Dr KARL SHUKER

Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. He is the author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), Dragons: A Natural History (1995), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), The Unexplained (1996), From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings (1997), Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999), The Hidden Powers of Animals (2001), The Beasts That Hide From Man (2003), Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture (2013), The Menagerie of Marvels (2014), A Manifestation of Monsters (2015), Here's Nessie! (2016), and what is widely considered to be his cryptozoological magnum opus, Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors (2016) - plus, very excitingly, his first two long-awaited, much-requested ShukerNature blog books (2019, 2020).

Dr Karl Shuker's Official Website - http://www.karlshuker.com/index.htm

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Sunday, 29 November 2020

THE DOBHAR-CHÚ - TRAILING IRELAND'S MYSTERIOUS MASTER OTTER. Part 2: MODERN-DAY ENCOUNTERS?

Artistic representation of the dobhar-chú or master otter, based upon traditional Irish folklore (© Philippa Foster)

In Part 1 of this ShukerNature article (click here to read it), I recalled the traditional lore appertaining to an Irish mystery beast known as the dobhar-chú or master otter, and I also documented a seemingly true but fatal confrontation between one of these supposedly savage, bloodthirsty beasts and a woman on the shore of Glenade Lake in northwestern Ireland's County Leitrim – with the avenging slaughter of the murderous dobhar-chú by her husband actually carved for all to see on her still-existing gravestone in a local cemetery.

This remarkable incident allegedly occurred almost three centuries ago, back in 1722, but as I shall now reveal here in Part 2, encounters with large unidentified creatures in northwestern and western Ireland that bear much more than a passing resemblance to the dobhar-chú have also occurred in modern times – and, indeed, are still doing so.

Glenade Lake (© Daev Walsh)

The origin of a folk story featuring a bizarre-sounding specimen of dobhar-chú that reputedly sported a long horn on its head like a lutrine unicorn, County Sligo in the Republic of Ireland's northwestern portion is sandwiched between County Leitrim to the right, and County Mayo to the left. Several islands are present off the western coast of Mayo, including Achill (Ireland's largest coastal island, but attached to the mainland by a bridge), whose principal cryptozoological claim to fame is Sraheens (=Glendarry) Lough. This is a small, circular lake, approximately 400 ft in diameter, very windswept and isolated, which is said to be frequented by strange water monsters.

Most of Ireland's aquatic cryptids are of the 'horse-eel' variety – i.e. sinuous eel-like entities but with horse-like heads. The Sraheens Lough monster, however, is apparently very different.

Achill Island (in red) on map of Ireland (© WikiDon/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

At around 10 pm on the evening of 1 May 1968, two local men, John Cooney and Michael McNulty, were driving past this lake on their way home when suddenly an extraordinary creature, shiny dark-brown or black in colour and clearly illuminated by their vehicle's headlamps, raced across the road just in front of them and vanished into some dense foliage nearby. They estimated its height at around 2.5 ft and its total length at 8-10 ft, which included a lengthy neck, and a long sturdy tail. It also had a head that they variously likened to a sheep's or a greyhound's, and four well-developed legs, upon which it rocked from side to side as it ran. Needless to say, its fully-formed legs and long tail readily eliminated any possibility that it was a seal that had come ashore onto Achill from the coast. Just a week later, a similar beast crawled out of the lake and climbed the bank as 15-year-old Gay Dever was cycling past, shocking him so much that he dismounted to watch it go by. It seemed to him to be much bigger than a horse, and black in colour, with a sheep-like head, long neck, tail, and four legs (of which the hind ones were the larger). Other sightings were also reported during this period, but the identity of the animal(s) was never ascertained.

In the 13-volume encyclopedia, The Unexplained, edited by Peter Brookesmith, and first published in part-work form during the early 1980s, an unnamed artist's reconstruction of the Sraheens Lough monster originally appeared in an article on Irish lake monsters written by veteran unexplained mysteries chroniclers Janet and Colin Bord but is nowadays readily accessible online. The illustration was based upon the eyewitness accounts given above for this monster, but as can be seen here it also happens to be exceedingly similar to the Conwall gravestone's depiction of the dobhar-chú! Both share a sleek body and powerful hindquarters, long slender tail, lengthy but not overly elongate neck, distinct paws, and relatively small head. Indeed, one could easily be forgiven for assuming that the two illustrations had been based upon the same animal specimen (let alone species). Could such an arresting degree of morphological similarity be nothing more than a coincidence, or is the dobhar-chú still in existence amid the countless lakes of the Emerald Isle?

