Spenser's Irish Rivers (4)

Patrick Weston Joyce

The Munster Blackwater was never called by the name of Awniduff or Avonduff, or Avondhu as some of our present-day writers put it (all meaning "black-river"). Its Irish name is Avonmore (great river) as we find it in all native authorities ancient and modern; and this is the name in universal use in the spoken Irish language of the present day. The modern English name Blackwater therefore is not a translation, but a new name given by English-speaking people; and it is an appropriate one, for the river is very dark in the early part of its course, partly from the peat bogs of Slieve Lougher, and partly on account of the Duhallow coal district through which it flows.

But it will be of consequence to remark that the English name in general use in Spenser's time was Broadwater, which is a sufficiently correct translation of "Avonmore." For example Gerard Boate who wrote his Natural History of Ireland about the middle of the 17th century, has: "The two chief rivers of Munster are Sure and Broadwater, the city of Waterford being situated on the first . . . the other (Broadwater) passeth by Lismore and falleth into the sea by Youghal."[6] It is also called Broad-water in Norden's map of Ireland, compiled about 1610; and in a charter of James I. the two English names are used—"the river Blackwater called otherwise Broadwater."

The poet tells us that "strong Allo" flows from Slewlogher, or Slieve Lougher, a wild moorland district lying east of Castle Island in Kerry, which was very much celebrated in ancient Irish writings. This circumstance alone is sufficient to prove that he is speaking of the Blackwater under the name of Allo; for the Blackwater flows directly from Slieve Lougher, rising about five miles above King Williamstown, and running first southward and then eastward towards Mallow. On the other hand the little river now known by the name of Allo is not more than seventeen miles in its whole length; and to say nothing of the inappropriateness of the term "strong" for such an insignificant stream, it does not flow from or near Slieve Lougher, but on the contrary it is in every part of its course more than twelve miles distant from the nearest part of that mountain.

Dr. Smith was so puzzled at Spenser's "strong Allo tombling from Slewlogher steep" that he was forced to conclude that the poet confounded the rivers Allo and Blackwater. It would be strange indeed if Spenser who knew so well and designated with such precision the features of the other chief streams of Ireland, should confound two rivers in the immediate neighbourhood of his own residence; one of them moreover being a mere rivulet, and the other a stream of the first magnitude—for Ireland.

Spenser did not however as he has done elsewhere, borrow or invent this name for the river; for it will appear that the Blackwater, or at least a part of it, was at one time known by the name of Allo; and Dr. John O'Donovan came to this conclusion on testimony altogether independent of Spenser; for he does not appear to have been aware of Spenser's designation, or indeed to have considered the subject of Spenser's rivers at all. What led O'Donovan to this opinion was his examination of the name of Mallow, now a well-known town on the Blackwater, which is called in Irish Moy-Allo—that is, the plain or field of the (river) Allo. Now this place could not possibly have got its name from the present river Allo, for it is situated at a point which is fully eleven miles below the junction of this river with the Black-water. Accordingly O'Donovan writes: "From this name (Moy-Allo or Mallow) it is evident that the name Allo was anciently applied to that part of the Blackwater lying between Kanturk, where the modern Allo ends, and the town of Mallow."[7] Had this passage of Spenser come under his observation, he would no doubt have quoted it in further proof of his opinion. Whether the name Allo was anciently applied to that part only of the Blackwater lying between Kanturk and Mallow (or rather Bridgetown, where the Mulla joins), or to a longer portion, or to the whole, I have met with no evidence to show.


[6] Page 37, ed. 1726.

[7] Annals of the Four Masters, vol. vi., p. 2080.