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.
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.
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.
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?
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 counterclockwise 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.
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 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