Artistic reconstruction by unnamed artist of the Sraheens Lough monster as sighted by John Cooney and Michael McNulty on 1 May 1968 (© Orbis Publishing – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

Cryptozoological sceptics have pointed out that with a circumference of only 1,200 ft, surely Sraheens Lough is too small to support water monsters of this nature. However, anything capable of running across roads on four sturdy limbs is equally capable of moving from one lake to another, not residing permanently in any one body of water - which could explain why sightings of monsters in Sraheens Lough are sporadic rather than regular.

Some very interesting additional reports of modern-day Irish cryptids resembling giant otters can be found in a fascinating book entitled Mystery Animals of Ireland (2010), authored by longstanding Celtic cryptozoology specialists Gary Cunningham and Ronan Coghlan. For example, some time in 1999-2000 near to Portumna in County Galway (south of County Mayo), Patrick Sullivan from Cleggan, Connemara, was driving along the N65 towards Loughrea when he suddenly saw an unfamiliar-looking animal wandering on the opposite side of the road. Curious to see more of this creature, he was able to turn around and drive back, and later reported that it resembled an otter but was larger and darker. As he watched, it moved off the road and disappeared into some undergrowth. In around 2001, the Sraheens Lough monster reared its otter-like head again, with a new, recent sighting featuring in a debate concerning this mystery beast that was broadcast on Radio na Gaeltachta. But the most significant recent sighting took place during April-May 2003, on Omey Island, in Connemara, County Galway, and featured Waterford artist Sean Corcoran and his wife.

Sean Corcoran's sketch of an alleged dobhar-chu seen by him on Omey Island, County Galway, in 2003 (© Bang Art/WikipediaCC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

In October and November 2009, Sean contacted me to provide me with details of their sighting on this island, and it was also documented by Gary and Ronan in their book. Omey contains two freshwater lakes, and is accessible on foot when the tide is out. Sean and his wife were camping on Omey, near to Fahy Lough, the larger of its two lakes, when at around 3 am one morning they were alerted to a strange yelping cry coming from the sand dunes at the lake's western side. Armed with a torch, they set out to investigate, and encountered just 2-3 yards away an animal described by Sean as being larger than his pet Labrador dog. The creature speedily swam across the lake to its furthest side, where it then emerged, clambered onto a large rock, and reared up onto its hind legs. In this pose, it was estimated by Sean to be around 5 ft tall, and was observed to be dark in overall colour but sporting orange-red flipper-like feet. It then turned away and disappeared into the darkness, leaving Sean and his wife to return to their tent, thoroughly bemused by what they had just seen.

Tellingly, as pointed out by Gary and Ronan in their coverage of this sighting, Fahy Lough is only about 20 yards from the sea at Omey's sheltered western point, with the marine waters around this island being plentifully supplied with available food for such a creature, including fishes and crustaceans. Moreover, during previous camping holidays on Omey, Sean had seen animal scats near Fahy Lough that when examined were found to contain the remains of crabs and other shellfish.

Sean Corcoran's sketch of an alleged dobhar-chu seen by him on Omey Island, County Galway, in 2003 rearing up onto its hind legs (© Bang Art/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

Otters are well known for rearing up onto their hind legs to obtain a better view of something of interest to them, so the Omey beast's behaviour certainly accords with that. However, its size is far bigger than one would expect a normal Irish otter to be, and its orange-red feet (which to give the appearance that they were flippers suggests that they were extensively webbed) are also wholly atypical for the latter.

In view of how near the unidentified beast seen by Sean was to the sea, it is nothing if not interesting to note that a mysterious but rare species referred to locally as a 'sea otter' reputedly once inhabited a large stagnant pool in one of Achill Island's famous seal caves, the cave in question being known as Priest's Hole. This 'sea otter' was said to be distinguished from normal otters by its large size and uniformly black or near-black pelage, broken only by a single white patch on its throat. The source of this information was Harris Stone, an elderly man who was living close by there in around 1906.

