‘A most wonderful selection.’
Eanna ni Lamhna
Mooney Goes Wild, RTE Radio One
“Upon those who step into the same rivers, different and ever different waters flow down.” Heraclitus
On 21st February 2022, my fiftieth birthday, I launched ‘Waterways Through Time,’ a collaboration with Waterways Ireland. This podcast series, available here, explores Ireland’s natural rivers and lakes, as well as the rise, fall and rise again of the various man-made canals that criss-cross the island. In the first five episodes, I homed in on the early history of these wonderful waterways, which have been such vital arteries of human existence since long before the dawn of recorded time. I loved viewing Irish history through the medium of the waterways.
When I began delving into it, I was surprised by how much history there was in the water was from the old, old days, the time before canals came. Much of this just hadn’t really occurred to me before. And yet it quickly became apparent that this back-story narrative was essential to the tale and that it would thus make sense to tell the history of the waterways in a chronological order.
Season One begins with a look at the birth of some of our major rivers – the Barrow, the Erne, the Shannon, the Boyne – and how they took on their present shape during the last Ice Age. It considers the geology and the extraordinary archaeological legacy that lies along each river and how, the Blackwaters aside, almost every Irish river is named for a goddess of the mythical Tuatha de Danaan. I then delved into the spiritual aspects of the waterways with the onset of Christianity – the monastic schools, the island monasteries, the hermit retreats and such like. Over the course of 2023, I took up the story from the arrival of the Vikings through to the medieval period and, well, what can I say, the series won the Bronze for Best Podcast at the 2023 Digital Media Awards.
In the meantime, a text version of my narration, with footnotes, follows below.
The series is available via Spotify, Apple, Google and all other main podcast platforms. My sincere thanks to all at Waterways Ireland (waterwaysireland.org), series producer Ally Bunbury and technical producers Mary Burke and Liam Mulvanny (11 for 10 productions), who also composed the gorgeous music for the series.
The Flow of Time
The main waterways and navigations I’m focusing on in this account are the River Barrow, the Shannon-Erne Waterway (including the River Erne, Lough Erne and the River Shannon) and the Lower Bann, as well as the Grand Canal, the Royal Canal and the Ulster Canal. There are various off-shoots, lakes and so on. Indeed, to my mind, if you add up all the different canals and navigations along Irish rivers and lakes, there have been at least 40 waterways in motion at some point.
It is a substantial body of water. Take the Shannon River Basin, for instance. As in the area covered by the River Shannon, its estuary, tributaries and lakes, equates to about 2,880,000 acres, or a fifth of Ireland’s total area. The part known as the Shannon Navigation runs from Lough Allen to Limerick, and takes in the extensions to Boyle and the River Suck. From Limerick, it becomes the Shannon Estuary.
Waterways Ireland is a public body, established under the historic Good Friday Agreement of 1998, and responsible for the management, maintenance, development, and restoration of various inland waterways on the island of Ireland, north and south. Three of its four regional offices are along the River Shannon (Carrick-on-Shannon, County Leitrim; Athlone, County Westmeath; Scarriff Harbour, County Clare) with a fourth in Dublin. Its overall headquarters is in Enniskillen on the River Erne. Their remit includes blue-ways, greenways, restoration work, sustainable tourism, arts projects, virtual reality projects, and so on.
The Historical Perspective
Humans have been using our rivers and lakes as transport routes since time began, as well as places to develop the first communities and towns and bridges and so on. Our natural waterways have always been one of Ireland’s most terrific assets. Wonderful, slow flowing rivers and large, sleepy lakes served as our highways and by-ways for thousands of years, especially when much of the island was covered in forest with precious few roads in between.
The River Shannon, for instance, allowed people to effectively come in from anywhere on the entire Atlantic Ocean and make their way upstream, reaching as far as Dowra in County Cavan when the navigation was at its peak. Perhaps you had to walk part of the way, but at least you had a river to guide you. Likewise, the Barrow, the second longest river in Ireland, may be tidal and too dangerous for navigation where the river enters the sea, but it was navigable by boat all the way up from St Mullins, County Carlow, to Athy, County Kildare.
Christianity left its mark during the medieval period, most notably with monastic schools at places like Clonmacnois on the River Shannon, Old Leighlin just off the River Barrow and the school at Bangor up on Belfast Lough. Intriguing hermit retreats and smaller monasteries also sprang up on inlands islands, especially on Lough Ree and Lough Erne.
What was the impact of the terrifying Viking raiders and how did they penetrate so deeply into the Irish countryside with their longships? How did the rivers became the boundaries of a new world as Ireland evolved into the Anglo-Norman lordship with its castles, walled towns and toll-bridges, as well as its mighty abbeys and thriving market towns.
While everything was very interconnected, it is important to underline that Ireland’s rivers were a lot more marshy, sprawly and unnavigable in times past. However, the concept of traveling by water, and carrying product by water, was something that would evolve into a truly remarkable project during the 18th century with the birth of Ireland’s canals.
Many of our rivers are named for the goddesses of a people who are said to have lived in Ireland long before the records began.
Goddesses of the Water
There’s a wonderful tale in Irish mythology about how Ireland’s twelve biggest rivers were created by a single hailstorm. The storm broke from the skies just as Diarmait Mac Cerball, the newly crowned High King of Ireland, was hosting an assembly at the Hill of Uisneach in present-day County Westmeath. The mother of all hailstorms, it becomes the origin story for the Shannon, the Barrow, the Boyne and so on. Mind you, the annals of 1134 record a hailstorm in Ireland in which the hailstones were as big as apples.
The hailstorm has the essence of a distant truth that you often find in oral history. I’m always impressed with how legends of the Great Flood appear all over the Mediterranean. Was this pure fantasy, or are the tales of Noah’s Ark and such like the legacy of some ancient memory of a time when the Atlantic Ocean bashed through the Straits of Gibraltar and created the Mediterranean five million years ago?
Or what of the old theory that our oceans were created by water bombs from outer space in the form of icy comets and asteroids full of water that pelted our planet over and over again four or five billion years ago? Who knows! Hailstones. Comets from distant galaxies. Anything’s possible, Scully.
In terms of the mythology associated with Ireland’s natural waterways, there are plenty of fantastic stories. In fact, every river and lough on the island derives its name from a story from Irish folklore. That’s not wildly surprising, of course. The same can be said of most cultures and it’s a logical human thing. Madly, water accounts for about 60 to 70 percent of our body weight so, perhaps in consequence of that, we’ve has always had a deep spiritual connection to water. Water is also our most precious resource, intimately linked to our cultural development since the dawn of time, worshipped for its therapeutic virtues, for its links to evolution as the source and the essence of life.
Water has held a rich and divine symbolism since ancient times. It doesn’t matter which civilisation you zero in on. In Egypt, the god Sobek rose from the primeval waters of Nun to create the world and made the Nile from his own sweat. The rivers and lakes of ancient Greeks were full of female spirits and deities, and there are numerous legends about those who derived inspiration by drinking from their waters.
The Aztecs had a goddess who represented every plausible manifestation of water from tiny spring to mighty ocean. In India, the Ganges, the holiest of all rivers on the sub-continent, is named for the goddess Ganga, mother of all human beings, which is why such huge numbers of Hindus gather along the river during holy festivals to purify themselves in the water.
How much of Christian culture is about baptising souls in the pure waters? One thinks of John the Baptist, or Jesus walking in the water, or, closer to home, St Patrick baptising King Crimthán of Leinster in the waters of the River Slaney by Rathvilly.
In Australia, the tradition of the Ngarrindjeri people of the lower Murray River is that the river is a lifeline, a giant artery created by a giant Murray cod fish as it desperately sought to outrun their Great Ancestor, who was chasing after it with spears and what not. You’ll find similar tales from the Kalahari to Siberia to the Colorado, all of which highlights how so many human cultures and mythologies are rooted in the water.
The Book of Invasions
Ireland’s earliest history book is the ‘Lebor Gabála Érenn’ [pronounced Lowurr Go-wall-aah Air-run], an anonymous 11th century collection of poetry and prose. In English, it is known as ‘The Book of Invasions’. Written in an early form of Gaelic, its author, or authors, claim to have collected the stories from an oral tradition that stretched back into the distant mists. The principal version that survives today was compiled at Lisgool Abbey on the southern banks of Upper Lough Erne, near Enniskillen. Written in 1631, it was overseen by Mícheál Ó Cléirigh, a Franciscan scribe who one of the ‘Four Masters’ responsible for the Annals of the Four Masters. The scribes of Lisgool were apparently reproducing a history of Ireland that was written 1000 years ago. This Christian Church in medieval Ireland heartily approved of the book, which they adopted as the official history of Ireland, to be read hand-in-hand with the Old Testament of the Holy Bible.
The cast of this book includes Cessair, Noah’s granddaughter, who sails to Ireland on the eve of a Great Flood and arrives at a spot generally reckoned to be Bantry Bay or Ballinaskelligs. She is accompanied by three men and 49 maidens when she sets off but two of the men die on arrival, leaving a single male survivor by name of Fintan. Clearly terrified about being the only fellow in a group fifty, Fintan ran up a hill near Lough Derg and hid in a cave. Lo, the Great Flood came along forty days later and drowned all the poor maidens. However, Fintan wisely transformed himself into a salmon and survived. He later shape-shifted into an eagle and then a hawk … before he became a man again about 5,000 years after the Flood. Not surprisingly after all that, he took up a career as a historian.
