THE PEOPLE OF THE SEA:
A JOURNEY IN SEARCH OF THE SEAL LEGEND

NONFICTION BY DAVID THOMSON

Counterpoint, 2000
ISBN: 1-58243-086-1
Human 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, author 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 author’s 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 years.
        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 audience.
         Mr. Thomson’s 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 author’s 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.
         Gradually, the 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 seal’s eyes are said to be very much like human eyes. Perhaps that is one of the aspects of a seal’s demeanor that attracted the people who first told stories about them.
         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 killers."
         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. Thomson’s 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.
         "Yes, that’s 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. Thomson’s 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. Thomson’s 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.