A Eurasian otter standing upright on hind legs (© Holger Uwe Schmitt/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0)

Equally intriguing is a large taxiderm otter spotted by Gary Cunningham when visiting an Irish pub in April 1999. The pub is called Hynes Pub, and is situated in the village of Crossmolina, in County Mayo. What attracted Gary's attention to the stuffed otter, placed on top of the pub's television, was not only its size (he estimated it to be about 4.5 ft long), but also its noticeably elongate form, with a remarkably lengthy neck, slightly elongated hinds limbs, long bushy tail (not a typical otter accoutrement!), and its very dark, almost black-coloured fur. Being with his family, Gary did not have the opportunity to gather details concerning the history of this curious specimen, but he was struck by how different it was from the usual Irish otter while comparing surprisingly closely to the appearance of the dobhar-chú carved upon the gravestone of Grace Connolly.

Although he was well aware that morphological distortions can certainly occur during the preparation of taxiderm specimens, having inspected this otter closely Gary was not convinced that its highly distinctive form could be explained away in this manner. He was able to snap two colour photographs of it, which he has most kindly made available to me, enclosing them with a very detailed letter on the subject of Irish water monsters that he wrote to me on 29 May 2000, and as they reveal here it is indisputably unusually elongate in form.  Clearly, therefore, it would be beneficial for this enigmatic specimen to be subjected to a formal zoological examination, perhaps even taking from it a small tissue sample for possible DNA analysis, and to enquire from its owners its background history.

Mystery taxiderm otter at Hynes Pub (© Gary Cunningham)

Mystery beasts reminiscent of the dobhar-chú have even been reported occasionally from northern and northwestern Scotland, although these Caledonian counterparts have attracted much less attention, even from cryptozoologists (but click here to read my earlier ShukerNature article re such beasts). One of the earliest but most intriguing accounts is contained in The History of the Scots From Their First Origin (1575), authored by Hector Boece, which was very kindly brought to my attention by Scottish correspondent Leslie Thomson. The relevant excerpt reads as follows:

...on the summer solstice of the year 1510 some kind of beast the size of a mastiff emerged at dawn from one of those lochs, named Gairloch, having feet like a goose, that without any difficulty knocked down great oak trees with the lashings of its tail. It quickly ran up to the huntsmen and laid low three of them with three blows, the remainder making their escape among the trees. Then, without any hesitation, it immediately returned into the loch. Men think that when this monster appears it portends great evil for the realm, for otherwise it is rarely seen.

Loch Gairloch is a sea loch on Scotland’s northwestern coast; it measures approximately 6 miles long by 1.5 miles wide. As for the creature that emerged from it, I think it safe to assume that its tail’s oak-felling prowess owes more to literary exaggeration than to anatomical accuracy. Conversely, the likening of its feet to those of a goose probably indicated merely that they were webbed. Overall, therefore, the mastiff-sized, web-toed, fleet-footed, quadrupedal water monster of Gairloch does recall the master otter of Glenade Lake, but its taxonomic identity, as with the latter beast’s, remains unresolved.

Loch Gairloch (© David Crocker/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.0 licence)

Furthermore, according to Scottish writer Martin Martin, writing in his most famous book, A Description of the Western Isles of Scotland (1703), on the Inner Hebrides island of Skye (where Martin was born):

…the hunters say there is a big otter above the ordinary size, with a white spot on its breast, and this they call the king of otters; it is rarely seen, and very hard to be killed.

Needless to say, this description readily recalls the so-called 'sea otter' with a white spot on its throat reported from the Priest's Hole seal cave on Ireland's Achill Island by Harris Stone just over a century ago.

Was there – or is there – a white-throated strain of giant 'king' otter in Scotland, equivalent to Ireland's master otter or dobhar-chú, and possibly resembling the saro (see later)? (public domain)

Also of relevance here is Wee Oichie or Oichy, the monster of Loch Oich – which is situated directly below the much larger and more famously monster-associated Loch Ness in the Scottish Highlands, and is 4 miles long. Wee Oichie traditionally sports a flattened head rather than the familiar equine form often noted for Nessie and various other Scottish loch monsters. Having said that, the head of the very big, black, serpentine beast that rose to the surface one summer's day in 1936 was vaguely dog-like, according to A.J. Robertson who spied it while boating at the loch's southwestern end. Certain other eyewitnesses, moreover, including a former loch keeper at Oich interviewed by investigator J.W. Herries during the 1930s, have likened Wee Oichie to a huge otter.

As a river connects Loch Oich to Loch Ness, some researchers have speculated that perhaps Wee Oichie and Nessie are one and the same (always assuming, of course, that they do actually exist!), merely swimming back and forth from one loch to another via this interconnecting river. Indeed, during the mid-1930s, Herries interviewed three eyewitnesses who claimed to have actually observed such an animal journeying via this exact manner from Ness to Oich.

