Spenser's Irish Rivers (2)

Patrick Weston Joyce

But as regards others of them, editors and readers who have considered the subject have been in uncertainty or error from Spenser's day to our own; and there are a few which none of the editors of Spenser's works have even attempted to identify.

The manner in which the Liffey is characterised—"rolling downe the lea"—is extremely just and natural; for this river, after bursting from the high lands of Wicklow through the haunted gorge of Pollaphuca, flows for more than half its course through the levellest lea land in all Ireland, the plains of Kildare, where its banks are a continued succession of verdant meadows and smiling pasture-lands. This was the old plain of Moy-Lifè, celebrated in ancient Irish writings, whose name is now remembered only in connection with the river—the Aven-Liffey or Anna-Liffey as it used to be called in times not very long past—that is, "the river (aven) of the plain of Life."

In "The sandy Slane" the poet touches off the most obvious feature of the river Slaney. Geologists tell us that the bed of the river was once a fiord, when the sea was higher than it is now—long before the Milesian Celt contended with Anglo-Norman, Dane, or magic-skilled Dedannan; and during this primeval period the tide deposited at the bottom of the long valley great beds of sand and gravel, through which, when the sea retired to its present level, the stream cut its channel. The river is characteristically sandy in its whole length: from Stratford-on-Slaney to Wexford town there is scarce a rock sufficient to raise a ripple; its fords are all along formed of sand and gravel; and it flows into the sea below Wexford through a wide waste of sand. Passing by for the present "the stony Aubrian"—farther on I shall have a word to say about it—we may just glance at the Shannon, the Boyne, and the Bann. Spenser's way of designating the first—

The spacious Shenan spreading like a sea—

pictures this great river very vividly to the mind of the reader; for during its passage from Lugnashinna, its source near Quilca Mountain in Cavan, to Limerick city, it expands into three great lakes, or inland seas as they may be called, besides several smaller ones; and below Limerick it opens out into a noble estuary fifty miles long, and so broad that the farther shores often become lost on the horizon.

The banks of "The pleasant Boyne," from its source in Trinity Well at the ruined Castle of Carbury in Kildare, to Maiden Tower below Drogheda, present a succession of lovely quiet pastoral landscapes, not surpassed by any other river in Ireland.

He is equally correct in "The fishy fruitfull Ban," for this river has always been noted for the abundance and excellence of its trout and salmon. Toome where it issues from Lough Neagh, and Portna near the village of Kilrea, are to this day the delight of trout anglers; and the great salmon fishery at the old waterfall of Eas-Creeva at Coleraine is one of the most productive anywhere to be found.

I shall defer for the present the consideration of two important rivers, the Awniduff and the Allo, and take up both together a little farther on (p. 80).

The "Liffar deep" is the Foyle at Lifford in Donegal. It is often called Liffar or Liffer by early Anglo-Irish writers, as by Gough and Camden, and by Spenser himself in his View of the State of Ireland:—''Another (garrison) would I put at Castle-Liffer or thereabouts, so as they should have all the passages upon the river to Logh Foyle" (p. 158, ed. 1809). The town of Lifford took its name from the river, a circumstance very usual in Ireland; for in this manner Dublin, Limerick, Galway, Sligo, and many other towns received their names. It may be remarked that this old Anglo-Irish name Liffer represents very correctly the pronunciation of the native name Leithbhearr; and that the insertion of the d at the end belongs to a class of verbal corruptions very common in anglicised Irish names.[3]

"Sad Trowis that once his people over-ran" is the short river Drowes flowing from Lough Melvin between the counties of Donegal and Leitrim into Donegal Bay, which was commonly called Trowis in Spenser's time. This stream is very often mentioned in old Irish records; for from the earliest period of history and legend to the present day, it has continued to be the boundary line between the two provinces of Ulster and Connaught; and it is no doubt its historical and legendary notoriety that procured for it a place in Spenser's catalogue; for otherwise it is an unimportant stream.


[3] Viz. the addition of d after words ending in l, n, and r. See this fully explained and illustrated in the author's Origin and History of Irish Names of Places, vol. i, chap. iii.