In cryptozoology the dobhar-chù has been viewed as a possible monster otter imbued with homicidal tendencies. This apparent viciousness stems from an often quoted account of an attack on a woman called Grainne or Grace Connolly or Conlai. The story goes that while washing clothes at Glenade Lake in Leitrim, a dobhar-chù attacked and killed her. Her bloody body was later found by her husband T’raolach McLoughlin (Terence), the dobhar-chù asleep on her breast.
After obtaining a dagger McLoughlin stabbed and killed the beast but not before the animal had let out a whistling death call which alerted its mate. The local people now explained to McLoughlin that he needed to run from the second dobhar-chù, which would chase and try to kill him in revenge. In the company of another man he fled on horseback while the second dobhar-chú pursued them both. Realising that they could not shake it off they stopped at some ruined walls and drew their horses across a door. The dobhar-chú rushed under the horses’ legs to attack the men, but as it emerged from beneath them, one of the men stabbed and killed it.
There are around twenty similar accounts in the National Folklore Collection of Ireland which relate to the main legend with minor variations such as the one below.
About one hundred and fifty years ago a boy named …of the townland of Ballymagroarty had a great affection for a young girl who dwelt convenient to “Loch Roam.” As was customary in those days the young maid was washing clothes at the lough shore when “Doreas” or King of the Otters suddenly came on shore and pierced her body with a thrust from his powerful head, and from the effect of which she died. On hearing what had happened to the girl, the young man became very much annoyed and enraged, and made up his mid to have revenge on the animal. Mounted on his horse, he started for the lough, slew the beast and started for home. He had gone but a short distance when he perceived the otter’s mate in pursuit. Seeing here was no way of getting away from the furious animal he turned his horse and faced the danger. All at once the otter made a spring for horse and rider. The horse fell and just at the same moment Doherty drew his lance and killed the monster. The part of the road where this occurred got the name [Irish words; not transcribed] and retains the name to this day. Ballymagroarty is a townland in the parish of Drumholm. Lough Roam (unknown), in the same parish lies about three miles east of the village of Ballintra.
And perhaps illustrating how mythology and folklore were easily intertwined in Ireland, a mermaid in Glenade, seems to take the place of the dobhar-chù in at least one account.
Once upon a time a girl was steeping flax in Glenade Lake, when a mermaid came up out of the water and killed her. At moment a man happened to be passing by with his horse and he saw what the mermaid had done and he killed her. Just as he was up on his horse ready to ride home another mermaid followed him. He was just going in on the stable door when he turned round and saw the mermaid was close behind him; so he drew his sword and cut her in two halves. When this man died he was buried in Rosenver graveyard and monument was erected over his grave with the picture of his coat of arms and the mermaid on it.
A lesser known reference can be found in The Otherworld, the Underworld and the Underwater World in Donegal Folklore, Journal of the County Donegal Historical Society, No. 57, 2005.
One of the most famous monsters of the lakes in South Donegal was the creature called the ‘durko’ in English and written in Irish as the ‘Dobharchú or the water hound. The Dobharchú is variously described as a dog-sized animal with fox coloured hair and the paws of an otter. Some had a horn on their noses like a rhino, a unicorn or a triceratops. The creature was reported to have poor eyesight. A famous dobharchú lived in Lough Finn (Finn Lough, Enniskillen, County Fermanagh). One day a woman travelling from Glenties to Ballybofey was followed along a lakeside path by this dobharchú. She placed her red cloak on a rock and hid behind a nearby boulder. The dobharchú attached the cloak-covered rock and killed itself when knocking its head against the rock. Then the woman was able to make her way to safety. On another occasion a woman was herding near Don Loch (unknown), near Ardara when a monster dobharchú, this time with a beak like a duck, came out of the lake and ran after her. She put her cloak on a stone and in true durko fashion it attacked the stone. However, its ‘gob’ began to bleed so it rushed back and disappeared below the water of the lake. A dobharchú was said to inhabit Lough Racoo in the Ballintra area. Once, when a woman was washing clothes in the lake, the creature came out and killed her. When she did not return home her husband went to search for her and found the dobharchú asleep on her dead body. The man killed the dobharchú. As it bled to death it gave an awful squeal which attracted the attention of its mate in the lough. It came out of the lake; the man fled on horseback and it followed him. At last, at the Bearna Dhearg near Mountcharles, the man stood his ground and after a fierce fight managed to kill the angry creature.
Apart from a few modern accounts in the press such devastating attacks have stopped occurring. But do we need to create a new breed of otter to account for them?
