Spenser's Irish Rivers (12)

Patrick Weston Joyce

In the early part of its course, the river forms many crystal pools, each under a little rocky cascade; and it was in these that

Diana used oft,

After her sweatie chace and toilsome play,

To bathe herselfe.

When I was walking along the stream on a sultry evening in June, I could not help thinking how delicious it would be to imitate the goddess.

As "Molanna" is a fictitious name, it may naturally be asked what was the circumstance that suggested it to the poet's mind; for the reader will have observed that all Spenser's fictitious names were adopted from some local features; and the origin of this name appears quite clear. The poet tells us that Molanna was "sister unto Mulla faire and bright;". for both were daughters of "old Father Mole," and according to the poet's fancy took their names from him. But the latter part of the name Molanna, I think it very obvious, was suggested to Spenser partly by the native name Behanna, and partly also perhaps by the fact that on the eastern bank of the stream there is a small lake giving name to a townland, called to this day Lough-an-anna.

I am persuaded that the idea of making Arlo-hill the scene of these gatherings of the gods was suggested to Spenser by the native legends. For in times of old, in the shadowy days of Irish romance, this hill was very famous; it was the resort of fairies and enchanters, of gods and goddesses, though these last were not the same as those recorded by Spenser; and many stories of their strange doings are still preserved in our old manuscript books, especially in one called "The Book of Ballymote."

It was here, near the summit of the hill, that Cliach the youthful harper of Connaught sat for a whole year, pleading his love for the Princess Baina the daughter of the Dedannan fairy king Bove Derg. But although he played on two harps at the same time, he was not able by the spells of his fairy music to open the gates of the palace, for the magical power of the king was an overmatch for him: neither did he succeed in winning the love of the princess, whose heart remained hardened against him to the last. So that the earth at length taking pity on his sorrows, opened up under his feet and received him into her bosom. And the hollow was immediately filled up by a lake, which remains to this day near the top of the hill. The legend [18] adds that "Crotta Cliach," the old name of the Galty mountains, was derived from this love tragedy; for "Crotta Cliach" signifies, according to this account, the crotta or harps of Cliach, in allusion to the two cruits or harps on which he played.

It was here too that another fairy princess, the beautiful Keraber, and her train of seven score and ten damsels, who were bright-coloured birds one year and had their own shapes the next—here it was in this very lake, that they spent their time, swimming about year after year while they were birds, linked together in couples with chains of silver.

It is highly probable that Spenser was acquainted with these and other legends about Arlo-hill—why should he not know them as well as he knew the legend of Lough Melvin at the other side of Ireland? —they were then quite common among the peasantry, as indeed some of them are at the present day; and we may very well suppose that he took from them the hint of the meeting of the gods, and of his beautiful episode of Diana and her nymphs.

The story of the loves of the two rivers Bregog and Mulla is related in Colin Clouts come home againe; and the poet introduces this little pastoral narrative with a particular account of his own melodious Mulla:

Old father Mole (Mole hight that mountain gray

That walls the north side of Armulla dale;)

He had a daughter fresh as floure of May

Which gave that name unto that pleasant vale;

Mulla the daughter of old Mole, so hight

The nimph, which of that water course has charge,

That, springing out of Mole, doth run downe right

To Buttevant, where spreading forth at large,

It giveth name unto that auncient Cittie,

Which Kilnemullah cleped [named] is of old.

The little river Mulla, which he elsewhere speaks of as "Mulla mine whose waves I whilom taught to weep," flows by Buttevant and Doneraile, passing through the district once held by Spenser, within a short distance of Kilcolman Castle, and after a gentle winding course of about twenty-five miles it joins the Blackwater half-way between Mallow and Fermoy. The name Mulla, which Spenser took such delight in, is not, and never was, the name of the river; but the poet used it, as elsewhere he used Arlo, in preference to the true name, on account of its musical sound. Its proper name is Awbeg, little river; and it was so called to distinguish it from the Avonmore (great river) or Blackwater.


[18] Which, as well as the next, is found in the Book of Ballymote.