The Irish Rivers mentioned in Edmund Spenser's Poems

John Johnson Marshall
Chapter XVI

One of the glories of Elizabethan literature is Spenser’s “Faerie Queen,” the most part of which was written during his residence in Ireland. This great poem is of special interest to Irish men and women from its occasional allusions to Irish life and customs, and more particularly for its descriptions of Irish streams in verses likely to last as long as their own waters.

Poets have all loved rivers. Need we mention the banks of Doon, or the braes of Yarrow, or the lonely retirements of the Duddon. Here in Ireland are the streams by which Edmund Spenser walked, dreaming bright dreams of that faerie court, and glimpsing visions of elfin land whose scenes were fairer than mortal ever knew, and murmuring as he walked by their margin a sweeter music than their own.

Encouraged by Sir Philip Sidney, Spenser, before his departure from England had made a commencement of the “Faerie Queen,” but the greater part of the poem was written during his residence in Ireland, and not only was his lovely land of Faerie called into being on our shores, but was moulded and fashioned, and peopled with its bright and living inhabitants amongst us; likewise our mountains, and glades, and rivers were transported thereunto as a fitting embodiment of the poet’s fancy.

In the month of August, 1580 Spenser received the appointment of private secretary to Lord Grey of Wilton, the new Lord Deputy, and with him set out for Ireland, which was from henceforth to be his home. As private secretary he would accompany Lord Grey in all his expeditions, and it was in a measure due to these travels that Spenser was enabled to draw those vivid pictures of Irish life and scenery that are scattered through his poems. The first of these passages occurs in the eleventh canto of the fourth book of “The Faerie Queen,” “where Thames doth Medway wedd, and feasts the Sea-gods all.” To this ceremony all the famous rivers of the world were bidden:—

“Ne thence the Irish Rivers absent were,

Sith no lesse famous than the rest they bee,

And ioyne in neighbourhood of kingdom nere,

Why should they not likewise in love agree,

And ioy likewise this solemne day to see?

They saw it all and present were in place;

Though I them all according to their degree,

Cannot recount, nor tell their hidden race,

Nor read the saluage countreis, through which they pace.

There was the Liffey rolling downe the lea,

The sandy Slane, the stony Aubrian,

The spacious Shenan spreading like a sea,

The pleasant Boyne, the fishy fruitful Ban,

Swift Awniduff, which of the English man

Is cal’de Blacke water, and the Liffar deep,

Sad Trowis, that once his people ouerran,

Strong Allo tombling from Slewlogher steep,

And Mulla mine, whose waues I whilom taught to weep.

. . . . . . . . . three great rivers ran,

And many countries scowrd.

The first, the gentle Shure that making way

By sweet Clonmell, adorns rich Waterford;

The next, the stubborne Newre, whose waters gray,

By faire Kilkenny and Rosseponte boord,

The third, the goodly Barow, which doth hoorde

Great heaps of Salmons in his deepe bosome:

All which long sundred, doe at last accord

To ioyne in one, ere to the sea they come,

So flowing all from one, all one at last become.

There also was the wide embayed Mayre,

The pleasant Bandon crowned with many a wood,

The spreading Lee, that like an Island fayre

Enclose the Corke with his deuided flood;

And baleful Oure, late staind with English blood:

With many more whose names no tongue can tell.”

Most of the rivers enumerated are too well known to need any explanation, but a few of the names are not recognisable to-day. It may be mentioned in passing that the poet is in error in making the Suir, the Nore, and the Barrow have the same source. The Barrow rises at the head of the Slieve-bloom mountains; the Nore rises in the Devil’s Bit mountains, County Tipperary, and the Suir, rises in the mountain of Borresroe, one of the highest of the Devil’s Bit mountains in the near vicinity of the sources of the Nore.

A few of the names are now either obsolete or have been altered by Spenser for poetical purposes. Starting with the Liffey, and the Slaney, “the stony Aubrian” is the first to present any difficulty in identification. Thomas Keightley, the friend of Crofton Crokor, and O’Donovan, in a note on Spenser’s Irish rivers says:—“nobody could tell me, not even Dr. O’Donovan. My mind then reverted to my youthful days in the beginning of the (nineteenth) century, and I recollected that one day when I was out with the Kildare hounds the fox took to the mountains, and on reaching the top of the first ridge I saw beneath me a wide valley with a river running through the middle of it. I knew that it was not the Liffey, and the country people when I enquired told me it was called the King’s River. Now Spenser must have seen this river, for it was along this valley that the Lord Deputy led his troops to attack the Irish at Glendalough (? Glenmalure).

Its name in Irish is Awan-ree (Amhan righe), and how easily this may become in his mind Aubrian, in the dozen years or so that had passed before he wrote the fourth book of his poem. Dr. O’Donovan said at once that I was perfectly right, no other river could have been the Aubrian.” The Lord Deputy probably assembled his troops at Naas, and crossed the Liffey at Ballymore Eustace: Feagh MacHugh, and Lord Baltinglas who were with their forces at this place retreated, followed by Lord Grey and the English army, by Hollywood, through the valley of the King’s River (Aubrian) to Glenmalure. Particulars of the defeat of the Lord Deputy will be found later in the notes on the “baleful Oure.”

