Mysterious Land Animals

Not all of Ireland’s fauna mysteries are limited to the water nor would all appear to be of indigenous origin.  A rough handful of terrestrial oddities have been recorded within the Green Emerald along with a small number of documented instances where foreign animals have made some rare special guest appearances.

Celtic Tigers

British big cats or “ABCs” (Alien Big Cats) continue to make the evening news as experts and trackers alike struggle to get to the bottom of an ongoing mystery that’s stalked the rural realms of England and Wales.  Not surprisingly, Ireland would also appear to have a variant of unknown, or at least unidentified feline-like creatures though the matter has never been as well publicized or explored as it is in the U.K.

After appearing on Connemara Radio fellow researcher Gary Cunningham was contacted by a Mayo resident well-versed in local lore regarding strange animals of regional tradition.  Aside from providing new information on the dobhar-chu, this gentleman relayed knowledge on what had been dubbed in some instances as the “Irish Wildcat”.  From the traditional descriptions, including accounts where specimens had reportedly been killed, the overall appearance and size of these animals was notably distinct from any domestic variety.  At present I’m lacking as far as thorough information on the matter but as specifics come to light it will be made available within this site. In the meantime here are three accounts citing catlike animals in varying parts of Ireland.

LNIB’s Big Cat

In 1968 a sighting of a large cat-like creature was documented by none other than members of the Loch Ness Investigation Bureau during their first expedition to Connemara.  F. W. Holiday describes the circumstances of the event in his final book The Goblin Universe.  The team had been occupied unraveling nets along the shores of Lough Nahooin when Holiday decided to take it upon himself to survey a stream feeding into the lake.  Returning a half an hour later he recorded that the party was in a state of excitement.  They claimed to have watched what appeared to be a large cat-like animal on the opposite side of pool at a rough distance of 100 yards.  It was seen by all members for a few moments before it exited view behind limestone upcrops.  The experienced Captain Leslie (who while in Africa had once shot a lion in his pajamas) stated that this creature was quite unlike anything he’d ever seen before.

HOLIDAY, F. W. : The Goblin Universe  (p. 130)

No mention of color is provided nor any estimated size.  Within British reports are a good handful of cases of mistaken identity where a common tabby out for a stroll has been taken for a frightfully large feline.  One could easily suspect the team had misjudged the size of a feral house-cat against the background though that would undermine the observational skills of crew whose occupation in the LNIB demanded accurate observing more than anything else.  Just the same, there are other curious allusions to sizeable cat-like creatures elsewhere in Ireland.

Paddling Pooka

(County Derry)

Peter Costello highlights a passage from  D. A. MacManus’s book The Middle Kingdom describing an account had by a Mr. Martin, a friend of the author, involving a strange animal he’d seen in 1928.  Martin was on holiday at his parents’ home in County Derry when one afternoon while fishing in a small river along their property he took notice of an animal swimming around a bend at a distance of 100 yards.  Though he couldn’t properly discern as to the creature’s identity, “whether dog, panther or what,” it projected a sense of hostility, enough so that Martin climbed a nearby ash tree.

Meanwhile the animal continued paddling along, and as it passed it looked up at him with an almost human intelligence and bared its teeth with a mixture of a snarl and jeering grin.  His flesh crept as he stared down into its fearsome, blazing eyes, which seemed like live coats [coals?] inside the monstrous head.  Even so, he could only think of it as a wild animal, which had presumably escaped from a traveling circus.

The animal continued on course until rounding a bend.  Martin raced into the house to fetch a rifle but upon returning was unable to locate the creature.  The pooka aspect came into play not too long after when Martin discovered a fact-card on Irish place names inside a packet of cigarettes.  This particular card, one of a series then in circulation, explained the name origin for Poulaphuca complete with an accompanying illustration of the Pooka.  To his amazement, the drawing bore an alarming resemblance to the animal seen in the river.  The accuracy was deemed so strong that Martin was quoted as saying it looked to be drawn from life.  Upon making enquiries with locals he found that over the years it had been seen either in or close by the river near the bridge but only at dusk.  Martin’s sighting was apparently unique in that no one had claimed to see the creature during broad daylight for 50 years or so.

