We take turns backing into a tall sea cave just wider than a paddle’s length at its mouth. There are stories of fishermen who floated into the darkness of such caves and found mermaids and mermen—considerably less attractive versions of the sirens, pig-faced and redheaded. The great warrior Finn MacCumhaill, known as Finn MacCool, a man who could see the future when he sucked his thumb, nearly met his end in a sea cave after he hooked a mermaid while fishing for a bite to eat. And when Mick Shaughnessy, the hero of Flann O’Brien’s classic novel, The Dalkey Archive, ventures into one of these watery nooks, he gets to have a chat with St. Augustine, the patron saint of reformed carousers.
The cave stretches back some 150 feet, and the walls close in tighter as I reverse. When it grows too narrow to paddle, I use my hands to move, pushing the boat in farther. On Kennedy’s advice, I hold steady as a series of small waves flows out from the rear of the cave and focus on balance as I wait for them to pass. Soon I’m back out in the open, the snow has long since stopped, and the sun is warming us up. But I’m disappointed to have met neither mermaid nor saint. That’s when Kennedy speaks up.
"Laraigh Lionsigh the demon lived on Castle Island," he begins. Lionsigh, according to Kennedy, wanted to look human, so he grew his hair long to cover his donkey ears and used jellyfish to hide his red eyes—an early version of colored contacts. Still, he needed a haircut now and then, so he’d occasionally send for a boy to cut his locks, then kill the kid because he’d seen his ears.
Once, his ill-fated barber managed to swim away and whisper something to the reeds before dying. The secret was safe until years later, when Lionsigh was marrying a human bride on Castle Island. One of the musicians at his wedding feast found himself without an instrument. Improvising, he fashioned a flute out of a nearby reed, but when he tried to play for the crowd, all anyone heard was the voice of the dying boy saying, "Laraigh Lionsigh has donkey ears." In a fury the demon burst out of his castle, shot across the water, and exploded straight through the hillside, carving out the channel now known as the Narrows. The ocean raced in, transforming Lough Hyne from fresh to salt water.
Looking back out over the lough, I’m no longer feeling let down. We hadn’t just paddled across a lake. We had explored the landscape of legend. Before we go, I ask what happened to Laraigh Lionsigh. Matter-of-factly, Kennedy says, "He went to Norway."