The story of a monster in Glenade Lake is again in circulation. According to the account of some young men who claim to have seen the monster while fishing there, it has the head of a hound, the tail of a fish and is about six feet in length. Rumours of this kind excite more interest where Glenade Lake is concerned because of a thrilling scene which took place 236 years ago, when a Miss McLoughlin known by her maiden name Grace Connolly, was killed by Dobhar-Chu while washing clothes in the lake convenient to her home in Creevelea.
Strange Monster-Leitrim Observer, 10th November, 1956
Otters can vary in appearance and albino specimens specifically linked to the dobhar-chù. have been reported over the years albeit in Scotland. There was one from mIslay in 1850, another from the Highlands sometimes in the early 1900s. Another two were photographed in Scotland in 2009 and 2011. There are also documented reports of colour variations.
With regard to size, there is some historical evidence to suggest that otters can grow to sizes well over the norm, although again, not specifically from Ireland.
A monster otter, measuring 5ft 7 inches was shot a few days ago on the River Luce.
Newcastle Journal - Saturday 22nd July, 1848
A fish-otter of an extraordinary size, its body measuring 1.8 metres, or nearly six feet in its length, has, according to the German Fishing Gazette, been killed a time ago by an attendant at the Kamoierling bathing establishment, situated upon an island in the River Oder at Stettin.
Monster Otter- Alnwick Mercury, Saturday 1st February, 1879
An otter weighing four stone and nearly seven feet long has been shot in a field near
A Giant Otter- Bournemouth Daily Echo, Tuesday 12th December, 1905
A correspondent of Peter Costello, Mrs Anne Kinsella, wrote to him following the widely publicised sighting of the monster seen by the three priests in Lough Ree, with a possible culprit.
I was talking to my brother (who lives not far from Lough Ree) very soon after the priests had seen the monster). He was highly amused at the publicity it got in the press. You see he lives quite close to a small lake and had often shot otters which measured 7 ft. in length.
As far as aggressiveness goes, there do seem to have been some particularly fierce otters to be found in Ireland.
The largest otter ever captured in this or perhaps any other country is now seen at Mr Cox’s Union Tavern, Portobello Barrack-gate. A short history of this monster animal (of its kind) may not be uninteresting. Sometime since, Mr Cox had a conversation with Dudley Persse Esq., Roxborough, county Galway, and having expressed wish for an otters skin, Mr Persse told him he would send one when went back to his country seat. Some time since Mr Cox received the dead carcase of the otter, the skin of which has been stuffed by Mr Grennon, of Suffolk-Street, and is now on view at Mr Cox's. The length of the animal from nose to tail is 4 feet 7 inches; the girth around the loins, 20 inches, within the fore paws, the width is 18 inches and round the neck 14 inches. However, the extraordinary dimensions of the beast are not more remarkable than its exploits. There is a large river running through the estate of Mr. Persse, and the otter was known along its banks for many years past, and was called by the country people the Devil’s Water-dog! Some hundreds of chases were made after it, but without effect, it always managed to get off scot free, and at last the people began to feel alarm, and a story went abroad that it was Old Nick himself! However, Mr Persse resolved to test the powers of Old Nick with some his thoroughbred dogs, he has the in Ireland and accordingly, towards the end of July last, a brigade was formed to march against the foe. A graphic letter, written by an observer of the battle, says the people about the place, men, women, and children, collected, and besides the real game dogs, there were dogs of all sorts and sizes; the people were armed with guns, pitchforks, spades, and barrow pins, and those who could procure nothing else, supplied themselves, like David, with stones from the stream. The army thus marched forward in regular order, and were not long in discovering the whereabouts of the Devil’s Waterdog. One or two of the game hounds soon came in contact with the monster, but it was no go, the enemy quietly soon put an end to two of the breed by killing them there on the spot. He was then attacked by three more, each of which he drowned in as many minutes ; the contest was about being given up despair, when a man named Nestor dashed into the water, and with a loud “hurra”, sure if it were the very devil himself, would take him, but he was mistaken, for the otter caught him by the foot, and in one snap, went off with a couple of poor Nestor’s toes, as clean cut away as if surgeon’s knife had amputated them. At last, one of the huntsmen entered the water, the otter coming up boldly to meet him, when the man gave his antagonist a giant blow of pitchfork on the head, the result of which was the fracture of the animal’s skull, and the breaking into smithereens of the fork. The enemy being thus stunned, soon became a prey to his foes; but before he surrendered, he drowned another dog and after about three hours well fought battle, he was at last conquered, and his beautiful polished skin is now to be seen in most life-like form at the above Tavern. It is supposed he was over 40 years of age! We have seen the monster, and it is well worth a visit. Mr. Cox gives an interesting history of it.
