The Tuatha Dé Danann

Ireland's ancient rivers are steeped in tales of the mythological gods and godesses of the Tuatha Dé Danann.

Last updated: 24 Jan 2023

“Upon those who step into the same rivers, different and ever different waters flow down.”   Heraclitus

According to the Book of Invasions, the fifth wave of invaders were the Tuatha Dé Danann (pronounced Too-hah Day Don-un), the people of the earth-mother goddess Anu, or Danu.  They were not dissimilar to the elves from ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ran Ireland for 150 years, having defeated the dastardly Fir Bolg (Fear Bollog) in 1897 BC. At least that’s what it says if you run with ‘The Annals of the Four Masters’. That time-frame sort of matches with the time that Newgrange was enjoying its golden age so but, of course this is territory in which large dollops of fantasy meets small slivers of reality.

For instance, the Tuatha Dé Danann are said to have arrived by “flying ships” in “dark clouds” that landed on Iron Mountain in County Leitrim. And, yes, there are people today who will insist that the flying ships were UFOs from outer space and that the Tuatha Dé Danann were aliens.

The legends of the Tuatha Dé Danann are all about the Otherworld, a parallel universe stuffed with everlasting youth, beauty, health, abundance and joy. Sometimes called Tír na nÓg, the land of eternal youth, it’s a world that is almost impossible to access – except via our waterways.

The legacy of this is that nearly every river or lake in Ireland derives its name from the gods and, most especially, the goddesses of the Tuatha Dé Danann. 

In Irish mythology, our rivers and streams acted as a sort of boundary between this world and the Otherworld. The water was the way into the Otherworld. In the days before mirrors, you could look into a calm pond or lake and see an alternative universe, with yourself and the sky and the mountains and the trees all around you. Flick a stone in it and the vision disappears.

The legacy of this is that nearly every river or lake in Ireland derives its name from the gods and, most especially, the goddesses of the Tuatha Dé Danann. In fact, Eire, the official name for the Republic of Ireland, derives from Ériu, or Erin, a goddess of the Tuatha Dé Danann.

In the legends, sacred rivers like the Boyne and the Shannon bestow life and wisdom and beauty on the warriors and queens of old, as do the springs that bubble up from the Otherworld.  An awful lot of those who feature in these tales were fated to be drowned in those rivers and springs.

The story runs that Ireland had seven secret streams of knowledge that ran from Conla’s Well, sometimes called the Well of Segais, enchanted well, or fountain of wisdom, which was surrounded by nine magical hazelnuts trees from which magical red hazelnuts fell.  When the hazelnuts fell into the well, they turned the headwaters crimson red and sent mystical bubbles bubbling down the river. These red bubbles attracted and guided all the salmon, and trout too for that matter, up the rivers of Ireland to feed on the fallen nuts. And, sure how else do you explain the red speckles on the fishes?

If you managed to catch and eat one of those salmon, you would be endowed with poetic inspiration and wisdom beyond compare. Now, the trouble was that this wisdom was not actually available. It was forbidden fruit, especially for females, which really annoyed Boann, a goddess of poetry and fertility in the stories of the Tuatha de Danaan. Seeking to boost her wisdom, she made her way to Connla’s Well and tasted the water. Then she overcooked it, challenging the power of the well by walking around it counter-clockwise and reciting incantations. This is not recommended behaviour, especially if you’re a goddess in an ancient legend. It is not going to go well for you. Predictably, it didn’t pan out brilliantly for Boann. The waters rushed up from the well in a series of gigantic waves and scooped her up and forged a path to the sea. This was all too much for Boann herself who drowned in the course of it all and thus became one with the river.  The river would be named for her – the Boyne – and is now one of the most famous waterways in Ireland. It wends through the Boyne Valley, one of the most important prehistoric landscapes in the world, past the celebrated passage tombs of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth. And thus, for the ancients, the Boyne was a river by which the spirits of the dead could enter the Otherworld.

A very similar story is told about the origin of the Shannon, which takes its name from Sionann, the beautiful granddaughter of Manannán mac Lir, God of the sea. She caught and ate the Salmon of Knowledge and thus became the wisest human being in the whole wide world. Unfortunately that wasn’t wise enough, or filling enough, because she then decided to eat some of the mystical red bubbles created by the hazelnut tree. When she died, the well went nuts and rose up in a torrent and drowned poor Sionnan. Just as the spirit of Boann merged with the Boyne, so Sionnan was merged with the Shannon.

