beings have always had a penchant for filling in the unknown and
mysterious details of reality with imaginary worlds of their own.
For centuries, seamen around the world, having never seen whales,
manatees and other creatures, populated the sea with mermaids and
sea serpents. From ancient times to the present, people have created
creatures of the imagination, such as the selchies of Ireland and
Scotland, and placed them in stories that serve as a kind of mirror
of a people and a way of life.
In his book The
People of the Sea: A Journey in Search of the Seal Legend,
David Thomson recounts a journey he took across his native Ireland
and Scotland to trace the origins of traditional tales about seals.
First published in 1954,
this newly released edition features a new introduction by Nobel
Laureate Seamus Heaney. With elements of memoir, travelogue and
academic study, it tells the story of the authors trek through
his homeland and toward the roots of his own culture. Along the
way, the reader hears many stories, ranging from personal anecdotes
to traditional tales that have been handed down for hundreds of
Tales about seals are
as old as the Celtic people. Traditional Irish folklore tells of
selchies, or Atlantic Grey Seals, who take human form when on land
but who always retain a strong desire to return to the sea. Such
contemporary authors as Seamus Heaney and Jane Yolen have written
poems and stories based on these legends. John Sayles 1994
film The Secret of Roan Inish
brought the legend to a mainstream
story begins with his memories of a house in which he lived as a
child. This sets the tone and structure of the remainder of the
book. Each chapter centers on a different place, very often a house
with a name, which serves as a stop along the authors journey.
In each place, the reader is introduced to new people and new stories.
But certain themes
run through all of the locales. Most of the villages are remote
and rugged. The people who live in them are at the mercy of the
elements. The spirit of Irish nationalism runs deep and the keeping
of the Irish language and traditions is looked upon with great pride.
reader learns from these stories about the nature of the seals and
about their relationship with the people on the shore. Selchies
are fond of music, for example, and have found their way into many
traditional Irish songs. A seals eyes are said to be very
much like human eyes. Perhaps that is one of the aspects of a seals
demeanor that attracted the people who first told stories about
The seals, like
the people Thomson describes, live both on land and water. This
creates a kinship between man and seal. But it also creates conflict.
Seal hunters almost always referred to by the storytellers as "seal
The fact that seals
are hunted troubles many of the people who appear in the book. On
one hand, the skins and other products from the seals provide a
reliable living in a hard place. On the other hand, believers of
the legends view the killing of a seal as murder. It is even said
that one cannot kill a selchie while looking into its eyes.
It is not difficult
to imagine whence this view originated. The seals are "the
people of the sea" in more than one way. Some selchies literally
take human form on land. But there are also stories in this book
of seals who are not human, but who have humanity.
One story is told
of a small child who is lost at sea and, when the men of the village
search for his body, they unexpectedly find him alive and well,
having been rescued and nursed by a seal. Another legend has it
that a family of fishermen is lost at sea, unconscious and adrift
when a seal sees their plight and attracts the attention of people
on shore, who rescue them.
But it is the stories
of shape shifters that best show the imagination of these storytellers.
One legend has a young woman marrying a man and having children
with him only to find out later that he is no man at all, but a
selchie. Another has a woman selchie who is married to a man who
hides her seal skin. (A selchie can only take seal form again if
it finds its skin.) One day, the woman finds her skin and fulfills
her deepest wish, to be freed from human form and return to the
sea as a seal.
The question that
recurs throughout Mr. Thomsons journey is the degree to which
the tellers believe the legends. Some older people, particularly
those who have lived their whole lives in isolated villages, say
they believe them literally. Some younger people, particularly those
who live on the mainland, admire the stories and see them as a part
of their cultural heritage, but do not believe them to be literally
true. Of course, there are exceptions.
true," says one man about the story of the child who was rescued
by a seal. "I heard my mother tell it."
The world that
Mr. Thomson presents in this book exists both in the human imagination
and on the sea and land of Ireland and Scotland. Mr. Thomsons
language is simple, but the rhythm of his words creates music of
its own. The book is fantastical in one sense, but it is also rooted
firmly in a real and hard place. The imaginative creatures in Mr.
Thomsons story do not provide an escape from the real world
or even an explanation of it. Rather, as the best stories do, People
of the Sea
elucidates the tellers place within a complex,
difficult, but still very beautiful place.