COSTELLO, Peter In Search Of Lake Monsters (p.135)  [Berkley Medallion Books 1974]

This account is rather problematic as it hints of a paranormal undertone.  “Pooka” is traditionally defined as a supernatural entity, in some cases as a shape-shifter one and same as the water-horse.  Regional definitions of folkloric terms tend to stray from abiding by any universal guidelines.  One county’s pooka could be another’s horse-eel and still another’s wurrum.  Just the same, a pooka may be deemed a ghost in one place, a forest fairy in another and in this case some weird amphibious mammal.

Mr. Martin’s animal may have been an escaped import as suggested, it may have been a rare close glimpse of one of the other water creatures discussed so far or possibly some entirely separate form of animal in league with the few rogue reports covered in this section.  Likewise the Derry Pooka supposedly seen over an expanse of 50 years could have been a combination of different animals, escaped, mistaken and unknown, all of which were presumed to be that of a single entity.

I’m at the disadvantage of having not read Costello’s source but am curious if this “Pooka” isn’t supposed to be an Irish variant of the European phenomenon sometimes referred to as the Phantom Black Dog.  The subject has been well covered in various sources and as its deals with the supernatural there’s no real point in elaborating too much on it here.  For the most part, the phenomenon, which is thought to date back to ancient times, entails the appearance of a large black doglike apparition along water sources, often streams or rivers.  The entity is usually described as immense in size and sometimes containing a pair of menacing red, glowing eyes.  Stories often end with the “dog” vanishing, sometimes with a flash, sometimes into a puff of smoke and in some cases right in the midst of an attacking leap.

Whether of the supernatural or biological, there is yet one more perplexing sighting from the far south.
Monster of the Woods

(Cork)

Edith Somerville’s The Smile and the Tear features a curious story recited by Peter Costello.  In 1921 Somerville received a visit by an elderly associate, Thady Bryne, who asked if she knew of the “monster” reputed to haunt the local woods.  Costello cites the woodlands in question as a range covering about 500 acres of hills and glens that come to hang over a lengthy and relatively uninhabited coastal inlet known as Myross Bay.  Thady had seen the monster himself while traveling through the woods in route to his home.  He reported the animal was “sitting up on a rock and looking at me”:
It was black, and as big as a greyhound, but it was like a cat.  It had long bristles cocking out from each side of its jaws, but not a braid of hair upon its tail.  It had a great growl on it, like a bulldog, and a great wide chest and shoulders, and he tapered away to his tail.  You’d hear him barking at night in the woods, and the bark was like the squel of a saygull.

Costello writes that the Thing was seen over the course of a week but accounts by even well reputed men varied.  A hunting party with dogs was dispatched but came up empty.  Eventually as rumors persisted the creatures was suspected as playing a role in the disappearance of chickens.  An unspecified number of witnesses saw what they took to be the monster at a distance and some even speculated that it may have been a monkey!

COSTELLO, Peter In Search Of Lake Monsters (p.150)  [Berkley Medallion Books 1974]

Thady’s description is somewhat problematic.  He sounds at first as if he were describing a large cat, complete with whiskers, but then adds the enigmatic comment, “but not a braid of hair upon its tail.”  The dark coloration and whiskers hint of a seal but as Costello points out, being a coastal resident it’s highly unlikely Thady wouldn’t recognize a seal when he saw one.  One could argue that under poor visibility and the sheer unexpectedness of finding a land-bound seal, Thady could have misjudged the sight before him.  Yet his detailed description would seem to imply he held an adequate view, enough so to note bristles on the face.