The Largest Otter in Ireland -The Roscommon Weekly Messenger, 19th October, 1850
For some time past several farmers around the district found, on various occasions, that during the night their sheep had been subjected to some violence, but in what manner they were unable to ascertain. In the morning a few sheep would be discovered lying on their backs with the wool on their necks greatly torn; and on three or four occasions sheep were found lying on the ground quite dead, having apparently been seized by the throat while the rest of the carcase was perfectly free from any injury, or that mangled appearance which would indicate that the sheep had been attacked and worried by dogs. A respectable farmer named John Dwyer residing at Ballough, near Bansha, and holding upwards of sixty acres of land, though not having lost any sheep, still observed from the to time that his flock also was subject to this mysterious violence, and invariably presented the same marks around the throat. He determined to watch them at night and at a late hour a few evenings since he observed a large black animal, which he supposed was a dog, crossing his field, and going towards his sheep, seize one by the neck. He followed at a distance, but the animal took alarm and ran off the ground before he could get close enough to ascertain of what description it was. The next night Mr Dwyer saw the animal again approaching, and having provided himself with a gun, fired as soon as he saw it seize a ewe by the throat and knock it down. The shot took effect, and this supposed dog fell back on the ground quite dead. On approaching the spot, Mr Dwyer discovered, to his astonishment, that he had killed a large otter. It measured fully four feet, and must have come up from the River Suir, distant about half a mile, along a narrow stream which flows through his farm. The carcass of the otter was sent to the police barracks, and information of the occurrence conveyed by Mr. Dwyer to Constable Bean, who has possession of the skin. Several of the inhabitants of Tipperary and other localities visited the barracks for the purpose of viewing the monster otter. It is a singular fact, when the River Suir is so overstocked with fish this season, the otter should exhibit such an unusual voracity in attacking sheep in such a daring manner.
Voracity of the Otter- Morning Chronicle, Monday 7th June, 1858
As for other otters coming to the aid of each other at times of peril there is also some anecdotal evidence.
Less easy of explanation are stories like that reported in the papers from County Cavan some fifteen years ago, according to which a large otter that had been fired at and wounded in November when it could hardly have been still under parental care. Summoned by its cries three other Otters which unitedly gave chase to the shooter, and made him run for his life for a good quarter of a mile.
The Otter, C. B. Moffat-The Irish Naturalists Journal Vol. 1, No. 11 (May, 1927)
So in fact extant otters meet all the characteristics of the dobhar-chù.
Even in the twentieth century these animals could still cause confusion.
The appearance of a strange animal in the Main Street shortly after lunch-time reduced the residents to a state of great anxiety. This stranger was about two feet long, dark in colour, with webbed feet and distinctly This unusual animal made its way up the street threatening all in its path by its very bold attitude and scattering the usually vociferous dogs in all directions. Speculation immediately mounted as to its identity. Traffic was brought to a complete standstill and the driver of an Ulster bus was seen to go off in search of advice. Experts in various local bodies were immediately consulted and many very constructive suggestions were put forward. As the animal had four legs, one expert thought that it might be a badger, but the length of its whiskers threw some doubt on this suggestion. A representative of the local Mink Assassination Squad would not commit himself to a firm opinion, or even a guess, as the tip of the animal's tail was not quite white enough. Public opinion had how, however, come down heavily In favour of the idea that this was a mink of a particularly dangerous species. When one gentleman, on coming out of a local tavern, declared that he had not seen one but two mink, tension really mounted. Many people were quite distraught when the vile beast was seen to go down the entry of a local bed-and-breakfast establishment as they feared that, perhaps, it had Intentions of seeking residence. Precautions had to be taken, phone calls were made and the local children warned as to the extreme danger that they faced on their tourneys home from school. By this time, however, the visitor had had its look at the village and was seen to make its way down the Plumbridge Road oblivious to all the speculation and worry that it had caused. The matter was discussed at great length for the rest of the week, but normal routine has, thankfully, returned with everyone at last now quite content that the distinguished guest was only, in fact, an otter.
Strange happenings in Gortin-Ulster Herald, 30th January, 1982
Where to find a dobhar-chú?
Adapted from Irish Aquatic Water Monsters, A Survey and Definitive Guide.