In Sionnan’s story, the source of the well is sometimes deemed to be a place now known as the Shannon Pot in County Cavan. Fionn MacCool once hurled a mighty rock called the Stone of Sionnan at his enemies and killed them all. The rock can still be seen at low tide but I’m not telling you where it is because your name might be Bethany and, according to the legends, if someone called Be Thuinne should ever visit the rock, that’s game over for the world. We have enough to be worrying about without that in the mix also.

    The Shannon Pot in Co. Cavan, the source of the River Shannon

The River Bann in Ulster takes its name from ‘An Banna’ [On Vonna], another Tuatha de Danaan goddess. The River Bride, which flows through Counties Cork and Waterford, is named for the goddess Brigantia, who evolved into Brigid, the Celtic goddess of fire and fertility, and later into Saint Bridget. Killbrit, just off the Bride, is derived from the church (kill) of Bridget.

The jury’s still out about the derivation of the River Barrow’s name.  My money’s on Berba, a goddess whose son was born with three serpents in his heart, God love the poor fellow.  And, of course, the Barrow is one of the Three Sisters, with the Nore and the Suir.

The Irish name for River Inny in County Longford is more charming than the English:  An Eithne. It derives from a princess variously called Eithne, Ethniu, Enya or Ethlenn. She was the only daughter of the terrifying, one-eyed Fomorian leader Balor. Was Balor, pronounced Baal-er, anything to Baal, I wonder!?

A druid prophesied that Balor would be killed by his own grandson. Given that he didn’t have any grandsons yet, he took the wise precaution of locking his only daughter up in the eponymous Túr Ri (King’s Tower) on Tory Island. Alas for Balor, he hadn’t banked on the determination of Cian of the Tuatha Dé Danann who tracked Eithne down and seduced her. She gave birth to triplets, including a boy named Lúgh who became the warrior king of the Tuatha Dé Danann. As predicted, Lúgh thrust his deadly spear into Balor’s evil eye. Somewhere along the line, poor Eithne drowned in the rapids near Ballymahon and so the River Inny was named for her.

By one account, the River Erne (and, by extension, Lough Erne) is named for Ierne, a beautiful lady-in-waiting to the famous Queen Méabh. One tragic day, a fearsome giant popped out of a cave and chased Ierne and her fellow maidens all the way up to wherever the Erne rises and, well, you guessed it, the waters rose up and drowned them all. By another account, Erne was a princess of a tribe called the Érainn. Yet another proposes that the Ernai were a sept of the Fir Bolg who were defeated in battle shortly after a lake burst all over them! Whatever which way you look at it, you can be sure the waters rose and someone died.

    Lough Erne, Co. Fermanagh

When I was interviewed about the ‘Waterways Through Time’ podcast on ‘Mooney Goes Wild’ (28 February 2022, RTE Radio One), Éanna Ní Lamhna told me that the river names are “from a language that is older than Irish” and that the Irish words we use today are an “Irishization of the older world.” As an example, she cited the Barrow (an Bhearú), the Dee (an Níth), the Glyde (an Casán), the Lagan and the Boyne. I should add that Barry Dalby, always a refreshing cynic, provides some chicken and egg musing on the subject:

“I tend to think that the linking names of rivers to ancient myth is just speculation. How can it be otherwise? Some of the names are very old, for sure, but beyond that, who can say. The Barrow is a good example. Compare to the nearby Boro on the far side of the hills and other older records of that, which could simply combine two words ‘mhór’ and ‘abh’ or ‘ow’, simply the big river.”


The River Barrow at Carlow

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Researched and written by Irish historian Turtle Bunbury, the history of Irish Waterways and their environs is the result of extensive original scholarship through the National Archives and contemporary newspapers, as well as the expertise of local historians and academic historians.

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The Tuatha Dé Danann

Historian Turtle Bunbury explores the many tales of the mythological gods and godesses of the Tuatha Dé Danann and their links with our ancient waterways
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