It was a wild, cold morning, in a poor stone cottage on the cliffs of Meath, with only the green wastes and the grey sea for midwife. The baby cried as her lungs met the chill sea air, and her mother cradled her under a sheepskin while the shutters shook and the wind keened like a banshee. She called her child Merrow, which means mermaid in the Gaelic tongue, and as she suckled her she muttered a curse to the salt wind.
That very same day, In the High King’s seat of Tara, the King’s Seer came to him and told him of three omens he had seen. The seer was known as Ciann the Wise, and he had known the King since they were boys.
“As the sun rose this day,” said the Seer, “I saw three swallows swoop on an eagle and blind him, so that he dropped dead from the sky. Later, as the sun was at its zenith, a fisherman came to me with a tale of a fish that sang to him as it was caught, a fair song and sweet, but full of sorrow. And last, as the sun went to its rest and I was returning to your halls, I felt the ground shake under my feet, yet no one felt it but myself.”
The High King looked at his Seer long and hard. “We have known each other for twenty five years, Ciann the Wise, and in that time you have seen many true things. But that swallows should blind an eagle, that a fish should sing, and that the earth should shake though no one feel it but you – these things I find hard to believe.”
“Difficult to believe they may be, but true they are nevertheless,” insisted the Seer.
“Then what is the meaning of these signs, Ciann my friend?” asked the High King in puzzlement.
“This is the meaning I see,” said the Seer. “That this day came into the world one who will bring ruin to you and yours, though she is small and weak and you are strong and powerful. She will take from you the sight of your eyes, she will call sorrow from the sea, and she will bring down these walls of earth and wood and all within them.”
The King turned pale, and his hands clenched on the arms of the High Seat. “This is ill news you bring me, old friend. But if this be my Fate, it cannot be averted by anything I may do. Is this not so?”
“It is true, a man’s Fate cannot be averted, but perhaps yours may yet be. I have seen a vision, and in the vision I saw the Morrigan, Goddess of War and Destiny, she who holds all of our fates in her bloody hands. She spoke to me of three choices by which the path of your Fate may be changed, and all these choices lie in the hand of a girl child. If on her sixteenth birthday the girl wears a red dress, casts a gold ring into the sea, and sings to the grey waters, your doom will be upon you. More than that I cannot tell.”
“Where then is this child, who holds my fate in her song?”
“I do not know,” said the Seer, “But if you search the land for a girl child born this day, perhaps you will find her.”
The High King sent out his messengers across Eire to search for the girl, but they never came to the lonely cottage on the sea cliffs, nor to the two who lived alone there, for mists hid the place from mortal sight. Sixteen years passed, and the girl child grew into a woman. Meanwhile the High King fretted over his fate, while his arm grew feeble and his hair grey as the sea itself.
At last, the sixteenth day since Merrow’s birth dawned, and on that day, her mother said to her, “Daughter, today you must wear the red dress I have given you, and place this gold ring upon your finger, for this day we will return to our true home.”
“Where is our true home?” asked the girl. “For I thought that it was here, on the green sea coast of Meath.”
“Do as I bid you,” said her mother sharply, “And do not ask questions.”
On that very same day, as it happened, the High King called together all his warriors, and went down to the sea, for ships from the North had come raiding to the land. When he came to the shore, and saw the size of the fleet arrayed against him, and the tall warriors crowding forward, their spears like a forest of silver, he turned to his seer and said, “I cannot help but fear, Ciann, that here is my fate come upon me. For there on the cliffs I think I see the Morrigan, her gown red as the battlefield, and she will devour us like a carrion crow before the night falls.”
The seer looked up to the cliffs above the bay, and indeed, there was a woman there, dressed in red.
“Perhaps it is the Morrigan,” he said slowly, “But she is young and fair, and there is an older woman with her. Did not the prophecy speak of a girl in a red dress? I will go now to fetch her, and bring her back here so that you may question her and learn more of this matter.” And the High King assented to this, but his heart was full with fear and doubt.
As for the girl, she stood with her mother above the wide grey sea, and as she gazed out, she saw the ships with their golden-haired warriors, their shields numberless as the waves, and she saw also the High King standing by the shore, his warriors beside him, and she said to her mother, “Who are these men in ships, and who are those on the shore?”
“Do not question me, child, but now sing the song that I taught you, fair and sweet and full of sorrow. Sing it to the ocean, that my father Lir may hear you and come to us, and we may go home at last.”
But the girl did not heed her. “Mother, who is that King, with white hair and bent back, standing by the shore with his house warriors?”
“Do as I bid you,” said her mother.
So Merrow sang to the salt waves the song that her mother had taught her long ago, fair and sweet and full of sorrow, and up from the waves rose Lir, Lord of the Sea, his arms huge as sea serpents, his chest wide as ten ships side by side, hair white as sea foam hanging to his waist. “Who is it that calls to me?” he roared, and the girl’s mother cried, “It is I, your daughter, lured sixteen years hence to the green shore for love of a mortal man. But long ago he abandoned me, and now I seek to return to the sea with my child.”
