The Bizarre Truth Behind Ireland's Mermaid Saint

When it comes to Irish saints, most people probably think of Patrick, and when it comes to mermaids, most people probably think of Ariel. Not enough of us are thinking about Lí Ban, the Mermaid Saint of Ireland. Per Irish Central, her story dates back to the sixth century and has been recorded in Medieval writings as well as via scéalaíocht, or the tradition of oral storytelling.

Lí Ban's father was Eochaidh, King of Ulster. After a flood that swept through Ulster, forming what is today known as  Lough Neagh, Lí Ban and her pet dog were the only survivors in all the land. After a year of living alone, she prayed to the goddess Danu and asked to be turned into a salmon so she could swim with other fish and not be lonely anymore. Instead, Danu transformed Lí Ban into a mermaid, and her dog into an otter. She then swam out to sea and started fulfilling a prophecy that read "Liban will swim eastwards, westwards, hither, thither, over each sea." And swim she did — according to the story, she did so for a whopping 300 years.

Three hundred years of swimming

According to Catholic Ireland, St. Comgall of Bangor was a monk who, in 555, founded his own monastery, which "soon became the largest monastic centre in Ireland." One day, as told by Irish Central, Comgall sent some monks out to sea, and they caught Lí Ban in their fishing nets. She promised them that she would return to them in one year, and sure enough, a year later she came ashore, where St. Comgall baptized her with the name "Muirgen," which means "sea-born." She died shortly after her baptism; according to the Irish Post "she had forfeited another 300 years of life in exchange for a Christian soul," and became known as the Mermaid Saint. 

In 2020, Irish storyteller Marianne McShane reimagined Lí Ban's story for a children's book, Rónán and the Mermaid: A Tale of Old Ireland. The feast day of the "Mermaid Saint" is January 27, and she is honored along with other saints in a newer abbey in Bangor that has a handmade quilt hanging on its wall with "the mermaid saint floating on the crest of a sea wave" in one of the squares.