On the Eve of the Feast for Saint Muirgein

The Age of Christ, 558. …In this year was taken the Mermaid, i. e. Liban, the daughter of Eochaidh, son of Muireadh, on the strand of Ollarbha, in the net of Beoan, son of Inli, the fisherman of Comhgall of Beannchair.

So reads The Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland (Annála Ríoghachta Éireann or the Annals of the Four Masters) compiled between 1632 and 1636 by a small team of historians directed by Br. Michael O’Clery (Mícheál Ó Cléirigh), a Franciscan lay brother in the convent of Donegal, situated at that time on the Bundrowes River. Her capture is also mentioned in the Annals of Ulster under the year 571 as well as the Chronicon Scotorum under the year 565 and the Cottonian Annals.

Today is the eve of the feast for Saint Muirgein (“sea-born”) or Muirgeilt (“sea-wanderer”). Muirgein is listed with a feast day of January 27 in the 8th or 9th century Irish martyrology Félire Óengusso, and this feast day is listed repeatedly in subsequent martyrologies. This same feast day is connected to both the female Saint Muirgein as well as to Murgenus, the male abbot of Glenn Uissen.

Later stories connect Saint Muirgein (“sea-born”) to older pre-Christian legends of the mermaid Lí Ban, recounting how she gives herself up to be captured and baptized. Therefore, as the Martyrology of Tallaght lists a male saint called Libanus with the feast day December 18 and the slightly later Martyrology of Gorman mentions the female Liban lómar under the same date, these two sets of male and female saints all end up lending both of their feast days to the pagan mermaid Lí Ban who was baptized as Saint Muirgein, and later sources will give either or both January 27 and December 18 as her feast day. For example, in the genealogies collected in the Book of Leinster by Áed Ua Crimthainn (Abbot of the monastery of Tír-Dá-Glas on the Shannon) and some of his monks between 1151 and 1224, the mermaid Lí Ban is listed as a saint along with her baptized name Muirgein. Over time, another name that became associated with her is Fuinchi.

Several popular storylines about the mermaid Lí Ban and Saint Muirgein are brought together most fully in the late 11th century or early 12th century within the Aided Echach meic Maireda (“The death of Eochu mac Maireda”) preserved in the Lebor na hUidre manuscript. Literature scholar Helen Imhoff describes this account:

The story is a literary and theological work of some complexity, written by an author who was both educated in and well acquainted with Irish literary traditions. The tale draws on different sources to create a carefully structured narrative, focusing on salvation and baptism, and baptism is assigned an important role in salvation history. The text follows the dichotomous structure of the Bible and mirrors its relationship between type and antitype, the Old Covenant and the New, Eve and Mary. In Aided Echach, however, these connections are expressed entirely in Irish terms, with the result that Irish history is seen to progress along the same lines as biblical history. Consequently, Ireland is clearly set within a Christian context, and it is implied that the Christianisation of Ireland was always part of God’s plan.

[From “The Themes and Structure of Aided Echach Maic Maireda.” Ériu. Vol. 58, 2008, pp. 107-131. Royal Irish Academy. See also Helen Imhoff’s 2009 PhD thesis for the University of Cambridge on “Pre-Christian Characters in Medieval Irish Literature.”]

The Aided Echach recounts a much older story of Lí Ban as the only child to survive a cataclysmic flood that destroys the household of her father, the Irish prince Eochaidh, and creates Loch nEchach (Lough Neagh). Lí Ban is granted the opportunity to take the form of a mermaid with the tail of a salmon, and she lives free for 300 years until the days of St. Comhgall of Bangor. St. Comhgall sent Beoan, son of Innli, of Teach-Debeog, to Pope Gregory in Rome [A.D. 599-604] to receive order and rule. When the crew of Beoan’s currach were at sea, they heard the singing of angels beneath their boat. Investigating, they discovered Lí Ban who told them her life story and also that she would proceed westward and meet Beoan again on that same day in twelve months. At the designated place and time, Beoan brought St. Comhgall and got help from Fergus of Miliue to set nets and bring Lí Ban to shore. On shore, a crowd gathered and witnesses included the chief of Ui-Conaing. All three men claimed the right to take charge of Lí Ban: St. Comhgall who had spiritual responsibility for the region, Fergus who had brought her ashore in his net, and Beoan in promise to whom Lí Ban had appeared again. They prayed for guidance. The next day, two wild oxen came down from Carn-Airend pulling a wagon. These oxen carried her to St. Comhgall’s church at Teach-Dabeoc. There she was given the choice of receiving baptism and dying immediately or living for another 300 years. Lí Ban chose to be baptized by St. Comhgall with the name Muirgen “Sea-born” (or Muirgeilt “Sea-wanderer”). Immediately following her baptism, she died and was received in heaven with great celebration: “Moreover, miracles and wonders are done through her there. And, like every saintly virgin, she is with such honour and respect as God has granted her in Heaven.”

So what might we make of such stories that gather over time surrounding Christian saints and other beloved figures? I do not dismiss stories of mermaids offhand. As David Bentley Hart writes:

Of course mermaids exist. …More fascinating yet are the modern reports of real encounters with mermaids or other water-spirits, such as two from Zimbabwe, one from South Africa, three from northeastern India, and so on. They are so ingenuous, well-attested, and credible that only a brute would refuse to believe them. And, of course, there is a real moral imperative in not dismissing such tales as lies or delusions.

[From Hart’s review of “Selkies and Nixies: The Penguin Book of Mermaids” for The Lamp: A Catholic Journal of Literature, Science, the Fine Arts, Etc. Issue 2. Assumption 2020. pp. 49-50.]

To be consistent, Christians should take seriously every eyewitness account coming down from poor people who are not benefiting or being tortured in order to share their story. This story of Lí Ban, however, does not have the components of an eyewitness account. It appears to be stories told years later that combine elements of pagan legend with the names of Christian saints. Nonetheless, the accounts that we have do claim to be based on older accounts, and they do list a host of specific witnesses. Either way, any questions of specific historicity are unimportant. What matters is that we have a saint to celebrate, and that the life of this saint has inspired the weaving and telling of stories with profoundly colorful and meaningful details, to be enjoyed and to instruct us. Some will laugh that any element of historicity would even be seriously entertained, but we have many Christians from the earliest years of the faith in Ireland attesting to Saint Muirgein the “Sea-born” and celebrating this date. Let us join them tomorrow.

Manuscript illustration “St Brendan and a siren” from a German translation of Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis, c. 1476.
Clonfert Cathedral (County Galway, Ireland). This mermaid is carved into the stone of the chancel arch. She’s holding a mirror and a comb in her hands. She dates to an addition made in the 15th century. The cathedral itself dates from c. 1180, but it’s built on an older church from the 6th century, founded by St. Brendan the Navigator.

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