Bull-Horned Boars

The Center for Fortean Zoology is a non-profit British-based group devoted to exploring topics of cryptozoology on an international scale.  The CFZ puts out an informative journal entitled Animals and Men where in issue 14 Richard Muirhead compiled an intriguing article regarding unusual animal stories from Ireland.  While in the British Library thumbing through an ancient issue of Walker’s Hiberian Magazine dated February 1781, Muirhead came upon an article detailing an encounter with a strange boar-like creature near Cashel.  The event transpired in either late 1780 or 1781 and involved five men near Thomastown along the road between Cashel and Tipperary.

According to the account a John Carrol was traveling from Tipperary from Chashel when he heard a roar, not unlike the sound of a bull, emitting from within some trees.

After a few moments he saw the animal whose noise he had heard; its size and figure was that of an ordinary pig, but its head was armoured with spreading horns.  This animal followed him at a slow pace near a mile until coming to a place near Thomastown Pool, it entered a cave.

The next night Carrol and a group of men examined the cave and found three additional like animals “which then took home.”

In an attempt to make sense of such a puzzling account Muirhead cites a 19th century natural historian of Ireland who had recorded that the tusks of Irish wild boar were “of a goodly dimension”.  However according to Dr. Scouler who wrote in the Journal of the Geological Society of Dublin, in comparison with the wild boars of the Scandinavian peat bogs, the Irish variant was diminutive and plentiful until the 17th century although the exact date of their extinction is unknown.  Muirhead closes asking “if the Irish wild boar were really diminutive, would it have had prominent tusks?”

CFZ colleague and founder Jonathan Downes has theorized these seemingly mis-figured beasts may have been a surviving breed of the otherwise extinct prehistoric cattle known as the auroch.

MUIRHEAD, RICHARD  Animals & Men #14; “Giant Squid, Mystery Boar and Pregnant Snake -Three Irish Animal Stories” (p.32-43):
Dea, John and Ryan, Dennis et al “Account of an extraordinary non-descript animal” in Walker’s Hiberian Magazine, Feb. 1781 (Dublin?) p. 73
Thompson, Natural History of Ireland vol 4 p.36
Dr. Scouler in Journal of the Geological Soceity of Dublin vol 1 p.226 and Wilde Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy vol 7 p.208

Snakes  Alive !

Released in Down

In addition to abnormal boars, Richard Muirhead cited a short lived experiment to introduce snakes to County Down in 1831.  A Mr. James Cleland released six grass snakes in Rath-gael from Covent Garden.  He was apparently curious as to the probability of their chances for survival.  One specimen was killed three miles away at Milecross after first be mistaken for a kind of eel.  A clergyman even used the event in a sermon citing the snake as a token of “the immediate commencement of the millennium”.  An additional three were later slain leaving only two unaccounted for.  The Times reported on Sept 8th 1832 in a reprint of a Belfast article that a female snake 3ft 3 inches had been killed the day prior in a field at Milecross.  “The futility of the poplar belief,” wrote the Belfast source, “that snakes cannot live in our blessed land has been most fully demonstrated – several large eggs having been found in its ovarium.”

MUIRHEAD, RICHARD  Animals & Men #14; “Giant Squid, Mystery Boar and Pregnant Snake -Three Irish Animal Stories” (p.32-43):
HARTING, J. E. British Extinct Animals 1972 ed, pp93-94

In addition to the case of deliberate release in County Down, Richard Muirhead brought to light two other snake-related stories in his entry article for the annual CFZ Yearbook of 1998.

Accidental Import?

The Wexford Independent of 29 June 1901 included a letter stating the following:

“Sir- In reference to the snake caught by me on last Sunday week, I wish to state that it is alive and well and has been given to a man P. Myrtle whose dog discovered it.  It is believed the snake came over from England in some shrubs which were imported last year.  I beg to say there is no foundation for the statement about ‘a lot of money being got on the snake.’  There was no charge for seeing the snake.”

Predatory Pests

Sometime in 1888 the areas surrounding the towns of Amraugh and Castleraine was besieged by series of unexplained abductions involving sheep, pigs and poultry.  Thieves and even the devil were listed as the likely suspects until two detectives from Dublin, while investigating the matter, actually observed snakes, dark in color and around 15 feet in length, killing and carrying off prey.  The Dublin Freeman’s Journal connected the snakes with an incident from 1885 where a visiting American showman, while in Amraugh, had gotten drunk and released his menagerie which included snakes.  “And in fact they kept cropping up in various parts of Ireland at uncertain intervals, and a miliant union of Church and State was found necessary to suppress them entirely.”

