There’s something in the water…

Later than usual, last month’s folklore article, all about lake monsters… 

The famous, if grainy, image of  'Nessie', taken in 1933 (via digital bootcamp)

The famous, if grainy, image of ‘Nessie’, taken in 1933 (via digital bootcamp)

Monsters, of the furred and scaly kind, are something most people stop believing in well before adulthood. It’s generally accepted that every animal that exists has been given a Latin name, stuffed and noted down on a register. Granted, scientists might come across a microscopic frog or an unknown subset of monkey every so often, but nothing big remains hidden.

As mentioned last month, sea creatures are an exception. Some ocean dwellers are so remote and reclusive that scientists can only guess at their dimensions and habits. But surely, lakes are not big enough to hold mysterious animals?

Irish lakes, many of which are relatively small, have been the centre of stories about giant eels, ‘master otters’ and water horses for centuries.

The most famous lake monster is not an Irish one. She is of course from Loch Ness, in the Highlands of Scotland. Photos exist from the 1930s supposedly depicting her head rising from the waters; to me and many others it looks suspiciously like a branch.

Having visited the lake myself, it is no surprise that people have seen something strange in the water. Loch Ness is vast, and there is something disorientating about the black, choppy waters, which could easily trick the eye. Some claim that Nessie is a remnant of a small colony of plesiosaurs, water dwelling dinosaurs which are believed to have been extinct for millions of years. It doesn’t seem convincing that such a small, and doubtlessly inbred, colony could ever survive for this amount of time.

Castle Urquhart overlooking Loch Ness (netlancer 2006 via Flickr)

Castle Urquhart overlooking Loch Ness (netlancer 2006 via Flickr)

So what are things like Nessie? Stories concocted to lure tourists? The fancies of overactive imagination? Or something else?

Celtic mythology, from which Irish and Scottish belief descends, was rife with water monsters of all kinds. St Colmcille, who set up his monastery in Iona and is credited with bringing Christianity to Scotland, was thought to be one of the first to see Nessie, and indeed the legends go that he banished her to the depths of Loch Ness. He’s not the only holy man to have had an encounter with a lake monster. Three priests fishing in Lough Ree in 1960 also encountered a ‘large black’ creature. What are we to make of the story of three men of the cloth, whose belief in this creature was corroborated by a number of others in the area? Is there yet a type of eel or other creature that we have not catalogued?

Some stories of lake monsters describe creatures that are supernatural in habit and appearance. Petticoat Loose, a creature with a woman’s head and an otter’s body, surfaces in Co Tipperary every seven years to ask “When will the day of judgement of come?” Perhaps it is a damned soul hoping for release. In Co Kerry, there is a jewelled, golden beast which surfaces now and again in Lough Veagh.

I couldn't find any pictures of master otters, so here are some real otters holding paws (via Wikimedia Commons)

I couldn’t find any pictures of master otters, so here are some real otters holding paws (via Wikimedia Commons)

But others are less grounded in the fantastical and seem remarkably consistent; take the Dobhar Chú, the master otter, who is believed to appear throughout Connacht. A kind of large otter-like creature, it can be aggressive and was thought to have killed one Grace Connolly in the 17th century. Grace’s tragic tale is depicted on her grave and a memorial in north Leitrim. Sightings of a creature matching its description are mentioned all over the west.

Connemara features prominently in sightings of both type of Irish lake monster; the éach uisce, the slim and slender horse or eel-like variety, and the tarbh uisce, the more stocky (and as its name suggests) bull-like animal. The dobhar chú belongs to the latter category, being described a kind of cross between otter and hippo. Nessie-types, with long and slender necks and bodies, are seemingly common in the lakes and waterways of the west.

Irish folk belief described the dobhar chú as the master otter; the seventh cub of a seventh cub, its pelt could prevent illness, drowning or shipwreck. In Dara de Faoite’s book, Paranormal Ireland, a geneticist explains such freakishly large otters could result from genetic bottlenecks and inbreeding. We know that a moderately large dog is capable of killing a human being; perhaps an otter the size of a dog could have killed Grace Connolly too?

Logical explanation can also be applied to the water-horse creatures, if they exist at all. While Irish freshwater bodies are small, they are generally interconnected and always lead to the sea. Like traditional eels these animals may go out to sea to spawn before returning to lakes. As mentioned earlier, we don’t know the full extent of life in the oceans.

Sadly, proof is lacking in all cases. It seems that almost every lake in Ireland has its own mysterious beast, but we have never seen one laid on a slab. Until that time, they will remain mythical.

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