You won’t find mention of Noah’s granddaughter in the Bible, but a thousand years ago, when the Book of Invasions was Ireland’s preeminent history, the story of Cessair and Fintan becoming a salmon was standard belief across much of this country. It was all part of a mash-up of Judeo-Christian theology and Celtic mythology that enabled the Christian Church to dazzle their mostly illiterate flock with stories that linked Ireland directly to the Holy Land. And is a salmon of knowledge any less feasible than a serpent that talks in the Garden of Eden? Or a burning bush that speaks for that matter?
For the people living in of Ireland two thousand years ago – call them Celts if you like, but it’s a little more complicated than that – the rivers, lakes, wells and springs were of paramount importance to everyday life, not least as symbols of fertility and health and so on. They were also very much part of the Otherworld.
The Tuatha Dé Danann
According to the Book of Invasions, the fifth wave of invaders were the Tuatha Dé Danann [pronounced Too-hah Day Don-un], the people of the earth-mother goddess Anu, or Danu. They were not dissimilar to the elves from ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ran Ireland for 150 years, having defeated the dastardly Fir Bolg [Fear Bollog] in 1897 BC. At least that’s what it says if you run with ‘The Annals of the Four Masters’. That time-frame sort of matches with the time that Newgrange was enjoying its golden age so but, of course this is territory in which large dollops of fantasy meets small slivers of reality.
For instance, the Tuatha Dé Danann are said to have arrived by “flying ships” in “dark clouds” that landed on Iron Mountain in County Leitrim. And, yes, there are people today who will insist that the flying ships were UFOs from outer space and that the Tuatha Dé Danann were aliens.
The legends of the Tuatha Dé Danann are all about the Otherworld, a parallel universe stuffed with everlasting youth, beauty, health, abundance and joy. Sometimes called Tír na nÓg, the land of eternal youth, it’s a world that is almost impossible to access – except via our waterways.
In Irish mythology, our rivers and streams acted as a sort of boundary between this world and the Otherworld. The water was the way into the Otherworld. In the days before mirrors, you could look into a calm pond or lake and see an alternative universe, with yourself and the sky and the mountains and the trees all around you. Flick a stone in it and the vision disappears.
The legacy of this is that nearly every river or lake in Ireland derives its name from the gods and, most especially, the goddesses of the Tuatha Dé Danann. In fact, Eire (pronounced air-eh), the official name for the Republic of Ireland, derives from Ériu (pronounced (air-ryuh), or Erin, a mother goddess of the Tuatha Dé Danann. By extension, the ‘Ire’ in Ireland is a play on Ériu. Without the accent, ‘Eire’ is the Irish for ‘burden’ so the accent is an important addition!
In the legends, sacred rivers like the Boyne and the Shannon bestow life and wisdom and beauty on the warriors and queens of old, as do the springs that bubble up from the Otherworld. An awful lot of those who feature in these tales were fated to be drowned in those rivers and springs.
The story runs that Ireland had seven secret streams of knowledge that ran from Conla’s Well, sometimes called the Well of Segais, enchanted well, or fountain of wisdom, which was surrounded by nine magical hazelnuts trees from which magical red hazelnuts fell.  When the hazelnuts fell into the well, they turned the headwaters crimson red and sent mystical bubbles bubbling down the river. These red bubbles attracted and guided all the salmon, and trout too for that matter, up the rivers of Ireland to feed on the fallen nuts. And, sure how else do you explain the red speckles on the fishes?
If you managed to catch and eat one of those salmon, you would be endowed with poetic inspiration and wisdom beyond compare. Now, the trouble was that this wisdom was not actually available. It was forbidden fruit, especially for females, which really annoyed Boann, a goddess of poetry and fertility in the stories of the Tuatha de Danaan. Seeking to boost her wisdom, she made her way to Connla’s Well and tasted the water. Then she overcooked it, challenging the power of the well by walking around it counter-clockwise and reciting incantations. This is not recommended behaviour, especially if you’re a goddess in an ancient legend. It is not going to go well for you. Predictably, it didn’t pan out brilliantly for Boann. The waters rushed up from the well in a series of gigantic waves and scooped her up and forged a path to the sea. This was all too much for Boann herself who drowned in the course of it all and thus became one with the river.  The river would be named for her – the Boyne – and is now one of the most famous waterways in Ireland. It wends through the Boyne Valley, one of the most important prehistoric landscapes in the world, past the celebrated passage tombs of Newgrange, Knowth and Dowth. And thus, for the ancients, the Boyne was a river by which the spirits of the dead could enter the Otherworld.
A very similar story is told about the origin of the Shannon, which takes its name from Sionann, the beautiful granddaughter of Manannán mac Lir, God of the sea. She caught and ate the Salmon of Knowledge and thus became the wisest human being in the whole wide world. Unfortunately that wasn’t wise enough, or filling enough, because she then decided to eat some of the mystical red bubbles created by the hazelnut tree. When she died, the well went nuts and rose up in a torrent and drowned poor Sionnan. Just as the spirit of Boann merged with the Boyne, so Sionnan was merged with the Shannon.
In Sionnan’s story, the source of the well is sometimes deemed to be a place now known as the Shannon Pot in County Cavan. Indeed, if mystic bubbles come from hazelnuts and if hazelnuts grow at the source of the river, as the druids and bards believed, then the Shannon’s hazel trees would assuredly have arisen around the Shannon Pot on the slopes of Cuilcagh Mountain in County Cavan. The Shannon rises here as a small trout stream and then runs either through or between 11 of Ireland’s counties, sucking in rivers like the Boyle, Inny, Suck, and Brosna, before piling into the estuary at Limerick. It’s the longest river in Britain or Ireland although there’s a wee bit of banter over what length it really is, varying from 280km in academical minds to 360km in official sources to 390km in more extravagant accounts. That’s a broad sweep of 110km in the difference! I’d have thought someone ought to be able to put a full stop on that figure but I understand it’s complicated by whether or not one includes the Shannon Estuary.
Fionn MacCool once hurled a mighty rock called the Stone of Sionnan at his enemies and killed them all. The rock can still be seen at low tide but I’m not telling you where it is because your name might be Bethany and, according to the legends, if someone called Be Thuinne should ever visit the rock, that’s game over for the world. We have enough to be worrying about without that in the mix also.
The River Bann in Ulster, which rises at Slieve Muck (Sliabh Muc) in the Mourne Mountains, takes its name from ‘An Banna’ [On Vonna], another Tuatha de Danaan goddess. The River Bride, which flows through Counties Cork and Waterford, is named for the goddess Brigantia, who evolved into Brigid, the Celtic goddess of fire and fertility, and later into Saint Brigid. Killbrit, just off the Bride, is derived from the church (kill) of Bridget.
The jury’s still out about the derivation of the River Barrow’s name. My money’s on Berba, a goddess whose son was born with three serpents in his heart, God love the poor fellow. And, of course, the Barrow is one of the Three Sisters, with the Nore and the Suir.
The River Griese (Greese), a tributary of the Barrow, is named for the evil fairy Gris. She killed Maistiu, the embroiderer to Aengus, harper to the gods. In vengeance, Maistiu’s husband Dáire Derg, king of Nás (Naas), hurled his magical spear at Gris who was instantly killed and turned into a river. I am not yet sure of the River Lerr, another tributary of the Barrow, but it seems relevant that Lerr is ‘An Lír’ in Irish. When one thinks of Lir, Bodb Dearg’s rival for the kingship of the Tuatha Dé Danann, famous as the father of the Children of Lir, who became swans.
The Irish name for River Inny in County Longford is more charming thank the English: An Eithne. It derives from a princess variously called Eithne, Ethniu, Enya or Ethlenn. She was the only daughter of the terrifying, one-eyed Fomorian leader Balor. Was Balor, pronounced Baal-er, anything to Baal, I wonder!?
A druid prophesied that Balor would be killed by his own grandson. Given that he didn’t have any grandsons yet, he took the wise precaution of locking his only daughter up in the eponymous Túr Ri (King’s Tower) on Tory Island. Alas for Balor, he hadn’t banked on the determination of Cian of the Tuatha Dé Danann who tracked Eithne down and seduced her. She gave birth to triplets, including a boy named Lúgh who became the warrior king of the Tuatha Dé Danann. As predicted, Lúgh thrust his deadly spear into Balor’s evil eye. Somewhere along the line, poor Eithne drowned in the rapids near Ballymahon and so the River Inny was named for her.
By one account, the River Erne (and, by extension, Lough Erne) is named for Ierne, a beautiful lady-in-waiting to the famous Queen Méabh. One tragic day, a fearsome giant popped out of a cave and chased Ierne and her fellow maidens all the way up to wherever the Erne rises and, well, you guessed it, the waters rose up and drowned them all. By another account, Erne was a princess of a tribe called the Érainn. Yet another proposes that the Ernai were a sept of the Fir Bolg who were defeated in battle shortly after a lake burst all over them! Whatever which way you look at it, you can be sure the waters rose and someone died.
