Spenser's Irish Rivers (6)

Patrick Weston Joyce

The Barrow is, as he truly states, one of the great salmon rivers of Ireland. The Nore boords or flows "by faire Kilkenny and Rosseponte," this last place being New Ross in Wexford, which is situated not exactly on the Nore but at a point nearly two miles below the junction of the Nore with the Barrow. This town was of much more account in old times than it is now; and to distinguish it from Old Ross four miles east of it, and from Ross Ibercan or Rosbercon at the Kilkenny side of the river, it was called Rosseponte or Ross of the Bridge, from a wooden bridge across the Barrow, which in those times was considered a very remarkable structure. All this will be made plain by the following words from Richard Stanihurst:

This towne was no more famoused for these wals than for a notable wooden bridge that stretched from the towne unto the other side of the water. Diverse of the poales, logs, and stakes, with which the bridge was underpropt, sticke to this day in the water. … This Rosse is called Rosse Nova (New Ross), or Rosse Ponti, by reason of their bridge.[11]

Spenser makes these three rivers the offspring of the great giant Blomius and the nymph Rheüsa; the former being the impersonation of Slieve Bloom, and the latter of the rain falling on the mountains; for Rheüsa means "flowing water," being nothing more than rheousa, the feminine participle of the Greek verb rheo, to flow.

In Ireland the historical or legendary personages connected with hills or other features are often magnified through the mists of centuries into giants or supernatural beings; and in this manner it has come to pass that a great many of the hills in every part of the country have special guardian fairies. Most of these were the chiefs of the half-mythical magic-skilled Dedannans; but several were the deified heroes or heroines of the Milesian and other early Irish races, and they lived in splendid palaces in the interior of green mounds, great cairns, or isolated rocks, which often crown the tops of hills.

Legends of this kind are found in the most ancient Irish literary remains; they are mentioned or alluded to in manuscripts written more than a thousand years ago, and they are still current among the peasantry. Several of those presiding spirits are as celebrated now as they were when the oldest manuscripts were written, and popular stories about them are as prevalent as ever; among whom may be mentioned Finvarra of Knockma near Tuam in Galway; Donn of Knockfierna near Croom in Limerick; Macananty of Scrabo Hill near Newtownards; and the two banshees of Munster, Cleena of Carrig-Cleena near Mallow in Cork, and Eevinn or Eevill of Craglea near Killaloe in Clare.

The old legend assigned Slieve Bloom to a Milesian chief named Bladh (pronounced Blaw) who reigned there as the guardian genius. Bladh, we are told, was slain during the Milesian invasion in a skirmish with the Dedannans near these mountains, which ever after retained his name; for the Irish name of the range, as we find it written in the oldest manuscripts, is Slieve Bladhma, the mountain of Bladh, (Bladh making Bladhma in the genitive). As Bladhma is pronounced Blawma or Bloma, the present name Slieve Bloom is not a great departure from the original pronunciation; and Spenser retained both the sound of the name and the spirit of the popular legend when he designated the deified Milesian chief as "that great gyant Blomius."

"The wide embayed Mayre" is the Kenmare river and bay in the south-west of Kerry, which were often called Maire by English writers of that period; as for example by Norden, who writes in his map "Flu. Maire," and by Boate, who describes it in his Natural History of Ireland as "a huge bay called Maire." The name was applied to the bay by English writers only; and they borrowed it from Kenmare by a kind of reverse process, as if "Kenmare" meant the ken or head of the estuary of Maire, exactly as Spenser himself formed Mulla from Kilnamulla (see page 108). The river flowing by Kenmare into the bay is the Roughty; and the original name of the extreme head of the bay, on which the town stands, was Ceann-Mara, which was in the first instance applied to the highest point to which the tide ascended in the river, and which signifies "head of the sea."[12]

"The pleasant Bandon crownd with many a wood" flows altogether through the county of Cork by the towns of Dunmanway and Bandon into the sea at Kinsale. It has not quite lost the character given of it by the poet; for though the magnificent woods that clothed all that country in Spenser's time have disappeared, yet along nearly the whole course of the river there are numerous castles, mansions, and villas, all surrounded with pleasant plantations which crown the banks on either side.


[11] Description of Ireland, chap. iii.

[12] Ceann, a head; muir, genitive mara, the sea, corresponding with Latin mare.