We now travel further south to “the spacious Shannon spreading like a sea,” which most fittingly describes the great river below Limerick, where, to a spectator standing on either bank it seems to reach the horizon. Elsewhere Spenser borrows an image for the wavering tide of battle, from the contest between the sea and the waters of the river Shannon.

“Like as the tide, that comes from th’ ocean mayne,

Flowes up the Shenan with contrarie forse,

And, overruling him in his own rayne,

Drives backe the current of his kindly course,

And makes it seem to have some other source;

But when the floud is spent, then back again

His borrowed waters forst to re-disburse,

He sends the sea his owne with double gaine,

And tribute eke withall, as to his soveraine;

Thus did the battle varie—”

The poet now turns north-east to “the fishy, fruitful Bann,” and its neighbouring river the northern Blackwater flowing between the counties of Armagh and Tyrone into Lough Neagh. Next comes “the Liffar deep.” This is the Foyle, and this old name for it is still perpetuated in the town of Lifford in County Donegal, just across the river from Strabane. Spenser had a personal acquaintance with both these northern rivers as accompanying his master in his expedition to Ulster in the summer of 1581 to settle the hostilities between Turlogh, Lynagh and O’Donnell. This expedition is referred to in a despatch from Sir Nicholas Malbie to the Earl of Leicester, dated July 18th., 1581, in course of which he says:—“My Lord (Grey) himself will draw down to the Blackwater, and from thence proceed to the Lyffer.” (Cal. Carew MSS. p 323).

A town taking its name from the river on which it is situated is not an unusual occurrence, Bandon being another example. That this is the river Spenser had in mind is further confirmed by the statement in his “View of the state of Ireland,”—“Another (garrison) would I put at Castle Liffer or thereabouts, so they should have all the passages upon the river to Lough Foyle.”

Following these rivers strangely enough the poet overlooks the Erne and passes on to a comparatively insignificant stream. “Sad Trowis,” is the river Drowes flowing from Lough Melvin between the counties of Donegal and Leitrim into Donegal Bay. In the words:—“that once his people over-ran,” Spencer alludes to an ancient legend regarding the origin of Lough Melvin, that a certain king of Ireland named Melga, who reigned many centuries before the Christian era. was slain in battle; and that when his soldiers were digging his grave the waters burst forth from it and overwhelmed both the land and the people. The lake formed by this inundation was named Lough Melga, of which Melvin is a corruption, in memory of the king. There is a variant of this legend regarding the origin of Lough Neagh, which was formed by a well that was left uncovered inundating the surrounding country.

“Strong Allo tombling from Slewlogher steep;

And Mulla mine, whose waues I whilom taught to weep.”

By “Strong Allo,” Spenser designates the southern river now known by its modern name of Blackwater. The Irish name of this river is not Avonduff (black river), but Avonmore (great river), in all the authorities. It takes its rise in Slieve Logher about five miles above Kingwilliamstown, taking its course first in a southerly direction then eastward towards Mallow.

The present river Allo is an insignificant stream that does not rise or flow within many miles of Slieve Logher, and would not merit the description “Strong Allo.” Furthermore, Dr. O’Donovan in his examination of the name of Mallow, a well-known county Cork town situated on the Blackwater, found that in its original Irish form it had been called Moy-allo, that is, the plain or field of the river Allo. On this evidence he states:—“From this name (Moy-allo or Mallow) it is evident that the name Allo was anciently applied to that part of the Blackwater lying between Kanturk where the modern Allo ends, and the town of Mallow.” That the present southern Blackwater was the river intended by Spencer, and not its tributary the present Allo is confirmed by a line in “Colin Clouts come home againe,” as follows:—

“Which Allo hight, Broadwater called farre;” which means that the river locally known as Allo, was called Broadwater by persons living at a distance. Gerard Boate in his “Natural History of Ireland” has:—“The two chief rivers of Munster are Sure and Broadwater, the city of Waterford being situated on the first . . . . . the other passeth by Lismore and falleth into the sea at Youghal.” It is also called the Broadwater in Norden’s map of Ireland, circa 1610. These facts abundantly prove that by “Strong Allo,” Spenser meant the southern Blackwater, and to the researches of Dr. Joyce, we are indebted for the correct identification of the river.

For the haunting line “Mulla mine, whose waues I whilom taught to weep,” it is properly called the Awbeg (little river), and flows not far from the poets residence, Kilcolman. In this, as in some other instances he has taken a more musical name borrowed from some adjacent feature as Mulla from Kilnemulla, the old name for Buttevant.

“The springing out of Mole, doth run downe right

By Buttevant, where, spreading forth at large,

It giveth name unto that ancient cittie,

Which Kilnemullah cleped (named) is of old.”

The poet fondly lingers on the name he has bestowed on his much loved stream, and uses it to form other names, such as Mole, Molanna, and Armulla dale, the valley through which the river flows.

“The wide embayed Mayre” is the Kenmare river and estuary,

“The pleasant Bandon crowned with many a wood;

The spreading Lee, that like an island fayre

Encloseth Corke with his deuided flood:

The baleful Oure, late stained with English blood.”