The River Lee in County Cork, An Laoi in Irish, may derive from ‘Luighe’, or Lugaid mac Ítha. He was said to be a son of Íth, an eloquent Milesian prince who became the first of his people to reach Ireland, only to be killed by the Tuatha Dé Danann. Íth’s nephew, Míl Espáine, would avenge his murder by invading Ireland. Lugaid mac Con, aka Mac Con, of the Corca Luighe kingdom was said to descend from this son of Íth.
When I was interviewed about the ‘Waterways Through Time’ podcast on ‘Mooney Goes Wild’ (28 February 2022, RTE Radio One), Eanna ni Lamhna told me that the river names are “from a language that is older than Irish” and that the Irish words we use today are an “Irishization of the older world.” As an example, she cited the Barrow (an Bhearú), the Dee (an Níth), the Glyde (an Casán), the Laggan and the Boyne. I should add that Barry Dalby, always a refreshing cynic, provides some chicken and egg musing on the subject:
“I tend to think that the linking names of rivers to ancient myth is just speculation. How can it be otherwise? Some of the names are very old, for sure, but beyond that, who can say. The Barrow is a good example. Compare to the nearby Boro on the far side of the hills and other older records of that, which could simply combine two words ‘mhór’ and ‘abh’ or ‘ow’, simply the big river.”
In that spirit, I offer Athlone, or Ath Luain, which seemingly translates as ‘Ford of the Loins’ and refers to a ford in the Shannon where the victorious Donn Cúailnge, the Brown Bull of Cooley, dropped the loins of Finnbhennach (White Bull), the stud bull of Ailill mac Máta, the king of Connacht.
The Naming of the Lakes
In case you think this is a very sexist world in which only goddesses and princesses are drowned, let us now turn to some of the loughs of Ireland which, by and large, are named for gods. You have probably heard about the Children of Lir who were changed into swans and cursed by their stepmother to wander the lakes and rivers of Ireland until the curse was broken 900 years later. It’s hard not to think of them when you see swans in flight. That 900 year stretch was broken up into three 300 year chunks – the last two were in the English Channel and the open sea, but they actually spent the first 300 years fluttering around as swans on Lough Derreevagh. In County Cavan, there’s said to be a lake for each day of the year, including Lough Sheelin, the largest in the county. Lough Sheelin literally means ‘Lake of the Fairy Pool’, and refers to the Aos Sí , an elite group of “fairies’ who were the last survivors of the Tuath Dé Danann. I do not know who the Ramor of nearby Lough Ramor was, but that lake ‘burst forth’ nine years after Nemed came to Ireland, a few hundred years after ‘the Great Flood’.
Lough Neagh, Ireland’s biggest lake, is so large that it not only swallows up the River Bann, but also has five of the six counties of Northern Ireland along its shore. In Irish, Lough Neagh translates as Eachaidh’s lake [Aakh-ee’s lake]. Eachaidh, a son of a King of Munster, fell in love with his stepmum and attempted to elope but everything went wrong until Óengus – a sort of god of love – provided an enormous stallion and advised Eachaidh to mount the horse with his lover and keep galloping forever more. Eachaidh and his stepmum duly set off from Munster and had reached Ulster when they allowed the poor horse to stop for a pee. It so happened that there was a spring right by where the horse did his business and that became Lough Neagh. Or Lough Naaaaay if it helps you remember this tale. Eachaid decided this was a perfect spot to settle, popped a capstone over the spring and built a house. One night he forgot to put the capstone back on, and the spring rose up and drowned most of the cast.
Or maybe you prefer the version in which Finn MacCool, the warrior giant, scooped out a humongous chunk of rock from the earth, thus forming Lough Neagh, and hurled it a Scottish rival; it fell into the sea halfway and formed in the Isle of Man.
Lough Corrib and Lough Derg, Ireland’s second and third biggest lakes, are also both named for gods of the Tuatha Dé Danann.  Derg means ‘red’ but the name is actually slightly longer in Irish, Loch Derg Dherc, meaning ‘the Lake of the Red Eye’. It apparently takes its name from another one-eyed king (this time a monarch of south Connaught and Thomond) who was tricked into plucking out his only eye and giving it to a passing poet. When the king went to wash his wounded face in the lake, his attendant told him the water had turned red. The king declared that the lake would henceforth be ‘the Lake of the Red Eye’. (Although some say it was the poet who lost his eye and then named the lake …). And there are those who maintain that Lough Derg is named for Bodb Derg, meaning Red Crow, the most powerful magician of the Tuatha Dé Danann, who is said to have had his palace at Side Buidb somewhere near Portumna on the shores of Lough Derg.
The jury’s again out as to where Lough Ree and Lough Allen got their names.  Some say Ribh was an ancient god, while Lough Allen may be linked to Alúine, a Tuatha de Danaan god and fanatical fire-breathing pyromaniac who kept burning the palace at Tara to the ground until Finn MacCool beat him up. Inchclearaun, or “Clothru’s Island”, in Lough Ree, derives its name from Clothru, a daughter of Eochu Feidlech, then High King of Ireland. In the Ulster Cycle, she was drowned here by her own sister, Medbh, the future queen of Connacht. When Medbh retired to the Ireland many years later, she was killed by Clothru’s son Furbaide Ferbend, who sling-shot a piece of cheese in vengeance for the death of his mother.
Lough Key in County Roscommon always sounds funny. You lock your door with a key? Key is actually pronounced ‘Kay’ in Irish and takes its name from Cé, a druid who was wounded by a poisoned arrow during the annihilation of his people in a ferocious battle. He ‘rushed in madness and red lunacy’ until he came upon a heap of stones where he fell into a deep sleep. As he did so, the waters ‘burst forth around him’ and drowned him too.
These are legends. Stories handed down by mouth to mouth, mind to mind, in the generations before written time. They are fabulous tales, even if they all have a similarly dark conclusion. It’s important to hear such oral stories because there is a strange hint of truth in some of them. Rivers do have sources and salmon do swim up to them and lakes do sometimes burst forth. Indeed, there are actually 11 lake-bursts like this in ‘The Book of Invasions,’ including seven during the 25-year age of the Parthalon, not long after the flood, so that’s one for climactic change scholars to muse upon
But maybe you’re a realist and you’d rather learn that Lough Neagh was created by tectonic shifts 400 million years ago than Finn MacCool chucking mud-balls. For you, I now turn my attention as we home in on how all this ties in with the physical evidence – the geology and indeed the archaeology of our waterways.
Trying to make sense of the shape-shifting geology of Ireland is a complicated business. For instance, the island of Ireland was once split in two with the north-west chunk belonging to a continent called Laurentia, and the rest of the island being part of a continent called Gondwana. Or consider all those tectonic shifts that created our oceans umpteen million years ago. I am no geologist, but I do respect a mantra I once heard that “everything is geology”.
From my understanding, a period of glaciation kicked off about 120,000 years ago and Ireland disappeared under vast sheets of ice. I think it was at its thickest over present-day Fermanagh and Leitrim, where some sheets were apparently over 1km high.
Much of our present-day landscape was shaped by the glaciers that slipped, slid and retreated with the end of the Last Glacial Period about 27,000 years ago. The meltwaters, set free from the glaciers, rushed down from higher lands, carrying sand and gravel and boulders and clay, sculpting the bogs through which our canals now glide. They also carved paths through weaker sediments like the predominant limestone, leaving the harder rocks behind to form glens, valleys and rivers.
I believe this is when rivers like the Shannon, the Boyne and the Erne were formed. I know you may have just read what I had to say about how such rivers were carved out by ill-fated goddesses and impossibly wise salmon but, well, you’re unlikely to pass your geography exam if you write that sort of stuff.
Our rivers flow through corridors that were carved out, scoured, deepened and widened by glaciers during that last Ice Age. Sometimes they created eskers, or ridges, like the one by the Shannon on which the monastery of Clonmacnoise was built.
In other places they deposited mounds of earth called drumlins, such as those around the Ulster Canal, and most – if not all – of the 154 islands on Lough Erne, between the upper and lower lakes. Some of those islands on Lough Erne are pretty titchy, but they all tend to have the same drumlin-like shape – a round, steep back on the east side, and then a kind of staggered slope on the west side. That’s all sculpting from the last Ice Age.
When the ice melted, and the waterways began to appear, some of the first creatures to graze on the riverbanks were woolly mammoths and spotted hyenas and brown bears and Giant Deer.
We know about the Giant Deer because we keep finding their skeletons and heads and antlers. Quite a few were in the bogs at Sléibhte on the banks of the River Barrow, just outside Carlow Town. These poor Giant Deer were kyboshed about 10,000 years ago when the birth of forests completely transformed the island’s tundra landscape. The span of their antlers could grow up to more than twice the width of an average car – a lot to carry about – and the adult deer just couldn’t fit through all the newly formed trees. So, like the victims of a Greek curse, they became easy prey to hunters or, in the case of the luckless beasts of the Sléibhte bog, they scampered onto the marshland and sank. An inglorious end for such a lovely beast.
Ireland’s oldest-known graveyard is alongside one of Ireland’s best-known waterways. A burial pit for cremated bones, situated on a bend of the River Shannon by Castleconnell in County Limerick. The grave is from perhaps 10,000 years ago, a period called the Mesolithic.
