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

IMPORTANT: To view a complete, regularly-updated listing of my ShukerNature blog's articles (each one instantly clickable), please click HERE!

IMPORTANT: To view a complete, regularly-updated listing of my published books (each one instantly clickable), please click HERE!

IMPORTANT: To view a complete, regularly-updated listing of my Eclectarium blog's articles (each one instantly clickable), please click HERE!

IMPORTANT: To view a complete, regularly-updated listing of my Starsteeds blog's poetry and other lyrical writings (each one instantly clickable), please click HERE!

IMPORTANT: To view a complete, regularly-updated listing of my Shuker In MovieLand blog's articles (each one instantly clickable), please click HERE!

Search This Blog



Friday 27 November 2020


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)




  1. Never heard of the Dobhar-Chu until now, though I have heard of sea monsters described as giant otters as documented by Bernard Heuvelmans I think. (the "Super Otter") I wonder if those stories might have a common origin with the Dobhar -Chu?

    1. Hi Simon, The so-called super otter category of sea serpent proposed by Heuvelmans was so named by him merely because this type of sea serpent superficially looks like a huge otter. However, when assessing its likely taxonomic identity (should it actually exist), he claimed that it was most likely to be a very primitive form of whale in which its four limbs had been retained, rather than the hind ones having vanished externally and the front ones having become converted into flippers (as in known modern-day cetaceans). So, no, the super otter category of sea serpent would appear unrelated to the dobhar-chu, which seems much more likely to be some form of bona fide otter.

    2. Thing is that the reconstructions I have seen of primitive whales do not look otter-like, as much as like furry crocodiles.

    3. The Brazilian giant otter (max length 5ft6) has been known to kill people, so the existence of a European giant otter is perfectly believable. A few years back, a zookeeper was killed by Brazilian otters, can't remember where. I believe the record length for an otter killed in Britain is 6 feet, so could it have been one of the last of the dobhar-chu?

  2. "It was then speared by the husband who at the same time killed its young one". Here, I think, is the key to its aggressiveness; it appears to have been a mother protecting its young.

    1. Great fascinating, well researched,
      and well written article Karl. Kudos.

      @Arthur Dent: Good insights, and also I miss Douglas Adams...

  3. I agree entirely with both of your comments, Arthur.

  4. Obviously in the wilds of West Europe there are mammalian & reptilian beings killing folks & haven't been scientifically catalogued yet. Just to get videos & photos of these beings would be dynamic & educational.

  5. I actually live in Kilroosk House and I think I may have found the missing Kilroosk tombstone in pieces but I can see the engraving of something lile a long neck creature. What is your advice pon what to do with this?

    1. Hi Veronica, This sounds very interesting! My advice would be to contact your nearest local archaeology group, and/or museum, but if you receive no response from them, try your local council too. If you could snap some photos of the pieces to show whoever you contact, that would be excellent. Best of luck, and please keep me informed, as this could potentially be of great archaeological and local historical significance. Thanks very much for letting me know about this. All the best, Karl.

  6. Hi I actually live in Kilroosk and I think I may have found parts of the missing gravestone, engraved is a long necked creature, almost like a dinosaur?! What should I do with it???

    1. Hi Veronica, See my above reply re your discovery, and thanks again for letting me know about it. All the best, Karl.

  7. A canine body with unusually large feet reminds me of the large feet of swamp-dwelling rabbits; an adaptation to a watery environment.

    As for long-necked canines, I'm always struck by the length of the maned wolf's neck, but it's perhaps not quite so long as the image on the gravestone.

    I can't account for the head shape at all, so that's the end of my efforts to put the hound in water hound. ;)