MUIRHEAD, RICHARD Center For Fortean Zoology 1998 Yearbook “Some Strange Snake Stories” (p.196-197)
Wexford Independent June 29, 1901 (p.2)
WALSH, W S, A Handbook of Curious Information (J B Lippincott, London) p.812

Non-Descript Animal

The final entry in Richard Muirhead’s intriguing collection of otherwise little known accounts is certainly the most baffling.  The description has even left a zoologist colleague of Muirhead’s to conclude that it doesn’t describe any known species.  The article in question was found within the pages of The Naturalist’s Notebook for 1869 (p. 255) which cited a letter that had originally appeared in Saunders’s News-Letter.

The account explains how a “curious animal” was captured in a snare set for rabbits in Slane, County Meath.  It was described by the gamekeeper as:

The size of a good cat, with a tail about a foot and a quarter [18 cm] in length, covered with a strong wiry hair.  The snout is sharp and pointed, something like that of a weazel’s (sic). In the mouth there are four large tusks, two pointing upwards and two (pointing) downwards.  A small mane of dark brown hair runs down the whole length of the back; but the strangest thing of all is that it has twelve toes or claws on each foot, in two rows – seven on the outside row, which are exceedingly sharp, and five on the inside.  In general it is more stoutly built than animals of the cat kind.  Still, the body is lithe and supple.  The colour throughout is dark brown and white on the breast.

Muirhead asks if there may be some relation to this animal and a 9th century poem featured in part of P. H. Gosse’s “The Romance of Natural History” which apparently makes reference to some otherwise unknown Irish animals.
MUIRHEAD, RICHARD  Animals & Men #14; “Giant Squid, Mystery Boar and Pregnant Snake -Three Irish Animal Stories” (p.32-43):
CHAMBERS, R. Book of Days vol 1, 1883, p.383

Arial Abduction

Stories of large predatory birds carrying off children are known throughout the world.  Perhaps best known amongst these are the American Indian tales regarding “Thunderbirds”, enormous raptors capable of snatching unwary youths who meet their fate upon giant nests.  Though the notion of a bird having the power to lift a child is thought biomechanically impossible, there have been documented instances of such abductions occurring, usually with fatal results.

The Irish contribution to this otherwise questionable phenomena was recorded in the September, 1791 issue of Country Magazine:

EXTRAORDINARY FACT

The following extraordinary and melancholly circumstance lately occurred in the parish of Clomenny, in Ireland:
On the borders of the extensive barrens or desarts of Ennefhowen, there are a few miserable hovels, which form part of the estate of the Marquis of Donnegal.  The barren near the sea is bounded by stupendous rocks, which hang in a most awful manner over the water:  in the cavities of these roks, Eagles, famous no less for their uncommon size, than extraordinary ferocity, abide in general, preying on such fish as may be cast ashore by the violence of the sea.

As several children were playing before one of the cottages abovementioned. they were attacked by a large Eagle.  One fine boy, about four years of age, unconscious of his danger, endeavoured to defend himself; the voracious bird, incensed rather than dismayed by his puerile efforts, seized him to his nest, where two Eagles waited with impatience its return.

The father of the child, who was quickly apprized of his danger, traced the flight of the bird with anxious care, and observing where it allighted, procured assistance, and by means of a rope was let down the rocks into the nest, where, horrible to relate, he found the child mangled in the most shocking manner-his eyes were both picked out, and the flesh entirely torn off his left side.  The birds, on his approach alarmed by the noise, took flight; so that without danger to himself, he was able to carry back the fragments of his child, who after languishing about three hours, died.
Country Magazine Sept. 1791 “Extraordinary Fact”
Special thanks to Ron Schaffner and Richard Muirhead.