Loch Oich – home to Wee Oichie? (© Claire Pegrum/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.0 licence)

Also greatly deserving of mention here is that one of Britain's most respected zoologists, the late Dr Maurice Burton, speculated in his book The Elusive Monster (1961) that the existence of an undescribed species of giant otter or otter-like creature might indeed help to explain the Loch Ness monster. Although dismissing most Nessie reports as floating algal mats or misidentified known animals, in his book he considered it possible that a small number of reports genuinely featured an undiscovered long-necked lutrine form:

Those who have made a study of otters in the wild know that they are probably the most elusive animal in the countryside. That, at least, is my experience. An otter may work a river near a village and nobody be aware of its presence...

Let us suppose that the habit and habitat of such a long-necked otter-like animal haunting Loch Ness agree with those of the common otter. Then we have to deal with a most elusive beast, hunting mainly inshore, perhaps basking at times at the water's edge, which for long stretches is out of sight except to the person who, very occasionally, takes the trouble to walk along it. Possibly it may go up the rivers and burns, but wherever it may go there are a thousand and one hiding places where even an animal of these proportions could lie hidden, or could move about without exposing itself unduly, especially if it were mainly nocturnal. If we argue that such an animal would be bound to be seen sooner or later, even in so sparsely populated an area - well, that is the kind of frequency with which it has been reported.

Perhaps Burton's most memorable claim was that if a long-necked giant otter (or otter-like beast) did exist, it should not be looked for in the loch itself but on land close by instead: "...in the marshes or on islands (e.g. Cherry Island [a small island on Loch Ness, at Fort Augustus]), up the burns and rivers or along the shores of the loch, although it may also be seen occasionally in the water". How ironic it would be if generations of Nessie seekers have been looking for the LNM in entirely the wrong habitat!

Loch Ness – is this huge expanse of inland water home to an elusive form of extra-large otter? (public domain)

Is it possible that some form of super-sized otter really did – and even still does – exist in northwestern and western Ireland (and perhaps in northern and northwestern Scotland too), especially in sheltered, little-frequented areas near to the coast, having long since established its place in traditional folklore while eluding formal scientific discovery? Some Eurasian otters do live along coasts, hunting in seawater, and are indeed sometimes dubbed 'sea otters' by local observers, but they also need regular access to freshwater in order to clean their coat. Perhaps down through the years, some such specimens have attained greater sizes than normal, wholly freshwater individuals, their more remote locations protecting them from the unwelcome attention of hunters, and with their impressive appearance but elusive nature having gradually converted them into a magical, folkloric beast, the dobhar-chú.

In any case, from a purely morphological standpoint extra-large otters are by no means restricted to cryptozoology and mythology. In terms of overall size and weight, the biggest species of otter known to exist today is the sea otter Enhydra lutris. Native to the northern and eastern coasts of the North Pacific Ocean, it measures up to 5 ft long and usually weighs up to 100 lb, but a few exceptional specimens weighing up to 119 lb have been confirmed. Although much lighter than the sea otter, the longest known modern-day species of otter is the South American giant otter or saro Pteronura brasiliensis, which can measure up to 6 ft long, weigh up to 71 lb, and is sometimes referred to as a water dog or even a river wolf. Judging from early descriptions of this species, however, it is possible that a few exceptionally large male individuals formerly existed, growing up to as much as 8 ft long, but hunting probably reduced such specimens' occurrence.

South American giant otter or saro (© Renaud d'Avout d'Auerstaedt/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.5 licence)

Moreover, absolute confirmation that otters can actually attain truly enormous, colossal sizes comes from a gigantic prehistoric species known as the bear otter Enhydriodon dikikae. Named after its huge ursine skull, and inhabiting Ethiopia during the Miocene, this stupendous creature is believed to have weighed around 440 lb. And China's Late Miocene lays claim to a wolf-sized otter called Siamogale melilutra, known from a cranium unearthed at a Yunnan province fossil site and formally described in 2017.

Nevertheless, both of the above-noted living species still share the same overall morphology as other otters (the post-cranial morphology of Enhydriodon and Siamogale are currently unknown), their bodies certainly not resembling a greyhound's, whereas that of the dobhar-chú seemingly does. Consequently, this is a major problem when attempting to reconcile the latter mystery beast with rare sightings of extra-large, coastal-dwelling Eurasian otters.