The only one of the foregoing rivers calling for special mention is “the baleful Oure.” Dr. Joyce states that it is the Avonbeg which flows through Glenmalure, and joins the Avonmore at “The Meeting of the Waters.” The words “late stained with English blood” refer to a battle or engagement in which the English were defeated with considerable slaughter. On looking back we find that within a fortnight after Lord Grey’s arrival in Ireland, which he found in a state of insurrection, on the 25th August, 1580, he made an expedition against the rebel leaders, and penetrated the fastness of Glenmalure, as already described in the notes on “Aubrian.” While one division of the army remained on the wooded hill at the entrance to the valley, the remainder pushed their toilsome way for about half a mile into the recesses of the glen, when the Irish who were concealed in ambush attacked and literally decimated the English troops. Lord Grey covered with dismay at this “black day,” as Hooker calls it made a hasty retreat to Dublin with the remains of his army. This, the poet’s first experience of Irish warfare, was sufficiently “baleful” to stamp it indelibly on his memory, and when enumerating the Irish rivers to cause the little Avonbeg on whose banks the battle was fought to be included under the poetic name of Oure, from the valley of Glenmalure, or Glenmalour as Spenser spells it through which it flows.

In “Colin Clouts come home again,” he describes the scenery in the vicinity of his residence:—

“One day (quoth he) I sat, (as was my trade)

Vnder the foot of Mole that mountain hore,

Keeping my sheep amongst the cooly shade,

Of the green alders by Mulla’s shore.”

Kilcolman castle stood at the foot of the Ballyhoura hills, which the poet terms “Mole hight (named) that mountain gray, that walls the northside of Armulla dale.” Under the fanciful designation of Armulla dale Spenser designates the valley of the southern Blackwater with its tributary streams:—

“Amongst the which was a nymph that hight

Molanna; daughter of old Father Mole,

And sister unto Mulla fair and bright;

Unto whose bed false Bregog whylome (once) stole.”

Spenser has a very pretty fancy of Molanna’s love for Fanchin, now the river Funsheon which flows into the Blackwater two miles below Fermoy. The context of the poem indicates that the Molanna has its rise on the side of Arlo hill (Galtymore). There are only two streams of any consequence flowing into the Funsheon valley from the Galties. One of these is the Funsheon itself, known for the first few miles of its course as the Brackbawn having its source about a quarter of a mile east of the summit of Galtymore. The other is named Behanna on the Ordnance maps, but now locally softened to Beheena, which has its rise a little to the west of Galtymore and after a course of about four miles joins the Funsheon at the village of Kilbeheney, and is Spenser’s Molanna, which here “her beloved Fanchin did obtain.”

Now let us have the pleasant tale of Bregog’s love for the shiny Mulla—a song which Spenser informs us was listened to by Sir Walter Raleigh during his visit to Kilcolman in 1589. In this story of the loves of the rivers the poet tells:—

“Of her brother river Bregoge hight (named),

So hight because of this deceitful traine,

Which he with Mulla wrought to win delight.”

But her sire, father Mole, objected, as he wished to make a better match for her with the Allo (Blackwater). However, Bregog was too clever for him and circumvented his watchfulness in the end. The little river Bregog has its rise in two glens about a mile and a half apart on the opposite side of Corringlas, the highest mountain of the Ballyhoura portion of the range, and after a winding course falls into the Mulla about a mile above Doneraile. The poet when he altered or gave a fanciful name to a river had usually a good and sufficient reason for so doing, but in this instance he calls the stream by its true name, for it so happened that in working out the story, “Bregog” meaning, as he correctly interprets it, a false one, or, a deceiver, he designedly retained it as the most appropriate appelation.

In the “Pastoral Aeglogue upon the death of Sir Philip Sidney,” printed with Spenser’s Astrophel, we have:—

“Hear’st thou the Orown? how with hollow sound

He slides away, and murmuring doth plaine”—

As this poem was probaby written in, or near Dublin we might reasonably look for the Orown in the vicinity of that city. On the north side where the country houses of the English officials principally lay, there is only the insignificant Tolka which could hardly have been so described, but on the south side there is the Dodder, which although ordinarily a stream of no great magnitude, after heavy rains becomes a river of great force. Spenser as we know had most of the Irish names that he used interpreted for him by his bi-lingual friends, and in styling the prosaic Dodder, Orown (gold river), he most likely took the name from Oir, furze, or broom, which probably at that time grew freely on the banks of the Dodder, particularly on the upper part of its course.

Kilcolman castle is now a ruin, rendered sacred as the spot where the immortal work was penned which made for Spenser a name that ranked with the foremost in the golden period of sixteenth century literature. If England was the country of his birth, Ireland no less may put in a partial claim as the country of his adoption, and the inspiration of his muse:—

“. . . . We dare not claim as ours

Him who hath sung in his undying lays,

Of lovely ladies in enchanted bowers,

Of knights and dragons, damosels and fays.

But yet perchance, his spirit inly caught

Some inspiration from our mountain air;

And those bright visions which his fancy wrought,

Came in the twilight of his long despair!”