine ain young son,
now is the time tae speak wi' he."

"But how shall I my young son know
when thou ha' ta'en him far frae me?"
"The one who wears the chain o' gowd,
`mang a' the selchies shall be he.

"And thou will get a hunter good,
and a richt fine hunter I'm sure he'll be;
and the first ae shot that e'er he shoots
will kill baith my young son and me."