Artistic representation of Ethiopia's prehistoric bear otter Enhydriodon dikikae (© Hodari Nundu)

Judging from the data presented in this article, if the dobhar-chú is a real animal that has been accurately described by eyewitnesses and depicted on the gravestones, then surely it must be taxonomically discrete from the normal Eurasian otter? Moreover, the very sizeable true sea otter Enhydra lutris is an exclusively marine Pacific species that never reaches British or other Atlantic coasts, so this species cannot be involved here either (although, intriguingly, based upon two fossil carnassials uncovered, a related prehistoric species, E. reevei, is known to have existed in East Anglia as recently as the Pleistocene epoch, which ended a mere 11,700 years ago).

Nevertheless, until a specimen is (if ever) obtained, Ireland's mysterious master otter will continue to linger with leprechaun-like evanescence amid the twilight limbo between Celtic folklore and contemporary fact.

Vintage engraving of a sea otter from 1895 (public domain)

 

This article is a greatly-expanded, updated version of the dobhar-chú account that appeared in my 2003 book The Beasts That Hide From Man, which in turn was an expanded version of my original 1990s dobhar-chú article that appeared in Strange Magazine.

The Beasts That Hide From Man (© Dr Karl Shuker/Paraview Press)

 
 

Friday, 27 November 2020

THE DOBHAR-CHÚ - TRAILING IRELAND'S MYSTERIOUS MASTER OTTER. Part 1: GLENADE LAKE AND A GRAVESTONE

Dobhar-chú carved upon Grace Connolly's tombstone (© Daev Walsh)

At no more than 39 in long in total length, the Asian small-clawed otter Aonyx (=Amblyonx) cinereus is the world's smallest species of living otter. As a result of how commonly it is exhibited in British zoos, however, it is possibly the most familiar one to many people here – more so, in fact, than our own larger native species, the Eurasian otter Lutra lutra, up to 4 ft long on average (and confirmed maximum length of 4.5 ft), due to the latter's famous elusiveness.

If we turn from zoos and mainstream zoology to the sequestered realm of cryptozoology, however, its archives of eyewitness reports and folkloric traditions indicate that an even bigger and far more formidable otter might also be encountered in the British Isles. This little-known but thoroughly fascinating mystery beast, known as the dobhar-chú and investigated by me for over 20 years now, is the subject of this present two-part Shukerature article, which as far as I am aware is the most detailed documentation of it ever published.

Asian small-clawed otter (© Dr Karl Shuker) / Eurasian otter (public domain)

The dobhar-chú is a supposedly mythical beast from northwestern and western Ireland, is also called the dobarcu, master otter, and king otter, and was classed by English folklorist Dr Katharine Briggs as a prototype animal representing all of its kind there. For Ireland is indeed home to the afore-mentioned Eurasian otter, where it is referred to as the Irish otter, exists at this species' greatest population density anywhere in Europe, and was once deemed to be a separate species in its own right. In The Anatomy of Puck (1959), Briggs termed the dobhar-chú the master otter, and it was evidently larger than normal otters because she stated that it was said to have appeared once at Dhu-Hill, with "...about a hundred common-sized otters" in attendance. According to legend, an inch of the master otter's pelt will prevent a ship from being wrecked, a horse from injury, and a man from being wounded by gunshot or other means.

In Myth, Legend and Romance. An Encyclopaedia of the Irish Folk Tradition (1990), Dr Dáithí ó hÓgáin described it as a large male otter called the king otter, reiterating much of the information presented by Briggs but also noting that it was totally white in colour except for its black ear tips and a black cross upon its back, and that it never slept. Yielding an unexpected parallel with the werewolf legend, this uncanny creature could only be killed with a silver bullet, and its killer would himself die no longer than 24 hours afterwards.

Artistic representation of the dobhar-chú or master otter, based upon traditional Irish folklore (© Philippa Foster)

For quite some time, the relatively sparse details given above were all that I knew concerning the dobhar-chú - but during the mid-1990s fellow British mystery beast researcher Richard Muirhead kindly supplied me with several additional sources of information. These offer a much more extensive, and sinister, insight into Ireland's most mystifying mammal.

