Spenser's Irish Rivers (10)

Patrick Weston Joyce

The Fanchin, or as it is now called, the Funsheon, is a small river, rising in the Galty mountains, and flowing by Mitchelstown and Glanworth into the Blackwater two miles below Fermoy, after a course of about thirty miles.

But no one has yet pointed out the stream that Spenser designated by the name Molanna. Smith indeed in his History of Cork attempts to do so; but this careful writer must have been misled in the present instance by some incorrect old map, or by some other erroneous evidence; for in his description of the source of the Funsheon and in his identification of the Molanna, he is quite wrong, as I shall I think be able to show very plainly. After the time of Smith, the editors of Spenser and other writers who interested themselves in this matter followed his (Smith's) authority without question or examination.

Smith states that the Funsheon "rises in the county of Tipperary, in a bog a mile south of the mountains called Galtys. Not far from its source—(he says) it receives a brook called the Brackbawn, which divides the county of Limerick from Tipperary and rises in the Galty mountains."[16] And in a note at the foot of the page he states that the Brackbawn is Spenser's Molanna.

To anyone who has not examined the place all this appears satisfactory, and to fall in exactly with Spenser's description. But a walk of three or four miles along the river will at once dispel the illusion. The river that Smith describes as meeting the Brackbawn from a bog in Tipperary, and which he says is the Funsheon, has no existence at all. The Brackbawn, for the whole of its short course of four miles, forms the boundary line between the counties of Tipperary and Limerick; and it so happens that there is no stream joining it from the Tipperary side. On that side, the fall of ground lies the other way, and all the rivulets flow eastward towards the basin of the Suir. The Brackbawn is in fact the source or headwater of the Funsheon: it is the main stream—the Funsheon itself—though it is called the Brackbawn (and sometimes the Attycraan) for the first four miles of its course, and the Funsheon from that down. I have said that the Brackbawn is the main stream: I should have said, rather, that it is the only stream; for from the point high up in the mountains where the Brackbawn is formed by the junction of two streams, down to where it begins to be called the Funsheon, it receives no tributary at all, either from the Tipperary or from the Limerick side.

As the Brackbawn is the Funsheon it cannot be th Molanna, as Smith and his followers assert; for the context of the poem shows clearly that the Molanna and the Funsheon are two different streams, and that the Molanna is a tributary of the Funsheon.

It is evident that Spenser was well acquainted with all this neighbourhood. It forms part of "Armulla Dale," the valley he himself lived in; it is only about sixteen miles from Kilcolman—within view in fact of the castle windows; and he describes the rivers with such exactness and detail, and his descriptions are so correct, that it is impossible to avoid believing that he explored the place himself and wrote from personal knowledge.

Although I knew this locality many years ago very intimately, I visited it from Dublin on a pleasant day of last June (1877), to examine the rivers and to judge for myself. I walked along the streams up into the heart of the Galty mountains; and anyone who performs the same pleasant pilgrimage, with the poet's description in his mind, and who looks about him with ordinary attention, will identify the Molanna without the least difficulty. There is in fact no choice. The whole context of the poem indicates that the Molanna flows from the slopes of Arlo-hill. There are only two streams of any consequence flowing into the Funsheon valley from the Galtys. One of these is the Funsheon itself, or the Brackbawn, which, as I have already observed, forms for some distance the boundary between Limerick and Tipperary. Its source is high up among the mountains, about a quarter of a mile east of the summit of Galtymore; and it flows from several springs along the glen, one on the boundary line of the counties, others on the Limerick side, but none, as far as I could see, on the east or Tipperary side.


[16] History of Cork, ii. 266.