Spenser's Irish Rivers (5)

Patrick Weston Joyce

But to put the matter beyond all dispute, we shall bring up Spenser himself as a witness to tell us what he means. In Colin Clouts come home againe he relates how old Father Mole [8] did not wish his daughter (the river) Mulla to wed (the river) Bregog, but,

Meaning her much, better to preferre,

Did think to match her with the neighbour flood

Which Allo hight, Broadwater callèd farre;

by which the poet means that the river which was locally known by the name Allo was that called Broadwater by people living at a distance; which decides without any manner of doubt that by "strong Allo" he meant the Broadwater or Blackwater.

If anyone should inquire how it came to pass that the little river Allo, and the Blackwater into which it falls, were called by the same name, I will observe that a river sometimes gives its name to a tributary, the principal river often losing the name, which becomes perpetuated in the minor stream, For instance, the river Foyle, flowing by the city of Derry, was in old times called the Mourne, a name which is now applied to one of its branches, viz. that flowing by Lifford; while the present name Foyle was borrowed from Lough Foyle, the arm of the sea into which the river flows.

There is another example near Dublin which has hitherto escaped notice. The Dodder is a small mountain river flowing through the valley of Glennasmole south of Dublin and falling into the Liffey at Ringsend. Its usual Irish name was Dothar, [9] which is pronounced Doher; for the t is aspirated, as Irish grammarians say, the aspiration being indicated by the letter h; and an aspirated t (i.e. th) sounds in Irish like h alone, so that if the name had been correctly anglicised according to pronunciation, the river would now be called Doher. But in the neighbourhood of Dublin the people had a curious fashion when anglicising Irish names, of restoring the primitive sounds of aspirated letters,[10] and in this manner the river came to be called Dodder instead of Doher. Yet for all that the old name is still preserved; but it is now applied to a small stream coming down from the adjacent hills, which, after turning a number of mills in a pretty valley, joins the Dodder at Rathfarnham, and is well known by the name of Doher or Owen-Doher. Other instances of this sort of transfer might be cited if it were necessary, and I might point to some examples among English rivers also.

After what has been said it will not be necessary to dwell farther on Spenser's "Awniduff," for the reader will only have to attend to the order in which the rivers are named to be convinced that the Awniduff is intended for the Ulster Blackwater. Beginning at the Liffey, the poet proceeds south and west till he reaches the Shannon; starting next from the Boyne, he goes north and west, naming the rivers in the exact order of position—Boyne, Ban, Awniduff (or Blackwater), Liffar (or Foyle), and Trowis,—curiously enough omitting the Erne: he then returns southwards, and finishes off the stanza with his own two rivers—

Strong Allo tombling from Slewlogher steep,

And Mulla mine whose waves I whilom taught to weep.

"The three renowmed brethren" are the Suir, the Nore, and the Barrow, which the poet describes with more detail in next stanza. It is curious that he personifies them as three brethren, and calls them farther on "three faire sons"; whereas by other early English writers, as by Cambrensis, Camden, &c, they are called "the Three Sisters."

The poet makes them all rise in the Slieve Bloom Mountains, which is not correct. The Barrow flows from Slieve Bloom, but the Nore and the Suir take their rise among the Devil's Bit range south-west of Roscrea, their sources being within two miles of each other, and about twenty-four miles south-west from the source of the Barrow. This error was committed by Giraldus Cambrensis long before him, and is very excusable; for the Devil's Bit mountains may be considered as a continuation southward of the Slieve Bloom range, and were very probably so considered by both Giraldus and Spenser.

The three rivers, after being "long sundred, do at last accord to ioyne in one," in the long valley extending from New Ross to Waterford harbour, which was in old times called Cumar-na-dtri-nuisce (pronounced Cummer-na-dree-nish-ka), the valley of the three waters.


[8] See p. 95 farther on.

[9] The most ancient form was Dothra; but in later Irish, and among the people, the river was always called Dothar.

[10] So bothar (pronounced boher) a road, came to be called botter, booter, or batter, as in Stonybatter in Dublin (stony road); and in Booterstown near Kingstown, i.e. road-town. See the author's Origin and History of Irish Names of Places, vol. i., p. 46.