The fascinating excerpt presented below is from Roderic O'Flaherty's book A Chorographical Description Of West Or H-lar Connaught (1684), and chronicles an extremely alarming incident that had reputedly taken place approximately 10 years earlier at a very large, deep, 6-mile-long lake in County Mayo, western Ireland, called Lough Mask (=Measca or Measg):

The man was passing the shore just by the waterside, and spyed far off the head of a beast swimming, which he tooke to have been an otter, and tooke no more notice of it; but the beast it seems there lifted up his head, to discern whereabouts the man was; then diving, swom [sic] under water till he struck ground: whereupon he runned [sic] out of the water suddenly, and tooke the man by the elbow, whereby the man stooped down, and the beast fastened his teeth in his pate, and dragged him into the water; where the man tooke hold on a stone by chance in his way, and calling to minde he had a knife in his pocket, tooke it out and gave a thrust of it to the beast, which thereupon got away from him into the lake. The water about him was all bloody, whether from the beast's bloud [sic], or his own, or from both, he knows not. It was of the pitch of an ordinary greyhound, of a black slimy skin, without hair as he immagined [sic]. Old men acquainted with the lake do tell there is such a beast in it, and that a stout fellow with a wolf dog along with him met the like there once; which after a long strugling [sic] went away in spite of the man and dog, and was a long time after found rotten in a rocky cave of the lake, as the water decreased. The like, they say, is seen in other lakes of Ireland, they call it Dovarchu, i.e. a water-dog, or Anchu, which is the same.

As the above beast was evidently mammalian in nature, it seems reasonable to assume that it was not actually hairless, instead possessing short fur but which, when wet, adhered so closely to its body that the beast seemed to its human victim to be shiny and hairless. This same optical illusion occurs with otters, mink, and other short-furred aquatic mammals when first emerging from water.

Alongside a sculpture of a giant otter (© Dr Karl Shuker)

The following letter, written by Miss L.A. Walkington and published by the journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland in 1896, recalls a second apparently real, violent encounter with a dobhar-chú, but, tragically, there was no happy ending this time:

When on a recent visit to Bundoran [in County Leitrim, northwestern Ireland], we heard a legend concerning a tombstone in the graveyard of Caldwell [Conwall], which induced us to visit the place. The story is as follows:- A young married woman went to wash her clothes in a stream near the house, and an animal called by the natives a dhuraghoo (that is spelled as pronounced, but I have never seen the word written), came out of the river and attacked her. Her husband (or brother according to some accounts) missing her went to look for her, and found her dead and the beast sucking her blood. The dhuraghoo attacked the horse; for the husband seems to have been on horseback. The horse being frightened, ran away, but became exhausted at a village called from this circumstance Garronard ('garron', a bad horse; 'ard', a high place). The dhuraghoo is said to have gone "through" the horse and to have killed it. It was then speared by the husband who at the same time killed its young one. The dhuraghoo is said by some to have been an animal half wolf-dog, half-fish, by others an enormous sea-otter...Two other tombstones are shown in connexion with the story, one bearing an image of the horse, and said to be that of the husband. Perhaps some antiquary may be able to throw light on the legend and on the nature of the dhuraghoo.

In a later issue of this journal for 1896, Miss Walkington's letter drew the following response from H. Chichester Hart:

…I have heard at Ballyshannon, a few miles from Bundoran, the following account of the "Dorraghow," as it was pronounced in that district. He was "The King of all the Lakes, and Father of all the Otters. He can run his muzzle through the rocks. He was as big as five or six otters." My informant thought he was long dead.

The master otter also appeared in a poem entitled 'The Old House', within a 1950s anthology, Further Poems, by Leitrim poetess Katherine A. Fox. The relevant lines read:

The story told of the dobhar-chu

That out from Glenade lake

Had come one morning years ago

A woman's life to take.

Situated between the Arroo mountains to the east and the Dartry mountains to the west, Glenade Lake (aka Glenade Lough) is roughly 1 mile long, half a mile wide, covers an area of approximately 0.3 square mile, and is home to a wide diversity of freshwater fishes, including pike, perch, roach, and eel, as well as a sizeable crustacean called the white-clawed crayfish. Consequently, it could certainly feed a piscivorous mammal, especially one that may not be resident there, but moves around from one such lake to another (and of which Ireland is very plentifully supplied), as otters are wont to do.

