Spenser's Irish Rivers (7)

Patrick Weston Joyce

In "The spreading Lee," the poet alludes to the great expansion of the river Lee below Cork, which forms the noble harbour on which Queenstown is situated. At Cork the river divides into two branches a little above the city, near the Mardyke, which join again near the modern City Park at the east, forming an oval-shaped island two miles long. In Spenser's time the city was confined chiefly to the island; but in later years it has extended across the river at both sides far beyond the original boundaries.

"Balefull Oure late staind with English blood" is the Avonbeg in the county Wicklow, which flows through Glenmalure and joins the Avonmore at "The Meeting of the Waters." As this river has never before been identified, and as it is an excellent example of how the poet himself, even when he is using fictitious names, generally supplies, in his short descriptions, the means of discovering the exact places he is writing about, it will be worth while to unfold, one by one, the steps that have led to its identification.

The words "late staind with English blood" must refer to a battle of some consequence in which the English were defeated and suffered loss, and which was still fresh in recollection when this passage was written. Looking back from the year 1590, which we may assume was the year, or very near it, when the Fourth Book of the Faerie Queene was written, we find two battles, and only two, in which the English were defeated, that might then be called "late." The first was fought in 1579 at a place called Gortnatubrid in the south of the county Limerick, where three hundred English soldiers and three officers were killed. Another was fought at Glenmalure in 1580—the very year of Lord Grey's arrival—which was far more serious in its consequences. It will not be necessary to examine the details of the first; for the second is the only action that answers Spenser's words; and it answers them in every particular. The Lord Deputy Grey, marching in that year against the Wicklow clans, including the great chief Fiach Mac Hugh O'Byrne and his men, pitched his camp on one of the hills over Glenmalure. On August 25 a strong force prepared for action and advanced incautiously into the recesses of this dangerous glen, while the Lord Deputy remained in his camp. They were allowed to proceed without interruption till they reached a narrow part of the defile, when they were suddenly attacked by the Irish on the banks of the little stream—the Avonbeg—and after a short and sharp struggle they were routed in great disorder, leaving behind them dead eight hundred men including four English officers, Sir Peter Carew and Colonels Moor, Cosby, and Audley.

So far the river bears out the description, "late stained with English blood"; and it is important to remark that this defeat was all the more disastrous in Spenser's eyes, and he would be the more likely to retain a vivid memory of it, as it was his own master Lord Grey that was concerned in it.

Let us now consider the name "balefull Oure." I have elsewhere observed that the poet often bestows fictitious names, generally borrowed from some neighbouring features, of which several examples are given in the course of this paper: Arlo Hill from the Glen of Arlo; Mulla from Kilnemulla; and from this again Mole, Molanna, and Armulla. So here also: "Oure" is merely the last syllable of Glenmalure, or Glenmalour as he himself calls it in his View of the State of Ireland.

And as to the word "balefull," the origin of this is very clear. Spenser generally endeavoured to find meanings in his names, being always ready to imagine one when the appearance of the word was in his favour; and he often bestows an epithet that reflects this real or fancied signification. Here are some examples—all names of rivers—taken from Canto xi. of the Fourth Book:

Wylibourne with passage slye

That of his wylinesse his name doth take.

Mole that like a nousling mole doth make

His way still under ground till Thames he overtake.

Bounteous Trent, that in himself enseames

Both thirty [Fr. trente, thirty] sorts of fish and thirty sundry streames.

And there came Stoure with terrible aspéct ["stour," battle, tumult].

(False) Bregog hight [see p. 111, below],

So hight because of this deceitful traine.

So also "sad Trowis" (supra: p. 79), "Tigris fierce," and several others. He does the same in the case before us, using "balefull" as if it were an equivalent for "mal"; for the river "Mal-oure" was baleful, not only in the disastrous memory connected with it, but even in its very name.[13]


[13] The poet is of course not correct, and very likely he knew it. But the syllable "mal" was very tempting under the circumstances, for as an ordinary Latin-English prefix it was then, as it is now, well understood to mean something evil or baleful. The true original form of the name Glenmalure is Gleann-Maoilughra which means the glen of the tribe called Mailura.