Little is known of the Mesolithic people save that they were hunter-gatherers who voyaged on the waters in dug-out log-canoes. They trapped and speared migrating salmon, as well as sea bass, eel and other fish that swam up the estuaries and around the coastline. Ireland at that time was heavily wooded, mostly oak, so, for anyone trying to get into the interior of the island, rivers were a logical means of transport and communication. Boats, of course, were invented long before the wheel.
A small but hugely important Mesolithic settlement was established on a high ridge near Coleraine called Mount Sandel. Their community was built in a clearing in a primitive forest by the River Bann about 9000 years ago. Other Mesolithic communities existed on Lough Neagh in County Down, Lough Scur in Leitrim and the Lough Boora Parklands, just off the Grand Canal Greenway, about 20km west of Tullamore.
The Neolithic Age
It goes without saying that the Boyne Valley is a hugely rich area in terms of ancient archaeology. While flint tools from the Mesolithic people have been found, the Boyne Valley’s big moment came in the Neolithic period, or the ‘new stone age’, which commenced around 6,000 years ago. Brú na Bóinne is home to one of the world’s largest concentrations of Neolithic sites and megalithic art, including the passage grave at Newgrange, its pièce de resistance, and others at Knowth and Dowth.
During the amazing hot summer of 2018 in our pre-Covidean, pre-war bliss, the drought conditions enabled our archaeologists to find large numbers of items on that landscape that had not been sees before, including over 50 new monuments in the Boyne valley alone.
They found various log-boats, including at least one Neolithic boat that was going up and down the Boyne about 5000 years ago. There’s also evidence of a bunch of ancient weirs on the river Boyne and the tantalising hint of an ancient quay running underneath the surface. The archaeologist Steve Davis reckons there’s some kind of pier down towards Rossnaree too. Given that the Boyne has not changed a lot over the last 8,000 years, they may yet find a dock of some sort there. [5a]
There was Neolithic activity around the other waterways too, including a hat-trick of portal tombs on the upper reaches of the River Erne, near Scrabby Bridge, and a court tomb by Ballyconnell, County Cavan, just off the Shannon-Erne.
While draining the River Barrow at Monasterevin, County Kildare, to make it a more efficient waterway, they found literally hundreds of stone axe heads on the riverbed. These were mostly found in places where people could cross the river; there’s three such fords in the town. Logic suggests they were dropped in battle, but it is believed these were actually votive offerings from a time when the people of ancient Ireland sacrificed their axe heads to the rivers as a show of reverence for such and such a river god or goddess. Shields and spears were sometimes seemingly dropped into the rivers for the same reason. As mentioned earlier, the Barrow is probably named for a Tuatha de Danaan goddess, so maybe the axes are for her.
The Dinn Rígh Massacre
In about 300 BC, the story runs, a warrior named Labraidh Loinseach [Lob-brig Lyn-shock] returned home to Ireland after 30 years in exile. He was accompanied by a force of over 2,000 warriors, all armed with broad, blue-grey, razor-sharp iron spearheads called láigne. He sought vengeance against his wicked uncle Cobthach Coel [Cub-hock Coal], or Cobthach the Skinny, who had poisoned Labraidh’s grandfather and father and then stolen the throne of Leinster.
One way or another, Labraidh persuaded Cobthach to meet him inside a purpose-built palace at Dinn Rígh, the Hill of the Kings, near Leighlinbridge, on the River Barrow. Cobthach refused to attend unless Labraidh agreed to bring his mother and his beloved jester as a guarantee to his safety. Labraidh agreed and Cobthach arrived at at Dinn Rígh with his top thirty chieftains and 700 hardiest warriors. As they tucked into the food and ale, Cobthach was reassured to see Labraidh’s mother and jester sitting down with him.
But meanwhile, Labraidh chained the doors shut and burned the palace down, killing everyone, including his mother and his jester. The jester had been promised freedom for his family if he died, while Labraidh’s devoted mother was apparently happy to be roasted alive if it meant her son would at last become High King of Ireland, which he did.
According to the Book of Leinster, the kingdom (and now province) of Leinster derives its Irish name ‘Laigin’ from the láigne spears used by Labraidh’s warriors from that part of the world.
The Boa Island Figures
Boa Island, the largest island in Lough Erne, is home to some astonishing relics from ancient times in the form of a two-foot-tall stone figure of a pagan deity, worshipped 2000 years ago, maybe more. It’s known as a bilateral figure, meaning it has two sides, a male on one and a female on the other. The female, who is sticking her tongue out, might be Badhbha (Bive), the Celtic goddess of war, for whom Boa Island is maybe named. We’re in speculation territory again. Badhbha is quite often depicted as a crow and this figure does not look like a crow.
There was a theory that the Boa figure was connected to the Roman deity Janus, as in January, who is often depicted with two sides, or two faces, because he is the god of beginnings and endings, as well as gates and doorways, all of which have two faces. (Next time you slam your thumb in a door, you know Janus has it in for you.) The notion that the Boa Island figure was connected to Janus got a bit of a lift when the late and much lamented Seamus Heaney penned his gorgeous poem “January God” in which he made the comparison as follows:
Then I found a two-faced stone
On burial ground,
God-eyed, sex-mouthed, its brain
A watery wound.
In the wet gap of the year,
Daubed with fresh lake mud,
I faltered near his power –
Who broke the water, the hymen
With his great antlers
There reigned upon each ghost tine
The mothering earth, the stones
Taken by each wave,
The fleshly aftergrass, the bones
Subsoil in each grave.
That said, from what I can gather, most archaeologists are pretty sure that the Boa Island figure is not a representation of Janus. The island is also home to the similar but slightly older Lustymore Island figure, which moved to Boa in 1939 after its discovery in an early Christian graveyard on Lustymore Island, just to the south. Some have hailed this as an early version of the Sheela na gig carving that appeared in Ireland in the medieval age: her arms lie across her torso and are point toward an inverted V, which represents the top of the vulva.
When were these made? Who knows? Maybe the Iron Age but there are also some primitive looking carved figures on White Island in Lough Erne from the early Christian period …
The Bog Toghers
Ireland’s waterways were a lot messier in days of old, before we tamed the riverbanks and invested a huge amount of manpower into controlling the flow. Two thousand years ago, the riverbanks would have been much boggier, marshier, swampier. If you were trying to cross on foot, or with a horse, or a chariot, there were only a handful of places along any given river where you could do so – either because there was a bridge, or a ford of some sort.
However, we also have evidence of numerous bog roads, or toghers, that were laid upon the surface of these marshlands to help people get from A to B. They were built by laying large rough-hewn planks of oak and brushwood on the boggy ground, on which a layer of gravel was then spread so that the roads could be used by carts and chariots.
One such togher runs through the great Midlands bog at Mayne in County Westmeath. It runs for nearly 700 metres through the bog to the River Inny where there appears to have been some sort of platform of crossing timbers, a bridge of sorts, while there’s evidence of another oak-wood trackway on the other side of the Inny that continues on from there.
Not surprisingly, fords and other crossing points on Irish rivers became the places where communities gathered and settlements evolved. In the Irish language, a ford is an áth. There are two excellent examples on the River Suck at Ballinasloe (Béal Átha na Sluaighe), meaning ‘mouth of the ford of the crowds’ and Athleague (Áth Liag), meaning ‘ford of the flagstones’.
Other examples include Dublin (Baile Átha Cliath), the original settlement of which was situated on a ridge overlooking a shallow ford in the river Liffey; Athlone (Baile Átha Luain), meaning ‘town of Luan’s ford’ on the River Shannon; Athenry (Baile Átha ‘n Rí), meaning ‘town of the river ford’ or ‘kings ford’ on the River Clarin, Athy (Baile Átha Í), meaning ‘The town of the ford of Í’ on the River Barrow; Athgoe (Áth Gó), meaning ‘ford of the water’ and referring to a tributary of the River Camac; Swinford on the Cloghmuck river; Ballina (Béal an Átha), meaning ‘mouth of the ford’ on the River Moy, and Enniskerry (Áth na Sceire), meaning ‘rugged ford’ on the Glencullen River.
Where did people live a thousand years ago? Well, there’s at least 194 ringforts within three kilometres of Lough Ree. Normally such low-lying land would not be considered ideal for ringforts but there were other attractions, not least the lake itself which provided access to the Shannon running north and south.
Perhaps the most remarkable riverine residences were crannogs, those semi-artificial, circular islands found through Ireland’s lakelands. On the island of Ireland, they have found evidence of about 2,000 crannogs as of 2022, but more are found every year, submerged under marshlands and buried amid the soggy peats, clays and reeds. Crannogs derives their name from ‘crann’, an Irish word for tree. They are generally thought to have been built for the higher echelons of society between the 5th and 10th century AD, although some crannogs in Scotland have transpired to be considerably older than that.
Building a crannog required a huge amount of physical effort in the days before machinery, as well as actual material– layer upon layer of timber, stone, peat, gravel, brushwood and sods of earth. Some are in shallow water; others, way out from the shore. They tend to be on smaller lakes, as the bigger lakes like Lough Erne and Lough Derg have more exposed and stormier shores. Crannoges went out of fashion when the Vikings arrived.
