Romanesque archway. The mermaid at Clonfert. Holding key to cathedral. Clonfert, Ireland. A mermaid is a mythological creature which has the head and upper torso of a female and the tail of a fish. Their mythic origins might be linked to manatee or dugong sightings by sailors.


Situated on the grounds of the 6th Century monastery founded by St. Brendan, his namesake cathedral is the oldest church in Ireland with an unbroken history of public worship. According to Celtic legend, St. Brendan, accompanied by a large group of monks, sailed off in search of a mythic island paradise. After seven years, they reached The Isle of the Blessed, or Terra Repromissionis, an island paradise with lush vegetation. Brendan's narrative of the island makes the location difficult to determine. One interpretation supports a location not far off the west coast of Ireland. Another places the island further south, making it synonymous with the ancient "Fortunate Isles".

At one time Clonfert was a noted seat of learning with 3000 monks in residence. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth, it was a proposed location for the university which later became Trinity College, Dublin. In modern times, religious services occur only every month or so, usually when a priest comes to the parish as part of a rotating schedule. In between visits, the church is locked and in order to view it, you must secure the keys from the couple that live in a cottage adjacent to the church grounds.


There are two particularly notable architectural features. One is the ornately carved Romanesque doorway. The other is a mermaid icon, found on church interior wall, installed next to the pulpit.

The first known mermaid stories appeared in Assyria in 1000 BCE. They are referenced throughout world mythology, variously known as sirens, water fairies, water nymphs and selkies. It is not unusual in Irish myth and tradition for the pagan and sacred to exist side by side and to inform each other. Although the meaning of the mermaid in this particular context is not known, mermaid-like creatures called selkies occupy a place in Celtic legend.