The Dobhar-Chú – Trailing Ireland’s Mysterious Master Otter. Part 1: Glenade Lake and a Gravestone – ShukerNature

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The Dobhar-Chú – Trailing Ireland’s Mysterious Master Otter. Part 1: Glenade Lake and a Gravestone – ShukerNature
Dobhar-chú carved upon Grace Connolly’s tombstone (© Daev

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

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:

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:

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.

between the Arroo mountains to the east and the Dartry mountains to the west,
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

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:

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.

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:

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.



Source: The Anomalist

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