Spenser's Irish Rivers (3)

Patrick Weston Joyce

In the words "that once his people over-ran" the poet alludes to an ancient legend accounting for the origin of Lough Melvin, that at a very remote period the river overflowed the land and turned the valley into a lake. This legend is recorded by several of our old Irish writers, among others by the Four Masters, who relate that a certain king of Ireland named Melga who reigned many centuries before the Christian era, was slain in battle; that when his soldiers were digging his grave the waters burst forth from it and overwhelmed both the land and the people; and that the lake formed by this fatal inundation was called by the name Lough Melga, in memory of the king.[4]

Legends like this are told in connexion with most of the large lakes of Ireland, and some of them have held their ground for a very long time indeed; they are mixed up with the earliest traditions of the country, and not a few of them are current among the peasantry to this day. Giraldus Cambrensis, writing in the twelfth century, records a legend of this kind regarding Lough Neagh; and this story is also found in some of the oldest of the native Irish writings, from which indeed Giraldus borrowed it, though he added a few characteristic touches of his own. He mentions, moreover, what the people will tell you to this day, that the fishermen sometimes see the lofty and slender ecclesiasticae turres or "Christian round towers," remains of the ancient submerged city beneath its waters, a belief which Moore has embalmed in the well-known lines:—

On Lough Neagh's banks as the fisherman strays,

When the clear cold eve's declining,

He sees the round towers of other days

In the wave beneath him shining.

Before parting with this little stream I wish to make an observation on the word "sad," by which it is designated in the present passage. The reader cannot help observing that the poet's fancy is ever ready to seize on any correspondence—whether real or imaginary—between the names and the characteristic features of the several streams in his catalogue; and this conceit he often embodies in some happy descriptive epithet. I shall have occasion to notice this peculiarity farther on. But with respect to the name Trowis, it is clear that the poet thought it was an anglicised form of an Irish word of similar sound, which signifies sorrow or sadness;[5] and once his fancy had caught up this interpretation he connected the name with the event; so that supposing him right in his conjecture, his "sad Trowis," in the present passage would be quite as appropriate as "false Bregoge" in Colin Clouts come home againe (see below).

As for "Mulla mine whose waves I whilom taught to weep," it is enough for the present to point out that it is the little river properly called the Awbeg, flowing near Spenser's own residence of Kilcolman and falling into the Blackwater; but I shall have more to say of it in connexion with others of Spenser's rivers.

I will now consider the two rivers, "Swift Awniduff which of the English man is cal'de Blacke-water," and "Strong Allo tombling from Slewlogher steep." The former ("Swift Awniduff") has been wrongly set down as the Munster Blackwater, whereas it is really the northern Blackwater, flowing between the counties of Armagh and Derry, and falling into the southwest corner of Lough Neagh; and the latter ("Strong Allo") has been taken to mean the little stream now called the Allo or Allow, flowing into the Blackwater near Kanturk in the county of Cork, though Spenser really intended it for the great Blackwater itself. Dr. Smith, a very careful writer, who published his History of Cork about the year 1750, was the first, so far as I know, to discuss those rivers mentioned by Spenser; and he identifies "Strong Allo" with the present river Allo, and the Awniduff with the Munster Blackwater. He is followed by Crofton Croker in his Researches in the South of Ireland. In Todd's edition of Spenser the error is repeated; but Todd received his information from Joseph Cooper Walker author of The History of Irish Bards, who merely copied Smith without adding anything of his own. And all other writers who have written on the subject from Smith's time to the present have followed him in his error, with the single exception of the Rev. C. B. Gibson, who at page 300, vol. i. of his History of Cork, places the Awniduff correctly, though without giving any proof of the correctness of his identification.


[4] The old Irish form of the name is Loch-Meilghe, which has been corrupted to Lough Melvin by the English-speaking people. Lough Melvin lies four miles south of Ballyshannon in Donegal.

[5] Irish truaghas (pronounced trooas), sadness, wretchedness, from truagh (troo) sad. The poet's fancy is not correct, for the ancient name of the river is not Truaghas but Drobhaois (pronounced drowish) a very different word. Spenser was accustomed to get Irish words and phrases translated for him by those of his Irish acquaintances who could speak English. There is abundant evidence of this in various parts of his View of the State of Ireland in which he gives the equivalent of many Irish terms; and in one place he expressly says: "I have caused divers of them (Irish poems) to be translated unto me that I might understand them . . . ." It must have been some of his Irish friends that attempted to explain Trowis for the poet by identifying it with truaghas, sadness; for the peasantry, even to this day, as I know well, are very fond of this kind of speculative etymology.