Lir fixed his storm-blue eyes upon his daughter and her child. “You are my daughter, and may return when you will. Yet your daughter is half mortal, and like all such children, she must choose her own path. Does she choose to return to the sea of her own free will?”
The mother gave him an angry look. “I am her mother, and have chosen on her behalf. She will do as she is bid.”
“Nevertheless,” said Lir, “I must hear it from her own mouth. Child, do you wish to live with me as an immortal, under the grey waves, or do you wish to remain mortal, your feet on the solid earth?”
The girl was about to reply, when the Seer hurried up behind them, his breath laboured in his chest, for it was a steep climb, and he was old.
“Do not choose until you know the nature of your choice,” he told her. “Before you speak, ask your mother the reason why she bade you wear a red dress on this day, and to place a gold ring on your finger?”
The mother would have refused to answer, but Lir was curious, and commanded her.
“She wears a red dress,” she said reluctantly, “So that the Morrigan may recognize her, and fulfil my curse upon the man who fathered her. The gold ring was given to me by the High King of Tara in token of his love, but he betrayed me, and when his daughter shall cast that ring into the sea, the Morrigan has promised me that my curse will be fulfilled. The High King’s warriors will be vanquished, his high seat of Tara shall be burned to the ground, and he himself will be blinded and thrown into the deep waters.”
“Then let my granddaughter choose,” said Lir, “If she chooses to cast the ring into the sea, your curse shall be fulfilled. And if not, the High King will have victory today, and die in his bed. I warn you, however, daughter, that a bargain made with the Morrigan is not easily put aside.”
The mother turned to her daughter, and commanded her to cast the golden ring, but the girl shook her head. “I do not wish to do this thing, mother, and bring about the deaths of many men, among them my own father.”
“Do as you are bid,” said her mother. “Your father promised me marriage, and that I would sit beside him in his Great Hall as Queen of all Eire, but he left me for another woman before you were born. I have cursed him, and he must die.”
And still Merrow hesitated. “I cannot kill my own father, and your curse is none of mine.”
And then her mother said to her, “If you do not do this, daughter, you will surely die in his place. For a bargain is a bargain, and the Morrigan must have blood this day. If not theirs…” and she pointed to the warriors waiting upon the shore, “then yours.”
Lir, meanwhile, had grown impatient. “Come to me, or stay where you are, I care not, but make up your mind. The Morrigan waits on no woman, nor I neither.”
Then the Seer, who was quick of wit despite his age, said, “If the Morrigan must have blood this day, why should she not take it from the north men in their dragon ships, and not from this innocent girl?” He turned to the girl. “Why not leave here, and come with me? Your father will be glad indeed to find he has a daughter, and as a princess of Tara, you will be well cared for and greatly beloved.”
“Whether she casts the ring or not, victory comes to the strongest,” Lir pointed out, “and your King is weak and outnumbered, while his enemy is brave and fierce.”
“But,” said the girl, who had seen the direction of the Seer’s thoughts, “could not you, who are Lord of the salt sea, raise up the wind and the waves against these men in their strange ships, and drive them from shore, to sink and drown in your green depths?“
“I could,” Lir said, “But why should I?”
“Because you are my mother’s father.”
“I have many daughters, and my grandchildren are as numerous as the fishes.”
“Because the High King my father will give you gifts of gold and silver, and all the treasure that you desire, in return for his life and his throne.”
“What use have I of gold and silver, who have the treasures of a thousand wrecks to gild my halls?”
In desperation the girl said, “Then what can I give you to avert my father’s fate?”
Lir laughed. “Life must have death, and the Morrigan must be paid, for even I am subject to her weavings. Take off your red dress, leave your gold ring upon the shore, and cast yourself naked from these cliffs, and I will ensure your father’s victory and the ruination of his enemies.”
“No!” cried the mother, “You must not do this!”
Swiftly then the girl tore the red dress from her body, tossed the gold ring to the Seer, and naked she flung herself from the cliffs to the sea far below. And the mother wailed and tore at her hair, and the Morrigan laughed her dreadful laugh as she rode through the dark clouds above. Lir spoke words of command, and the wind rose high and howling, and drove the northmen’s ships away from the shore, and many of the warriors sank with their weapons and their treasure to augment the hoard of Lir beneath the waves.
Merrow would have drowned with them, but her mother’s father caught the girl in his watery grasp, and returned her to the shore, where her father the High King stood waiting. His heart rejoiced at the sight of her, for he had not known he had a daughter. Her mother had hidden it from him these long years in anger, since he had broken his promise to her and lain with another woman. The High King lived, and ruled another score of years to die in his bed, far from the Fate foretold. But a bargain is a bargain, and a curse must be honoured. So Merrow’s mother was snatched up by the Morrigan in her arms of flame, as she stood there on the cliffs, and borne away upon the wind, never to see her own true home again.
Photo by Annette Batista Day on Unsplash