Turlehydes: Whales save Dublin from famine

25 Jul

According to vague sources, a local famine in Dublin, Ireland was mollified by the appearance of a herd of whales in the Dodder river (now called Donebrook). However, finding an exact source proves somewhat difficult. The best known record is nearly indecipherable.

“1132 A.D. Men like to ants or emmets wondern upon a groot hwide Whallfisk which lay in a Runnel. Blubby wares upat Ub-lanium.”

That is a passage from Finnegan’s Wake, by the inexplicable James Joyce. “Whallfisk” is obviously a play on the term “whalefish” while Ub-lanium is, presumably, Dublin. Maybe. It isn’t helped by the fact that, if he is referencing this event, he’s almost exactly two hundred years too early (although he may have changed the date for thematic reasons). However, earlier sources do back up the event. In Notes and Queries, Volume 9, by William White, there is a note that states:

“The people in their distress met with an unexpected and providential relief. For about the 24th June [1331], a prodigious number of large sea fish, called turlehydes, were brought into the bay of Dublin, and cast on the shore at the mouth of the river Dodder. They were from thirty to forty feet long, and so bulky that two tall men placed one on each side of the fish could not see one another” – The History and Antiquities of the City of Dublin from the Earliest Accounts, by Walter Harris, 1776, p. 265

Unfortunately, I could not get my hands on Walter Harris’ book, nor track down any earlier sources. Another site states that the lord justice at the time, Anthony Lucy, along with his servants, killed over 200 of the creatures and distributed the meat to the poor. It’s hard to imagine any starving person not looking upon the sudden arrival of one thousand tons of food as some sort of miracle.

However, this account does raise some questions. Even large pods of whales are highly unlikely to reach that number. Orcas and bowheads do sometimes reach about fifty members, but two hundred is suspicious and likely an exaggeration. Secondly, the term “turlehydes” is not a common word. In fact, it doesn’t really seem to be a word at all. No other accounts use this. A different source for the same event uses the term “thurlhedis”, but unfortunately that doesn’t lead anywhere either. Any lexicon available seems to be based on earnest guesswork at best.

Nevertheless, their great size does suggest that these were, in fact, whales. Humpback whales and minke whales are about that size and have been known to frequent the waters around Ireland. In fact, a recent news event shows that entire pods of whales have been known to throw themselves onto shore. In November of 2010, about 35 pilot whales simultaneously stranded themselves off the coast of County Donegal. The pod may have been sick or may have followed the leader into dangerously shallow waters. Furthermore, archaeological evidence shows beached whales have been an opportunistic food source for humans for a very long time.

Sources: Finnegan’s Wake, Notes and Queries,,, BBC News, Wikipedia for some whale facts. Picture from Black Swam Antiques.

Note: There is something wrong with the picture. It looks pixelated, I don’t know why. I’ll try to fix it/find a better one later, but for now I have to kind of leave it as is.

1 Comment

Posted by on July 25, 2011 in History


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One response to “Turlehydes: Whales save Dublin from famine

  1. Jared

    July 26, 2011 at 10:05 am

    “Men like ants or emmets” is a curious phrase given that emmets is the French word for “Ants.” Oh Finnegan’s Wake, I love you so but I do not know why.


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