Glenade Lake (© Daev Walsh)

During his researches, Richard Muirhead also uncovered a much longer poem, of unverified source (though claimed by some to have been written by a local headmaster). Entitled 'The Dobhar-chú of  Glenade', it is devoted entirely to the master otter's deadly attack upon the hapless maiden and its fatal encounter with her vengeful husband. Regrettably, its style is somewhat lurid and turgid, as witnessed by the following excerpt:

She having gone to bathe it seems within its waters clear

And not returning when she might her husband fraught with fear

Hastening to where he her might find when oh, to his surprise.

Her mangled form still bleeding warm lay stretched before his eyes.

Upon her bosom snow white once but now besmeared with gore

The Dobarcu reposing was his surfeitting been o'er.

Her blood and entrails all around tinged with a reddish hue.

"Oh God", he cried, "tis hard to bear but what am I to do".

Shakespeare it ain't, that's for sure! Nevertheless, its 16 verses yield the most detailed version of this story currently known to me (although some of the details contained in it differ from those noted in Miss Walkington's letter), and it is therefore of great value.

It dates the incident as occurring approximately 200 years prior to the poem's composing (the poem itself may date from around 1920), and features a man called Terence McGloughlan who lived close to the shore of Glenade Lake with his wife, Grace Connolly.

Reconstruction of the master otter's fatal attack upon Grace Connolly (© Randy Merrill)

One bright September morning, Grace visited Glenade Lake to bathe, but when she did not return home Terence retraced her steps, and upon reaching the lake he found her dead body, torn and bloodstained - with her murderous assailant, a dobhar-chú, lying asleep across her bosom. Maddened with grief and rage, Terence raced home for his gun, returned to the scene of the horrific crime and shot his wife's killer dead. In the fleeting moments before it died, however, the dobhar-chú gave voice to a single piercing squeal - which was answered from the depths of the lake. Seconds later, the dead creature's avenging mate surfaced, and Grace's terrified husband fled.

Reaching home, Terence told his neighbours what had happened, and they advised him to flee the area at once. This he did, accompanied by his loyal brother Gilmartin, both riding speedily on horseback, but doggedly pursued by the whistling dobhar-chú. After 20 miles, they reached Castlegarden Hill, dismounted, and placed their horses lengthwise across the path leading into it. Standing nearby, with daggers raised, they awaited the arrival of their shrill-voiced foe - and as it attempted to dash through the horses' limbs, Terence plunged his dagger downwards, burying it up to its hilt within the creature's heart.

Was Glenade Lake once home to a pair of master otters? (an 1856 otter painting, public domain)

Needless to say, it would be easy to dismiss the story of Grace Connolly as nothing more than an interesting item of local folklore - were it not for the existence of two dobhar-chú gravestones, commemorating the above episode. These are documented in an extensive article by Patrick Tohall, published by the journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland in 1948. The first of the two monuments is a gravestone in Congbháil (Conwall) Cemetery in the town of Drumin (Drummans), forming part of the approach to the Valley of Glenade from the coastal plain of north County Leitrim and south County Donegal, and just a few miles south of Kinlough, beside the main road leading from Bundoran to Manorhamilton.

A recumbent flag of sandstone roughly 4.5 ft by 1 ft 10 in and dated 24 September 1722, what makes this the more interesting of the two stones is that it actually portrays the dobhar-chú itself - described by Tohall as follows:

The carved figure is set in a panel about 17.5 ins. by 7 ins. It shows a recumbent animal having body and legs like those of a dog with the characteristic depth of rib and strength of thigh. The tail, long and curved, shows a definite tuft. The rear of the haunch, and still more the tail, are in exceptionally low relief, apparently due to the loss of a thin flake from the face of the slab. So far the description is canine. The paws, however, appear unusually large, while the long, heavy neck and the short head into which it shades off, together with the tiny ears are all like those of an Otter or such Mustelida. 

The head and neck are bent backward to lie flat on the animal's backbone. A human right hand, clenched and with fingers facing the spectator, is shown holding a weapon which has entered the base of the neck and reappears below the body in a short stem which suddenly enlarges to finish as a barb.

The article contains a photo of this depiction, taken by society member Dr J.J. Clarke. Unfortunately, in my files' photocopy of Tohall's article, the illustrations had not reproduced well. In autumn 1997, however, after I had communicated with one of my Irish correspondents, Daev Walsh, concerning it, he and a colleague, Joe Harte, independently visited the dobhar-chú gravestone in autumn 1997. Not only were they both able to confirm that it still existed, they also took some excellent photographs of it, which they kindly passed on to me to use in my own writings as I saw fit. These lucidly portray the carved dobhar-chú, revealing that its head is indeed small and somewhat lutrine. Equally, after studying the photos, I agree with Tohall's description of its body as canine - almost greyhound-like, in fact, except for its large paws and lengthy neck.

