Ireland has a rich folklore, rife with tales of strange creatures. Among them is the Dobhar-chú, which translates roughly as the ‘water hound’. Otherwise known as the King Otter or Irish Crocodile, the Dobhar-chú is described as a huge, carnivorous otter-like creature. Tucked away in a County Leitrim graveyard, a young woman’s gravestone provides a strange hint that the Dobhar-chú may be more than just a myth.
Stories of the Dobhar-chú date back to ancient times in Ireland, describing it as something similar to a cross between a dog and an otter, or sometimes an otter and a fish. It lives predominantly in the many lakes of Ireland, but is also said to inhabit other bodies of deep water, including rivers and the sea. It is predatory and extremely hostile towards both people and dogs, attempting to drag them into the water to consume or even pursuing them onto land. They are said to commonly be encountered in pairs, and a dying Dobhar-chú lets out a strange, high-pitched whistle to alert its partner, which will emerge from the water and seek to exact revenge on anyone that successfully kills one of the creatures.
Sightings have been recorded since at least 1684, but it was an incident in 1722 for which the Dobhar-chú is most well known, with proponents of the creature claiming it provides tangible proof of its existence. The oral nature of Irish folklore means that inevitably details become changed or misreported over the years, but the core of the story remains consistent. A woman named Grace or Grainne Connelly lived close to Glenade Lough in Country Aintrim, and had visited the lake one morning either to bathe or wash clothes. While there, a creature emerged from the water and violently attacked her. After she failed to return home, her husband went to look for her, and found his wife dead by the side of the lake, with the creature that had killed her sleeping across her body.
Drawing his dagger, the husband managed to kill the creature, which he had recognised immediately as a Dobhar-chú. As it died, it let out a strange whistle that summoned its mate from the lough. The second creature was said to have pursued him for several miles, before he he eventually confronted and killed it. While this appears no different to hundreds of other cautionary folklore tales, what sets it apart is the fact that Grace Connelly’s grave exists, and seemingly attributes her death to the Dobhar-chú. Located in Conwell cemetery close to Kinlough in County Antrim, Grace’s grave is now badly weathered, the text largely illegible. However, a carving remains that appears to depict a strange creature being pierced with a dagger, with locals maintaining it is an image of a Dobhar-chú.
Although rare, sightings have continued into the present day. Some researchers claim a small population of Dobhar-chú reside in Sraheens Lough on the island of Achill, off the west coast of County Mayo. In 2003, Irish artist Sean Corcoran and his wife reported seeing a strange creature on Omey Island, County Galway. They described a huge creature that was able to swim rapidly with the help of webbed feet and emitted a strange, high-pitched whistle.
Western Ireland, where most sightings take place, is littered with hundreds of lakes, including a number of truly massive bodies of water, such as Lough Corrib and Lough Mask in County Mayo. While unlikely, this plentiful supply of hidden homes means rumours and sightings of Ireland’s rather unique take on the lake monsters of folklore worldwide will no doubt continue.