Pinnipeds Masquerading as Monsters in Ireland?

Updated: Nov 22, 2019

Fans of Irish cryptozoology will no doubt be familiar with the famous Achill Island dinosaur, and the so called horse-eels of Connemara. Despite the loughs of this region being far too small to harbour any large, unidentified, air-breathing animals it is quite clear that over the years people have certainly on occasion, witnessed something strange.

Grey seal in Connemara (Gary Cunningham)

Although there is anecdotal historical evidence for rather large eels and otters in Ireland it seems likely that pinnipeds may be some of the key culprits.

The indigenous pinnipeds of Ireland are the Grey seal ( also known as the horse-head seal ? horse-seal ), and the common or harbour seal, members of the true seal family. These species do not have visible external ears and lack the ability to use their hind-flippers for locomotion on land. In addition several vagrant Arctic dwelling pinnipeds such as the hooded seal, bearded seal and walrus will also occasionally turn up

An interesting article illustrating this point can be found here

When viewed at sea a pinniped identity might be fairly obvious to the observer. However it is also well known that pinnipeds have a tendency to forage some distance inland and will end up in lakes and loughs where their appearance, especially when there is pre-existing folklore concerning creatures such as the water-horse, may cause confusion and lead to reports of monsters.

In the summer of 1898, I chanced to see a fine specimen of this polygamous and pugnacious seal Cystophora cristaid while it was leaving the shore and making out to sea. A man, who was gathering seaweed, disturbed it while it was basking on shore. He was evidently quite as much frightened at it as it was of him. The inflated hood gave the animal's head quite a human appearance. On seeing it, I proceeded with all possible haste to the spot. By the time I reached the edge of the water it was fully fifteen yards from the shore. I had an admirable view of it. While swimming away to sea, it kept one eye steadily fixed on the shore and on its intruders. The man, who disturbed it, was awe stricken, and addressing me said what is it? I informed him that it was a seal. As he seemed incredulous, I explained that it was not a common seal; that it was a rare visitor to the Irish coast. As this man is a frequent visitor to the sea-shore, and has often seen the Common Seal Phoca vitulina, his not having previously seen this sort is testimony that the Hooded Seal is a rare visitor to Galway Bay.

Irish Naturalist (vol.9), 1900, R.M Gilmore.

Indeed the following report classed as a horse-eel encounter at the infamous monster infested lake in Connemara, Lough Auna, sounds suspiciously like a pinniped. A local man was fishing from a boat on the lough on a calm day in the late 1960s when he noticed a big black thing surface a short distance from his boat which he took to be a big eel. It was certainly bigger than a dog. It disappeared then a few moments later, about 5 yards (4.5m) from the boat, a big head suddenly broke the surface and bobbed in the water momentarily looking at him. He described it as big and black with large round eyes like a dog to the front of its head and a short stump of a nose. It also had short round ears and a short neck.

In addition there is a distinct possibility based on historical records, that non-indigenous pinnipeds such as California sea lions (escapee circus / zoo animals / war refugees), may also have found their way into lakes around the UK and Europe during the last century. This species has quite a reptilian profile and is able to move surprisingly fast over land.

One rainy and misty morning in the 1950s while on his way to work, Michael Canning made his way down to Lough Shanaheever to check on the progress of a pregnant donkey mare. As he got closer, the mare stood up and Canning caught a glimpse of an animal circling it from behind, which he initially thought was the mare’s new-born foal. As the foal was next to a small stream which flowed from the lake he was worried that it might fall in and drown, so he went over to ensure its safety. But as he got nearer the foal detected his presence and promptly plunged into the lough. On reaching the scene, Canning found that the donkey had not in fact given birth (although a few days later she did), and the foal had obviously not been a foal. After realising his mistake he tried to reflect on what he had witnessed and when interviewed about the encounter described some unusual features. In his words; it was long…rather a bit high. It was black. The neck seemed a bit long. He later claimed that the animal had ears and legs and circled the horse gently.

