3/28/08

Black Eire and other aquatic mammals

Fionna from The Secret of Roan Inish

Contemplating the Sea


The term Black Irish is used to refer to an Irish person with dark hair and eyes. The implications of the term and meaning are varied and up for debate (you can read more about that here.) However for the purposes of this post I'm mostly interested in the fantastical. I had heard the term black Irish but never thought too much of it until viewing the film The Secret of Roan Inish. The grandmother in this film, set in Ireland, comments that her grandson is one of the dark ones. This was oddly familiar to me. As I was growing up my Irish-American grandmother, who I always considered to be part mermaid, ceaselessly commented about my dark eyes and especially my dark eyebrows. At times the teasing was unbearable; no child wants to be marked as different.

According to legend and myth the dark eyed Irish or Scottish are the offspring of a Selkie. A Selkie is part seal, part human. She can shed her seal skin and take human form. If someone, perhaps a lonesome fisherman, hides the Selkie's pelt she will be trapped on land as a human. That is until she finds the pelt and returns to the sea often leaving her human children as sad, whimsical, dark orphans.

Growing up I spent a lot of time with my grandmother, mostly just imagining. We made up stories and songs, drew pictures and saw things that no one else could see. Perhaps they weren't really there at all. Regardless we led a magical existence for a few years. She talked of the sea often and made me promise, almost daily, that when I grew up and earned some money I would buy us a shack on the beach. Until then we spent our summers at the local swimming pool punctuated by week long trips to the Carolinas or the Delmarva peninsula.

Selkie tales are full of longing. The human Selkie misses living in the sea. Often she comes to resent her human husband for keeping her on land. In the tales I've read she always finds a way back to the sea. Similar to a Selkie lonesome for her seal family my grandmother would lament her deceased brothers and sisters, longing to see them again. She looked forward to seeing her family again after death. All this time I thought my grandmother was part mermaid but now I'm thinking she was really part seal.

The last time we went to the ocean together was after she had had a stroke. She was a tiny, frail version of herself. Walking down to the shore in her trademark "beach bum" hat was an effort. At night she insisted on sleeping on a hard, wooden bench on the screened-in porch. She wanted to feel the sea's breeze and listen to the waves crash against the sands all night. What an awesome lady. I thought she might disappear into the sea while the rest of us slept.
















As humans we have much in common with aquatic mammals. We rely on vocalization as our primary means of communication as opposed to olfactory communication which is favored by many land mammals. Elaine Morgan postulates that this may be a result of an aquatic past. We are the only primate that sheds tears. The only other creatures which have similar glands for shedding salt water near the eyes or nose are marine creatures: seals, sea otters, saltwater crocodiles, even marine snakes and lizards. That bit of webbing between our thumb pointer finger? No other primate has that. Is it a stunted aquatic adaptation? A feature which if we had stayed in the seas would have continued to develop?

I get excited when science and myth brush against each other, like waves washing over a shore. Those moments are the catalyst for a lot of the art I make. My personal mythologizing continues to weave a web of connections and loose associations. An amalgam of classical and personal mythos, half-truths and re-combinations...I feel as if everything of import (to me) can be connected. I feel inclined to consider things in relation to each other.

Aquatic ape theory and a folk memory about a longing to return to the sea where we once, perhaps, lived. Is this the creative brain trying to process residual aquatic inclinations? A way to whimsically explain observed similarities between us and them? Or a saved bit of knowledge: once we stayed in the sea. Remember this just in case things on land go sour again.

1 comment:

Jenny Kendler said...

Aw, that movie was so good. We should watch it again.

Is there a Selkie <---> Narmaid connection? Hmmm...

When I was in San Luis Obispo, we went up the coast to see the Elephant Seals. They were so lovely, even in their bulky awkwardness, coming in and out of the water. I'll show you the photos.

The beach was mostly inhabited by older babies, whose mothers have gone back to sea, called 'weaners' (ha ha) and a few molting females.

Unfortunately many of the young seals had died recently from unusually frequent storms with violent storm surge (global warming anyone?) that drowned the pups not yet able to swim well. We saw one of their bodies being eaten by a ground squirrel, which made all my little cousins freak out for days.

My 8 year old cousin Alex immediately ran up to one of the guides and told her that the supposedly vegetarian squirrel was chowing down on dead baby seal. The older woman just looked down at her kindly and said, "Well, that's the circle of life sweetie..." I told her "Protein is protein. Nature doesn't let anything go to waste."

Even from a freaky carnivorous squirrel, I suppose there are lessons to be learned.