The Christian Era
During the 6th century, Ireland’s waterways became channels of spirituality, routes by which the word of Christianity could be spread. As such they played a major role in cementing Ireland’s reputation as the island of saints and scholars. Indeed there is an incredibly rich architectural legacy along every single Irish waterway in Ireland that connects us right back to those early monasteries and the beginning, for better or worse, of the Christian era in Ireland.
Christianity’s revolutionary concepts found a willing audience in Ireland in the fifth century. There’s much debate about who the first Christian missionaries were but we obviously all know about Saint Patrick, the ex-slave from afar who returned to Ireland with stories of a carpenter’s son who could turn water into wine. He began by converting the royals and the aristocracy. The rest of the people followed suit and, by and by, this island on the very frontier of the known world became one of the most proudly Christian places on Planet Earth.
The “conversion” of Ireland was actually a very sloooooow process. The island was still full of druids and people who worshipped the old gods for much of what we call the early Christian era. However, there were clearly many early Christian pioneers seeking to spread the word around Ireland. How did they get around? Where did they live? We’re back to the waterways.
An awful lot of early Christian monasteries were located on, or very near, rivers and lakes. As said, this was an age in which the waterways were the main highways by which people travelled as so much of Ireland was covered in wood. It’s hard to get to grips with that today because there’s been so much deforestation over the last few hundred years, which has completely changed our landscape. There were certainly a lot more trees about when St Patrick was doing the rounds.
Bear in mind that there’s also been a huge amount of human graft to get rivers like the Boyne and the Barrow into the svelte shape they’re in today. The Shannon stands slightly apart from them, but most Irish rivers were an awful lot sprawlier and marshier a thousand years ago.
Christianity came to Ireland in a series of waves of monastic settlement that kicked off in the age of St Patrick and kept going, right through until the Normans and the medieval period, when proper monastic orders like the Cistercians, the Augustinians, the Dominicans and the Franciscans were established. Beautiful examples of architecture from nearly all of those eras survive along most Irish waterways and loughs, including churches, abbeys, monastic schools and holy wells.
Early Christianity on the Barrow.
The goodly Barrow, Ireland’s second longest river, rises in the Slieve Blooms of County Laois and flows south through Counties Kildare, Carlow, Kilkenny, Wexford and Waterford in southeast Ireland, reaching the Celtic Sea at Waterford Harbour. This 192km (119-mile) river was a hotspot for early Irish monasteries, of which many ruins of rubble and stone still amazingly survive today, as well as graveyards, holy wells and granges (monastic farms). Many of these sites are on private land so you are not necessarily entitled to stroll onto the land to view them. I’d recommend contacting the local tourist board or heritage office for specifics. This section below looks at some highlights of the early Christian era on the Barrow.
St Mullins is an especially picturesque village in south County Carlow, where Saint Moling founded a monastery on the eastern bank of the Barrow in the early 7th century. This is precisely where the River Barrow ceased to be either tidal or navigable. Prior to Saint Moling’s time, the place was known as Rinn Ruis Broic, the wood of the badger, after an oakwood that stood above the stream-pools of the Barrow. Rinn Ruis Broic was the last port of call on the Barrow for any merchant boats coming from Britain, or perhaps Europe, seeking to trade with the indigenous people of this part of the world. It also formed part of the border between the kingdoms of Leinster and Osraige (Ossory).
As a border point and trading post, Rinn Ruis Broic had a reputation as a rough spot before St Moling set up his hermitage here. Moling is said to have been a boatman who ferried pilgrims across the Barrow. Others have proclaimed him a miller, who dug a millrace to this very spot with his own bare hands, as well as a holy well. In any event, the waters of St Mullins became so highly regarded that pilgrims began to flock to the riverside monastery to wash and purify themselves, so that “the filth of their sins in the very washing will, by grace of God, be washed away.”
One autumnal day in 1348, some 600 years after the time of St Moling, John Clyn, a Franciscan friar based in Kilkenny, visited St Mullins and described it in his diary:
“Great numbers of bishops and prelates, ecclesiastical and religious, peers and others, and in general people of both sexes, flocked together … so that many thousands might be seen there together for many days; some came out of devotion, but the greater part for fear of the pestilence which raged at that time with great violence….”
The buildings scattered around St Mullins today were generally constructed between the 11th and 15th centuries, and include an oratory (reputedly roofed with wood from the sacred yew of Ross), a well, a belfry, a series of walls, part of an old high cross and, perhaps above all, an incredible ambience of serenity. Every time I meet anyone who’s been to St Mullins they say, “God, I had no idea it was so beautiful.”
Follow the Barrow north, Ullard, on the west bank, was home to a church founded by Saint Fiachra, a man with a random hat-trick of responsibilities up his sleeve as patron saint of gardening, taxis and people with venereal disease. Legend holds that Fiacra was the go-to man in Ireland for herbal remedies during his youth, but he became so overwhelmed by his popularity that he felt compelled to flee the maddening crowds and sailed for France. He established a sort of backpacker’s hospice, or guest house, at Breuil, about 50km east of Paris, where he also planted vegetables and herbs. His garden evolved into the present-day commune of Saint-Fiacre and, needless to say, Saint Fiachra of Breuil is considered a very important guy in that part of the world.
Onwards up the Barrow, there was a monastic school at Rath Melsigi [Rath mell-shih-gah], near Clonmelsh, a thousand years ago, but the site was gobbled up by a quarry in recent times. Among those educated here was the eminent St. Willibrord [Villie broad], who went on to become first Bishop of Utrecht, the first Apostle of the Frisians and the Patron Saint of Luxembourg.
During the 7th century, the monastic school [see below] at Old Leighlin apparently housed 1500 monks. It was also the venue for a massive event in Irish history, which connects to the date on which Easter Sunday falls. Long ago, Easter Sunday was a day in which the Christian world marked the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the 2020s, of course, it’s about the Easter Bunny and how many chocolate eggs you can stuff into your knapsack by lunchtime. In any event, back in 630 AD, there was a synod in Old Leighlin, a gathering of all the church big-wigs, to decide upon the best day for Easter Sunday. It was agreed that the Irish church would abandon the old Celtic date for Easter Sunday and henceforth follow the Roman date for Easter Sunday. That might sound a bit small fry now, but it was an immense moment in history because that’s really when Ireland began to become Roman Catholic, rather than simply Christian. If your Easter holiday plans are scuppered by the way Easter Sunday falls this year, you know who to blame.
Skipping on up the Barrow, past the Carmelite monastery of Leighlinbridge and all the goings on in Carlow Town, you’ll find the remains of another ancient Barrow-side monastery at Sléibhte (Sleaty), just north of Carlow, close to Knockbeg College. In the 7th century, this monastery was run by a fellow named Áed, who commissioned one of the first biographies of St Patrick a couple of hundred years after the death of the great saint. Wander around this serene and atmospheric monastery today and you’ll find some very, very old-world crosses embedded in the ground.
Athy also has heaps of churches, post- Anglo-Norman foundations, and I’ll return to them another time. Monasterevin is one of the bigger towns on the Barrow Line of the Grand Canal. It takes its name from St Evin who, sticking with that St Patrick theme, apparently wrote one of the first biographies of St Paddy. Evin was a member of Munster’s royal family who, the story runs, settled here on the banks of a tributary of the Barrow about 1400 years ago. He was accompanied by fifty fellow monks, also from Munster, so the community was known for a long time as Rosglos-na-Moinneach [Russ-glas-na-Mween-ack], the green woods of the Munstermen.
I have already mentioned the monastic schools at Old Leighlin and Rath Melsigi on the River Barrow as examples of these schools, secular and lay, that arose during the Golden Age to give Ireland its name as the island of saints and scholars. These were boarding schools in ancient times, the prototype of our universities. They offered a rare semblance of an urban environment, with communities that specialised in education as well as art, metalworking, calligraphy, manuscript illumination and such like. I’m unsure how elite they were but if you were a part of the elite, a king or a chief, you’d probably be keen for your little boy to go and learn a bit of theology and divinity and maybe some practical subjects too – commerce, agriculture, Greek, Latin, science. (And yes, I say boy because I don’t see much evidence of the girls getting much of a look in those times. Maybe I am looking in the wrong place?)
Most of these schools were located close to rivers and lakes. It made sense to build them on a waterway. Accessibility and education often go hand in hand. A few grassy hillocks and a sycamore tree just south of the River Nore by Mountrath, County Laois, are all that remain of Saint Fintan’s monastic school at Clonenagh, where 4,000 foreign students once apparently studied. Clonard on the River Boyne in County Meath was another distinguished seat of learning in medieval times. Founded by St Finian, it boasted 3,000 students at its peak, some coming from as far away as Germany and France.
Bangor Abbey on Belfast Lough was founded by Comgall, who had set off to convert the heathen Picts of Scotland to Christianity as a young fellow. Bangor was hugely important in its glory days as a centre of learning and Christian zeal that rivalled the island of Iona. It had a celebrated scriptorium where monks would sit and transcribe and ancient works. (They invented plenty of ancient works too, but that’s another story!) The students at Bangor also learned how to write and amazingly some of the words they wrote and the doodles they doodled can be seen in surviving manuscripts from the 7th and 8th century. In the margins of one such work, somebody wrote “Let no reader blame this writing for my arm is cramped from too much work.” In another, a student laments: “alas my hand… It is time for dinner!” It’s always very refreshing to find such glimpses of humanity and humour in ages past.