Google maps

In fact Connemara contains dozens of lakes many within a few hundred metres of each other and any marine predator, foraging inland would easily be able to move between them perhaps giving the impression of a monster.

Not forgetting mermaids..

Whilst exploring the Renvyle area of Connemara in 2018, we chanced on an elderly man near Letterbeg who during conversation recalled a fairly modern mermaid or rather merman story originating from the area.

The story of the appearance of what is described as a merman seen in Renvyle Co. Galway waters continues to attract considerable attraction. Mr Ward and Thos. Toole who were returning in their curragh with a catch of mackerel said when the merman appeared he pursued their boat but the curragh easily outdistanced him. Encouraged by their superior speed the men slowed up and waited for the monster. When he was within a few yards of the Curragh Ward threw him a mackerel. The merman snatched it eagerly with both hands and disappeared beneath the surface. A moment later he re-appeared but there was no trace of the mackerel. This time he came up alongside the curragh and O Toole fearing that he would catch the side and upset the craft struck him with an oar. The merman whined as if in pain and dived again. Fearing that the monster would have revenge for the attack the men lost no time in making for the shore but they saw no more of the merman.The fishermen’s description of the monster seems to agree with that of the Renvyle fishermen who first encountered him near the last harvest. He had the same straw like shaggy hair and beard, with very red lips and bushy eyebrows. He swam head and shoulders over the surface and looked like a man of about 50 years of age. He kept his mouth shut and whined through his nostrils. His skin seemed fair in front and blue on the back. The men believe that he was hungry and having got the scent of the fish followed them for some. Visitors have been coming to Renvyle in unusually large numbers in the hope of catching a glimpse of the famous merman but there is one section of the community which never wants to see him again-the local fishing folk. There is a deep rooted local tradition that a person who sees a mermaid or merman is due to die within a year and it looked as if this belief was going to be confirmed when one of the men who first saw the creature developed a severe illness afterwards. Happily he refuses to conform with tradition and is now recovering. If this belief were true one shudders to think of the mortality among the crowds of tourists who have been waiting to photograph the merman should he consent to have his picture taken. In addition to Thomas O Toole and Michael Ward it now transpires that two Letterbeg fishermen, Martin Heanue and Michael Regan saw an uncanny something like the merman in Ballinakill Bay about eight months ago. Two men living on the opposite side of the bay also claim to have seen the merman recently and old folk have resurrected a story about a merman who frequented an inlet at Letterhead about forty years ago. They say that Mr Laurence Henry, son of a former owner of Kylemore Abbey covered the merman with a rifle and shot him but for the supplications of his boatmen Mr Henry is now resident in England. There is not the slightest doubt a month the fishing community as to the existence of the merman. One family living in a house exactly above high water mark say they had been haunted for months past by eerie noises in the night as if something was prowling about in the darkness outside. They added that their dog which is usually aggressive towards strangers whined in a frightened way and crept under the kitchen table when the noises commenced each night. The family is convinced that the noises are made by the merman hunting for food a local sage having stated that this strange creature must come ashore for food-presumably a change of diet at intervals.

Longford Leader-Saturday 4th September, 1937

Perhaps a very good culprit for the merman in this instance is the bearded seal (Erignathus barbatus). In fact the picture below, may remind the reader very much of an old man. These pinnipeds can reach around 8ft (2.4m) in length, and are usually native to the Arctic coast. However they are known to occasionally become vagrant and have been sighted around the UK. The first documented sighting in Ireland occurred near Leenane (near Killary harbour), in County Mayo, in 2002. Another was sighted on the banks of the estuary at Timoleague, West Cork in 2017, where it had apparently been resident for at least 2-weeks without anyone recognising it. However like other vagrant pinniped species it has probably visited Ireland’s shores many times in the past.

Grey seals (Gary Cunningham)

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