Close-up of the dobhar-chú carved upon Grace Connolly's tombstone (© Daev Walsh)

Interestingly, when I showed the pictures of the carved dobhar-chú to various cryptozoological colleagues, some of them mistakenly assumed that the clenched hand of the dobhar-chú's slayer was actually the creature's head! However, it is far too small to be this, and when the photos are viewed closely, the fingers of the clenched hand, which face the camera, can be clearly discerned gripping a spear-like weapon, as can the creature's real head, thrown back across its back. Even the thin line of its mouth is readily visible.

Some of the wording on the gravestone is still legible too, identifying the person buried beneath as Grace Con, wife of Ter MacLoghlin. According to Tohall, she was still spoken of locally, but as Grainne, not Grace, and he also pointed out that Ter is undoubtedly short for Terence, and that it is Gaelic custom for a married woman to retain her maiden name - explaining why Grace was referred to on her gravestone as Con rather than MacLoghlin. Tohall considered it likely that her gravestone was prepared while her death was still fresh in local memory, because similar gravestones in this same cemetery are characteristic of the period 1722 to 1760. This, then, would appear to be the last resting place of the hapless young woman killed by the dobhar-chú, whose own existence is commemorated here too - all of which seemingly elevates the episode from folklore to fact.

Scale illustration providing an estimate of size for the dobhar-chú alongside an average-sized human (© Connor Lachmanec)

As recently as World War I, the second dobhar-chú gravestone, which was that of Grace's husband Terence, was still in the cemetery of Cill Rúisc (Kilroosk), at the southern entrance to Glenade, but had broken into two halves. At some later date, these were apparently placed up onto a boundary wall, and subsequently disappeared. Fortunately, however, at the time of Tohall's researches it was still well-remembered by all of the region's older men, who stated that it depicted some type of animal, and was popularly known as the Dobhar-Chú Stone. When asked whether the animal had resembled a dog, the only person who could recall the creature's appearance stated that it was more like a horse.

Recalling the story of the dobhar-chú in his article, Tohall placed the home of Grace (or Grainne) and her husband in the townland of Creevelea at the northwest corner of Glenade Lake, and (like Miss Walkington, above) stated that Grace visited the lake to wash some clothes (not to bathe, as given in the 16-verse poem). Indeed, several variants of the story exist elsewhere in the general vicinity of Glenade, but Tohall believed that the Conwall gravestone was particularly important - for constituting possibly the only tangible evidence for the reality of the dobhar-chú.

Two views of the dobhar-chú carving (highlighted in white) in situ on Grace Connolly's tombstone (© Joe Harte)

Tohall offered some interesting reflections upon the terminology of the master otter's native name. Both in Ireland and in Scotland, ‘dobhar-chú’, which translates as 'water-hound', has two quite different meanings. One is merely an alternative name for the Eurasian otter, but is rarely used in this capacity nowadays (superseded by 'mada-uisge'). The other is the name of a mythical otter-like beast, and is still widely used in this capacity within the County Leitrim region. Tohall reserved the most intriguing insight into the master otter concept, however, for the closing sentence of his article:

The best summary of the idea is set out in the records of the Coimisium le Béaloideas by Sean ó h-Eochaidh, of Teidhlinn, Co. Donegal, in a phrase which he heard in the Gaeltacht: 'the Dobharchú is the seventh cub of the common otter' (mada-uisge): the Dobhar-chú was thus a super otter.

Today, the world beyond Glenade and its environs in northwestern and western Ireland seems to have largely forgotten about the dobhar-chú and its sinister deeds. However, it may be premature for cryptozoology to assume that this enigmatic animal is entirely confined to the shadows of the distant past, because it might conceivably have made some unexpected appearances in very recent times too, as revealed in Part 2 of this ShukerNature article - click here to read it.

 

This article is a greatly-expanded, updated version of the dobhar-chú account that appeared in my 2003 book The Beasts That Hide From Man, which in turn was an expanded version of my original 1990s dobhar-chú article that appeared in Strange Magazine.

The Beasts That Hide From Man (© Dr Karl Shuker/Paraview Press)