Bangor, like several Irish monasteries, was renowned for sending its pupils into voluntary exile in far off lands. Among them was Saint Columbanus, a personal favourite of mine, who was patron saint of motor-bikers among other things. Columbanus was a key player in Europe in the 7th century, preaching to people like the Merovingian king Guntram of Burgundy and founding monasteries in France, Switzerland and Italy. He also composed a poem for his disciples to sing as they heaved upon the oars and rowed his boat up the majestic River Rhine in about 600 AD, which is deemed one of the earliest recorded boat-songs. Here is a stanza in English:
Lo, cut in forests, the driven keel, passes on the stream
Of the twin-horned Rhine and glides as if anointed by the flood.
Heave, my men! Let resounding echo sound our Heave!’
Clonmacnoise on the River Shannon is arguably Ireland’s most famous medieval monastery – or a tie for first place with Glendalough perhaps? Established by St. Ciaran in 548 A.D, Clonmacnoise was built on the wet, boggy eastern banks of the Shannon, which doesn’t sound like a very promising to build anything. And yet somehow, it flourished to become another celebrated seat of learning, a quasi-university, with umpteen hundreds of students flooding in from all over Europe between the 7th and 12th centuries. Today, Clonmacnoise holds what is apparently the largest collections of Early Christian grave-slabs in Western Europe. On top of that, there are the ruins of a cathedral, seven churches, three high crosses, two round towers and … a partridge in a pear tree? Pope John Paul II turned up at Clonmacnoise back in 1979. It was supposed to be a secret, but someone whispered to someone else and by the time Il Papa rocked up, there were 30,000 people waiting to catch a glimpse.
The monastic settlements of Clonmacnoise and Durrow are also symbolised by four 25-foot tall steel figurines on the N52 bypass outside Tullamore. Created by artist Maurice Harron, three of the figurines holds something up – a book, a chalice, a staff – while the fourth appears to be throwing a flock of birds or souls.
The medieval cathedral of Clonfert stands across the River Shannon in the east of County Galway. Brendan the Navigator is credited with founding a major ecclesiastical school here which, again, had 3000 plus students at its peak. Brendan, famed for taking his curragh north to what sure sounds like Iceland, is reputedly buried here. He arranged for his body to be taken here secretly, and buried under an unremarkable rock, so that his grave didn’t stand out from the crowd. This was partly because he didn’t want his remains to be disinterred by relic hunters. Bear in mind that almost every other medieval saint seems to have had their body dissected into multiple parts, a bone here, a bone there, to be worshipped by the goodly pilgrims.
Among the other monastic schools and missionary training centres on Irish waterway were those on the island of Inchcleraun in the north end of Lough Ree, founded by Dermot the Just, and Holy Island, or Inis Cealtra, in Lough Derg, founded by St Caimin. Away from the water, another monastic school evolved on the site of Sr Brigid’s monastic foundation at Kildare on the western edge of the Curragh.
Anchorites & Hermits
During the early medieval period, many Christians didn’t want to be part of any monastic school or community. These were the hermits, or anchorites. They sought a closer relationship with God by living in splendid isolation, especially on the islands of Ireland’s inland lakes and rivers. Their preferred place for seclusion and meditation seems to have been caves and beehive huts, like those found on the jagged edges of Skellig Michael, an island 7 miles off the coast of County Kerry, which is also where Luke Skywalker went to be a hermit following the destruction of the New Jedi Order by nasty old Kylo Ren.
Some early Irish hermits preferred to live on islands off the coast of, say, Connemara or Donegal. The sort of place where your best pal’s going to be a puffin and there’s unlikely to be a whole lot of interruption from other humans. That said, I have seen it argued that these hermits weren’t quite so isolated and reclusive as we might think. Perhaps they had a lot more neighbours back in the day, friendly neighbours, whose houses have just vanished over time. They might even have lived in clusters. Communities of hermits? Is that a perfect oxymoron?
But some hermits really did live on their own, doing penance by living in the most inhospitable place they could find. I take my hat off to those who did. Puffins are cute but its a hard, hard life to live in a place like Skellig Michael during a 9th century hurricane, with the icy cold ocean tearing strips off the rocks all around you. Not for me, sir.
If I was to be reincarnated as a 9th century monk, I’d follow the lead of those wise men and women who turned away from the turbulent ocean in favour of Ireland’s inland waterways. In fact, I’d head for a lake, and I’d find a nice woody island where I’m still going to be pretty cut off from the distractions of everyday society, but at least I can get a decent night’s sleep because the climate is a little more benign than it is on an island in the Atlantic Ocean.
The islands on the lakes of Ireland became very popular places of retreat for hermits, and indeed for monks and certain nuns, during the Golden Age of Irish Christianity. There were monasteries on at least 103 islands around Ireland. Half of those were on sea islands, out on the coast, like Skellig Michael, but the other half were island monasteries in inland waters.
Island Monasteries on Lough Erne: El Dorado for Monks
More than half of the 51 island monasteries on inland waters were established in what is now Northern Ireland. Lough Erne in County Fermanagh was especially popular. The German historian Annette Kehnel counted 12 separate monastic island communities scattered around Upper and Lower Lough Erne.  She rather poetically referred to Lough Erne as ‘an El Dorado for monks’. Annette Kehnel also observed that all the islands on Lough Erne would have been much smaller in those days because the lough was lowered by 8 feet (or 2.5 metres) in 1884 to sort out drainage issues. Hence, the islands all grew! Boa Island became a peninsula when they drained it, while the monasteries at Rossory  and Inishkeen are now on the lakeshore but a thousand years ago, these would have been islands monasteries too. Always bearing in mind the slow but steady change in the shape of our landscape.
During the heyday of those twelve island monasteries on Lough Erne, the lake was a busy highway, offering, for instance, access from Ballyshannon, the mouth of the River Erne, on the west coast of Ireland deep into the heart of the country, as the Vikings would later discover to their immense pleasure. I believe the Atlantic is only four or five hours from Lough Erne if you row at a healthy pace but please correct me if I am wrong. The River Erne also offered a way out of the country if you could follow it to estuary at Ballyshannon, from where you could bring a boat south to, say, get a view of Croagh Patrick in County Mayo, or go see your in-laws up in Galway.
With all this traffic to’ing and fro’ing along Lough Erne, some, if not most, of those island monasteries served as medieval hostels, places where travellers and pilgrims could stay on their journey, get a bite to eat, say a few prayers and bank some more time in heaven by handing over a few coins to the head monk. Maybe you get to see the ankle bone of some martyred saint as a trade-off, and hopefully you’ll also get a good night’s sleep.
That tradition of offering hospitality to travellers and pilgrims was certainly going on at Devenish Island, the isle of oxen, one of Ulster’s most important monasteries for almost a thousand years. A tale is told that Fionn Mac Cumhaill found the biblical prophet Jeremiah washed up on Irish shores after a shipwreck, along with the Lia Fail, or Stone of Destiny, and that the prophet was then laid to rest upon this very island. The Irish name Diarmuid or Dermot derives from Jeremiah, as does Jeremy. I’ve visited Devenish a couple of times on the MV Kestrel from Enniskillen, a lovely journey up the River Erne. The monastery was apparently founded about 1500 years ago, the 6th century, by a saint called Molaise [Mollee-shah] – some call him Laisrén – whose oratory can be seen on the island.  His followers became known as the Culdees (Céilí Dé), Companions of God, and produced a Gospel-book, the surviving parts of which are securely kept at the National Museum in Dublin. About five centuries after Molaise, Augustinian monks came and built a newer, flashier priory on the same site. It was standard practice for such newcomers to improve the existing set-up, make it bigger, with all new mod-cons such as the fabulous 81-foot-high round tower the Augustinians built on Devinish. Clamber up the steps to its conical roof and behold an amazing view of gorgeous, fertile green countryside all around for many miles and miles. Among numerous other things to see on the island are a 13th century temple built by the Maguire kings of Fermanagh.
The monastery on Inishmacsaint, near Devenish, was reputedly founded by St. Ninnidh, one of the Twelve Apostles of Ireland, who is also associated with the parish of Knockninny [Cnoc Ninnidh] in County Fermanagh. Ninnidh apparently only had one eye, or he squinted with the other one, and he is thus known as Ninnidh leth derc (One-Eyed Ninnidh.) His hand-bell was in Castle Caldwell in the 1830s and may have been the one known as the Castledermot Bell that was in Kilkea Castle up until 1906. [See here] I’m told the island of Inishmacsaint was originally known as Inismuighesamb, a nod to the story of a hound called Saimer that drowned in Lough Erne, and Inishmacsaint is apparently a modern-day interpretation of that name.
White Island  in Castle Archdale Bay off the east shore of Lower Lough Erne Erne is home to small Romanesque church, built about 800 years ago, with a wonderful panel of eight much, much older figures carved from quartzite – three pairs of caryatids, an uncarved figure and a frowning face.
Nearby Boa Island holds its own very old figures, as mentioned earlier.
Island Monasteries on the River Shannon
A thousand years ago there was an extraordinary cluster of monasteries in the Shannon Estuary and right up the river, including the great ecclesiastical schools of Clonmacnois and Clonfert. One of the best known was at Scattery Island, or Inis Cathaigh, in the mouth of the Shannon. This is where Senán, patron saint of County Clare, founded a monastery back in 534.  And more power to St Senan because he rid the Shannon of its monster. You might not know the Shannon had a monster, but Inis Cathaigh means the island of Cata and Cata was a most fearsome creature with a horse’s mane, gleaming eyes, thick feet, nails of iron and a whale’s tail. A sort of maritime Gruffalo. Senan defeated the brute and founded his monastery in celebration. Today, you can still see that settlement through the remains of his oratory, his house, seven chapels and a round tower which, measuring 120 feet high, is one of the tallest in Ireland.
Onwards up the Shannon to the island of Inishlosky near the Tipperary-Clare border. The island was populated by monks from Montpellier in the south of France. However, shortly after they founded their church, they had to evacuate the island because of rising waters. Flooding on the Shannon has clearly been an ongoing problem since time began.
Lough Derg – the one on the Shannon, rather than the well-known pilgrim site in County Donegal – is the biggest lake on the river. It was home to three island monasteries, the most famous being Holy Island.  Its Irish name ‘Inis Cealtra’ means “island of the burials” and refers to the island’s busy ‘Saints’ Graveyard.’ This fertile, 50-acre island was somewhat prior to the 1920s when they built the power station at Ardnacrusha and the water level in Lough Derg rose – another instance of the changed landscape in which we live.
Holy Island’s first recorded inhabitant was a hermit named MacCriche who resided here in 555 AD and, it is said, lived upon a honey-like juice, drawn from a tree, which possessed the headiness of wine. Hermits like MacCriche didn’t necessarily just pray, meditate, bathe their bunions and smoke fish all day. They were well read, well educated, intelligent people with a good head for engineering, maths and such like. Maybe you’re trying to repair a road or build a new bridge and you hear of a hermit called Fintan who’s good at geometry. Offer him some alms and maybe he’ll help.
MacCriche was clearly onto something because within 150 years or so, two monasteries had been established on the island. The first was founded by St. Colum in the 6th century. In the 7th century, a second monastery was founded by St Caimin, a Benedictine monk. I suspect he may have been inspired to succeed due to a bad case of sibling rivalry. According to the Annals of the Four Masters, his mother had 77 children. In any case, he turned his monastery into a celebrated scholastic institution, a great centre of learning and art. Among those who reputedly studied here was St Donagh. One day Donagh decided to head out from Inis Cealtra on a pilgrimage to the Apostle’s tombs in Rome. During this long and arduous journey, he popped into a town called Fiesole, north of Florence. As chance would have it, he arrived just as Fiesole’s citizens were about to elect a new bishop. When Donagh strolled into the cathedral, the bells began to ring and the lamps and candles burst into light. Putting two and two together, the citizens figured Donagh was a pretty magical guy and elected him their bishop. Given that the citizens had drowned their previous bishop, it’s possible that demand for the job was not high.
Donagh remained Bishop of Fiesole for over half a century and became an advisor to one of Charlemagne’s grandsons. Donagh, or Donatus, remains one of the most revered saints in Tuscany and you’ll find his name in numerous churches and place names throughout the region. Now, you might scoff and say ‘what baloney’ and fair enough. Were these people real? Did Donagh exist? Did the saints exist!? I don’t know. We’re told that they did, but there’s certainly much room for doubt. And, yet, something was happening in all of these places, these monasteries, be they small island retreats or the big monastic schools. The people of Ireland used to believe in nothing but pagan gods. However, by the close of the 9th century, I think you’d be hard pushed to meet an Irishman or woman who didn’t say their bedtime prayers to anyone except the Christian God.
Part in parcel with that is the wonderful fact that if all the world’s a stage, nobody has taken all the props and scenery away. As such, Holy Island still holds a very well-preserved Round Tower, an Anchorites’ cell, a holy well, and the ruins of six churches. This was the stage on which the monks once strutted and fretted in the time of Donagh of Fiesole and such like.
Island monasteries were also established further up the Shannon on Loughs Allen, Ree and Key. Lough Key has over thirty wooded islands and monks were, of course, on a bunch of them, the best known being Holy Trinity Island, Church Island and tiny Hermit Island near the north shore of the lake. Inchmacnerin Abbey on Church Island was supposedly founded in the 6th century AD, by Columba (Saint Colum Cille), the patron saint of Derry who brought Christianity to the Scots. An anchorite by name of Giolla Iosa Ua Gibellain (aka Giblin) is mentioned by the Four Masters as a Trinity Island inhabitant in 1234.
Lough Ree is apparently home to 52 islands, some little more than an acre big, some over 200 acres. I imagine the feet of monks trod upon each and every one of those 52 islands in ancient times but, in terms of what’s known, Inchmore,  the largest island on the lake, was home to a fifth century hermit called Lioban, son of Lossenus. Inchcleraun, also called Quaker Island, is home to the ruins of a substantial monastic school founded by Diarmaid the Just in 560 AD, while St Ciaran, the sort of headmaster of Clonmacnoise, is credited with founding the monasteries on Hare Island and Saints Island. Inchbofin also traces its monastic heritage to a 5th century hermit, Rioch, and there is an outside chance that Lough Ree itself is named for Rioch. Staying on Lough Ree,
There is also a ruined church on the seven acre island of Inishmagrath (Inch Island) on the north west shore of Lough Allen in County Leitrim. This church was apparently founded in the 6th century by St Hugh, or St. Aedh, a ‘primitive saint’ and friend of St. Columba. He was variously known as the Apostle of Westmeath and Beo-Aodh (Lively Hugh) on account of his great missionary zeal. There is also and a disused graveyard on the island.
The island monasteries had their hey-day in the 8th centuries, before the Vikings came in strong, but they would bounce back from those attacks. In due course, I will home in on how the Christian church had a reboot under orders like the Augustinians and the Cistercians before the tyrant king Henry VIII closed down the whole shebang in the 1540s. But, for now, I hope this tale has helped you to see how Ireland’s waterways played such a crucial role in our history from the beginning of known time to an age when the beacon of light shone from Gaelic Ireland, a beacon that would keep Christianity lit during the strange centuries that followed the fall of the Roman Empire in Europe.
A Night on Lough Ree
I spent a night on Lough Ree in the summer of 2021, slumbering on a boat called Turgesius, listening to the water splashing against the hull. I sailed under the command of my pal John who wanted to show me Inchbofin, the island where monks and hermits once hid out. The sky was a handsome silvery grey when we set out from Glasson but, as we rowed out to the island itself, a dark cloud began showering down from the hemisphere all around us. By the time we’d hauled our rowing boat ashore and clambered up to the Augustinian monastery itself, we were so soaked that we may as well have swum out to the island. The woods around the ruins were dense with willow, elder, hawthorn, purple loosestrife and creamy pink crabapple, and the rain was so loud and monsoonal that I couldn’t hear a word my colleague was saying about the history of it all. And yet it was worth it, just to see the last traces of that beautiful monastery with its Romanesque windows and the walls of the rooms where the Black Canons once held sway. To feel, for a brief, rain-splattered moment, what it might have been like to be a monk here a thousand years ago.
That evening we moored by the floating ferry on Rindoon, as I was eager to see the remains of that curious Norman fortress come the morrow. A storm came in during the night so that my makeshift bed was like lying beneath a basketball court with a couple of dozen tireless basketballers, each with their own ball, rushing around and round directly above you. Occasionally the sky rumbled and full sheets of rain splashed against the window. It was constant. Next morning we still couldn’t access the shore with the choppy waves so, feeling like Wolfe Tone at Bantry Bay, I said ‘Farewell Rindoon’ and waved goodbye to the land on which I never stood.
After the storm came peace. Complete peace. Total silence but for the bleat of a distant sheep as the morning light blossomed. Or the cry of a gull scooting along the wind-rippled waters where monks and Vikings and Georgian gentry have sailed, Tudor adventurers too. Now it’s a haven for marsh birds – wigeon and lapwings, swans, herons and so on. I saw a very content egret rain-bathing (it wasn’t sun-bathing weather) on one of the shallow bed markers and buoys in those serene waters. It was joyous. Just quietly gliding by those lovely moisture-filled islands. You can see why those early hermits, churchmen and churchwomen embraced a place like Lough Ree, with its relatively tame isolation, and how they favoured it as place for their ascetic retreat.
Elsewhere, cattle grazed along the low shores. The water level never rises much as the lake is just so big and the land around it so low. The water must taste of peat though, especially where it flows in from the bog. I’m thinking specifically of Inny Bay, where the River Inny comes into Lough Ree after its long journey through Westmeath, Cavan and Longford from its source at Loughcrew in County Meath.
Just west of that place where the Inny meets Lough Ree is a 196-acre townland called Bethlehem (Beithil), where the Poor Clares ran a nunnery in the 18th century. Its right on the eastern shore of Lough Ree, directly opposite the Rindoon peninsula, and touches on Doonis Lough.
A Potted History of Canals
Canals are very logical structures. You have one water channel on your left and another on your right. To get water from one channel into the other, you cut a track – a canal – through the land that connects the two. The Grand Canal involved digging out a 132km (82 mile) artificial channel, including 43 locks. The new canal did bring new industry to the regions it passed through, although the kegs of Guinness stout were not quite as full when they reached their destination as they had been when they left the Guinness brewery.
Canals were cut in Mesopotamia (Iraq) at least 6,000 years ago, while other early examples can be found in ancient India, Egypt and Afghanistan. The Chinese invented rising gates, slipways and other clever ways to transport vast shipments of rice and grain around the country. This culminated in the construction of the Jing–Hang Grand Canal, that runs for over a thousand miles, which is the longest canal in the world and always has been. It starts in present-day Beijing and connects with both the Yellow River and the Yangtze river. This incredible feat of engineering has been consistently developed over the last thousand years or so, but China’s Grand Canal had its genesis back in in the 7th century, at about the same time that the early Christians were starting to build island monasteries in Ireland.
By the time the Viking began raiding Irish monasteries in the 9th century, the Chinese had invented the pound lock, the first device by which boats were lowered and raised through a built-in chamber, and the ancestor of our present-day canal locks.
Around the time of the Cambro-Norman conquest, the ingenious Cistercian monks built a large number of abbeys along multiple Irish waterways, including Mellifont, Boyle, Jerpoint, Duiske (Graiguenamagh) and so on. The Cistercians excelled at building weirs. In the late 12th century, the first artificial channels were carved. I’m willing to stand corrected, but I believe the oldest “canal” is the Friar’s Cut in Galway, which enabled boats to pass through an island at the southern end of Lough Corrib into Galway Bay.
The 12th and 13th centuries also brought the construction of the first proper weirs on Irish rivers – a weir being a dam, or barrier of stones, laid across a river to create a pool or pools of water. Such pools were useful for keeping fish stock, but also vital for raising raise water levels in shallow areas so that boats could navigate the surface. Weirs also meant people could divert water from the rivers into mill races, special channels that turned water wheels which, in turn, created waterpower to crush oats for making loaves of bread.
Following William of Orange’s victory at the battle of the Boyne in the 1690s, there was a new age in store for the Irish waterways. King Billy was Dutch, and that Dutch link is important. The Dutch are world-renowned at building canals and waterways, as well as reclaiming water. Bismarck once allegedly remarked that if the Dutch were given Ireland, they would make it the most beautiful island in the world, but if the Irish had charge of the Netherlands, they would fail to maintain all the dykes and dams, and everyone would drown. I don’t know if Bismarck ever actually delivered such an outrageous remark, but it does underline how the Dutch were so admired for their skill at taming river, lake and sea.
By the early 1700s, a growing interest in Irish waterways generally prompted the Irish parliament in Dublin to pass an act in 1715 “to encourage the draining and improving of the bogs and unprofitable low grounds, and for easing and dispatching the inland carriage and conveyance of goods from one Part to another within this kingdom.”
In the ensuing decades, there was an enormous amount of “draining and improving” of bogs and such like to make the land more profitable. Some was more successful than others. The act also referred to the ‘easing and dispatching the inland carriage and conveyance of goods.’ In other words, the notion that the transport system could be boosted by new canals and river navigations to get people and products from A to B.
On the back of the 1715 act, eighteen different navigation schemes were launched across Ireland in the early 18th century. Almost all of them were complete disasters, mostly because too much money was required to get each project off the ground, and to then keep them in motion
Only two schemes enjoyed any progress – a minor tweak to the River Maigue near Adare Manor in County Limerick, and a scheme to make the Liffey more navigable. However, even the Liffey scheme came a cropper in the long run.
Tolls were introduced to generate some of the money required to run these navigations. It was also hoped that each canal would generate its own income by the very nature of the goods being transported such as, say, bringing coal from the coalmines of Tyrone or Roscommon to the household of Dublin. Coal was starting to earn big bucks for canal investors in England so there was plenty of interest in Ireland.
In 1759, Henry Brooke, a map maker, described Irish waterways as a giant spiders’ web that would enable Ireland “to spin her own web of happiness out of her own bowels.” Brooke reckoned that if 80,000 idle hands were put to work, Dublin and the Shannon could be connected within a year! It took rather longer than a year, and for slightly crazy reasons, they ended up building two canals from to Dublin to the Shannon instead of one … for which the building and maintenance costs were massive, and constant.
Ultimately, almost every canal in Ireland was doomed to disappoint – leaky, money-munching, exhausting. Ironically, just as they worked out how to build sensible canals that didn’t leak in the 1840s, the railway arrived and utterly knocked them for six. The canal system was almost entirely redundant by the 1940s. A glimmer of hope was ignited by forward-thinking souls who recognised the long-term importance of having waterways, rivers and canals that flowed freely through the land. That become increasingly important as tourists – domestic and international – began to enjoy the waters, walking and cycling on the greenways and blueways of Ireland’s beautiful riverbanks and canal banks, or voyaging on barges, cruisers and other boats.
To my mind, the story of the Irish Waterways is only just beginning. The canals didn’t work in the age of the Industrial Revolution, but maybe their golden age is yet to come. As we voyage towards the middle decades of the 21st century, perhaps these tracts of perpetual rainwater that tumble down from the mountains and hills into our rivers, lakes, streams and canals are serving another incredibly important purpose – as a vital part of our ecology, our biodiversity, creating havens for flora, fauna and wildlife, for otters, bats, bugs and bees. Perhaps this network of waterways can help us win the mighty battle of the present age to regain control of our climate.
My sincere thanks to Catherine Anne Heaney (January God), Professor Aidan O’Sullivan (UCD School of Archaeology), Sharon Greene, Steve Davis, Jack O’Driscoll, Michael Brabazon, Alan Lindley, Elizabeth Higgins, John O’Neill, Nuala O’Reilly,
 Connla was a son of Con of the 100 Battles, the legendary king of Connaught from whom all of the High Kings of Ireland descend. Connla’s Well is named as Trinity Well in other versions of this tale, which is the actual source of the Boyne near Carbury, County Kildare
 She was, incidentally, survived by her son Aengus Og, god of love, youth and poetic inspiration, who is said to have lived at Newgrange.
 Fionn mac Cumhail fared a little better. He somehow acquired the Salmon of Knowledge but scalded his thumb it while he was cooking it, and instinctively stuck his thumb into his mouth to cool it down. Thereafter, if he sought wisdom, all he had to do was stick his thumb in his mouth. Kind of like having Google.
 The enchanting Loch Derg along the Galway, Clare, Tipperary and Limerick, border has about 13,000 hectares of freshwater lake, making it the 3rd largest on the island of Ireland.
 Some say Ribh was an ancient god. The name shows up as Rheba on Ptolemy’s map, a sort of gazetteer from the 2nd century AD, made by a Greek geographer, based on whatever information he could find out about Ireland, its rivers, its tribes, its towns and islands. Reba is about where Lough Ree is but I have no more detail. There’s also a Saint Ríoch who apparently lived on Inisbofin on Lough Ree, so he’s a contender. Or there’s a Victorian tradition, penned down by John O’Donovan, that Lough Ree means the Lake of the Kings and derives from 27 kings who lived there! 27 kings. That’s a pretty specific number but it makes sense in that Rí is the Irish word for King. Sadly I have no more details. If you do, please let me know.
[5a] Davis, S., & Rassmann, K. (2021). Beyond Newgrange: Brú na Bóinne in the later Neolithic. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 87, 189-218.
 The eleven spiritual and/or ecclesiastical sites on Lough Erne’s Trail: Devenish Island, White Island (North), Davy’s Island, Inishmacsaint, Caldragh (Boa Island), Cleenish, St. Ronan’s Aghalurcher, Galloon, Killadeas, Derryvullen and Tievealough. Further details available on the Northern Ireland Sites & Monuments Database here. For some reason Davy’s Island isn’t included in the database. See here.
 Annette Kehnel, ‘List of Medieval Religious Houses on Islands: Ireland’(2019)
 St Fanchae, who founded the monastery at Rossory, was a sister of St Enda and is said to have brought about his conversion.
 Radford, C. A. Ralegh. “Devenish.” Ulster Journal of Archaeology, vol. 33, Ulster Archaeological Society, 1970, pp. 55–62, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20567667.
 White Island (North) https://www.communities-ni.gov.uk/heritage-sites/white-island-church-and-figures
 Josef Graf, Auxiliary Bishop of Regensburg, Germany, has been Titular Bishop of Inis Cathaig since 2015.
 The lowering of the water level is indicated by the present location of one of the bullaun stones on Inishcaltra about 5 meters out from the shore in the water.
 Inchmore, the largest island on the lake, was home to a fifth century hermit called Lioban, son of Lossenus.
 Saints Island is now actually connected to the mainland by a narrow 1km causeway.
* Island names on the Shannon include Cow Island, Duck Island, Hare Island, Horse Island, Kings Island, Nuns Island, Tarbet Island, Foynes Island, Nut Island, Sand Island, Red Island, Black Island, Long Island, Round Island, Canons Island, Cribby Islands, Corry Island, Drummans Island, Inchmore Island and Inchturk Island.