Travel by river in Munster was common and easier than by road, which was difficult and dangerous (Hadfield 198-9). Rivers were connected: in Co. Cork, smaller streams flowed into the deep River Lee, for example, and so down to the port town of Cork and into the sea; other waterways streamed into the Blackwater River and on to the port town of Youghal (see Youghal). To the north and west of Kilcolman, the great river Shannon runs past Limerick town and out to sea. To the east of Kilcolman, the river Suir runs down through Kilkenny to New Ross and then to Waterford on the coast.
As far as they were navigable, these rivers connected Munster’s farms and towns to points farther off, including Bristol and London, both of which had extensive trade contacts with Ireland. Munster ports also provided support to a vibrant fishing industry and to the fast-growing trade routes to the New World.
Spenser famously includes Irish waterways in his list of guests at the fantastic marriage of the rivers Thames and Medway, in Book IV of The Faerie Queene:
Ne thence the Irishe Riuers absent were,
Sith no lesse famous then the rest they bee,
And ioyne in neighborhood of kingdome nere,
Why should they likewise not in loue agree,
And ioy likewise this solemne day to see?
They saw it all, and present were in place;
Though I them all according to their degree,
Cannot recount, nore tell their hidden race,
Nor read the saluage cuntreis, thorough which they pace.
There was the Liffy rolling downe the lea,
The sandy Slane, the stony Aubrian,
The spacious Shenan spreading like a sea,
The pleasant Boyne, the fishy fruitfull Ban,
Swift Awniduff, which of the English man
Is cal’de Blacke water, and the Liffar deep,
Sad Trowis, that once his people ouerran,
Strong Allo tumbling from Slewlogher steep,
And Mulla mine, whose waues I whilom taught to weep.
And there the three renowmed brethren were,
Which that great Gyant Blomius begot,
Of the faire Nimph Rheusa wandring there.
One day, as she to shunne the season whot,
Vnder Slewbloome in shady groue was got,
This Gyant found her, and by force deflowr’d,
Whereof conceiving, she in time forth brought
These three faire sons, which being thence forth powrd
In three great riuers ran, and many countries scowrd.
The first, the gentle Shure that making way
By sweet Clonmell, adornes rich Waterford;
The next, the stubborne Newre, whose waters gray
By faire Kilkenny and Rosseponte boord,
The third, the goodly Barow, which doth hoord
Great heapes of Salmons in his deepe bosome:
All which long sundred, doe at last accord
To ioyne in one, ere to the sea they come,
So flowing all from one, all one at last become.
There also was the wide embayed Mayre,
The pleasaunt Bandon crownd with many a wood,
The spreading Lee, that like an Island fayre
Encloseth Corke with his deuided flood;
And balefull Oure, late staind with English blood:
With many more, whose names no tongue can tell.
All which that day in order seemly good
Did on the Thamis attend, and waited well
To doe their duefull seruice, as to them befell. (IV.xi.40-44)
Hadfield notes how this description highlights the rivers’ importance to the “Irish economy and society, in providing transport links as well as sustenance” (329). The description also indicates “how little control the English have over Irish rivers” and, by symbolic association, the Irish they tried to rule. For example, Irish rebels made the “Oure” (a reference to the Avonbeg River) bloody and “balefull” for Spenser's patron Arthur, Lord Grey, when they ambushed his troops in Glenmalure, Co. Wicklow, in 1580. Spenser commemorates the slaughter in his river description.
The story of the rape of a nymph by “that great Gyant Blomius,” a mountain who thereby engenders the rivers Suir (“Shure”), the Nore (“Newre”) and the Barrow (“Barow”), likewise portrays the Irish countryside as a threatening place as well as one steeped in place-name mythology (Herron). We are reminded of the “griesly foster” who chases the fair Florimell with “beastly lust” across a wilderness landscape in FQ III.i.16-17 before he and his brothers ambush Timias, aka Walter Raleigh, at a ford in a river in III.v; the river, in that allegory, could be an Irish one (Bednarz; see also Section 8, “Poetic Interludes,“ below).
Nonetheless, the above description of the marriage of the rivers presents an optimistic vision. “All which that day in order seemly good” attend upon the English rivers, whose congruent harmony is celebrated (and symbolically enacted) in the flowing verse of the poet’s song. Rape and massacre in Ireland is translated into tribute in England. Central to Spender's vision is the mythological archetype of the poet as an Orpheus-figure whose song flows as sweetly and softly as the waters. (Orpheus himself was, however, torn apart and his remains thrown into a river). In such cases, Spenser's figurative association of his own song (or poetry) with flowing water, including the wily Bregog river on his estate, demonstrate his desire to evade punishment and worldly complication in both England and Ireland (Kelsey); these places are, simultaneously, connected by his imagination.
All the major rivers of Munster would have played an important economic role in trade and the exploitation of the plantation. Securing them would have been important for the government, and living on them profitable for a planter. Spenser’s (now demolished) castle at Renny, Co. Cork, for example, was a “prime site on the Blackwater” (Spenser calls it the “Broad water” and the “Allo” in “Colin Clouts Come Home Againe,” line 123), and Buttevant Abbey, which he came to own in 1598, was built beside the small river Awbeg, which Spenser calls the "Mulla" and refers to as "Mulla mine" in The Faerie Queene (quoted above; see also reference to Buttevant and the Mulla in “Colin Clouts” lines 110-11). Into it flows the nearby Bregog, celebrated in the Faunus digression of "Colin Clouts Come Home Againe" (lines 104-55); the Awbeg then runs into the larger, navigable Blackwater River (Hadfield 363) (see maps of rivers around Kilcolman; Blackwater River).
All three rivers around Kilcolman as well as two others, the Funsheon (called the “Fanchin”) and Behanna (called the "Molanna") are mythologized in Spenser’s poetry in two separate Ovidian digressions, also topographical fables. One is in "Colin Clouts Come Home Againe" and the other in "The Mutabilitie Cantos" of The Faerie Queene. In the “Mutabilitie Cantos,” the river-nymph Molanna betrays her mistress Cynthia (an allegorized Queen Elizabeth) in order to be united with her beloved Fanchin. The digressions, like the catalog of rivers, demonstrate that native Irish forces do not tend to obey the proper rule of law (quite the opposite), and that they are duly punished when they fail to do so.
Also in the “Mutabilitie Cantos,” Spenser admires the east Munster landscape of the river Suir: ”The richest champian that may else be rid,/ And the faire Shure, in which are thousand Salmons bred” (FQ VII.vi.54.8-9). He emphasizes in sound, rhythm, and imagery the fertility of the land. Line 9 ends its sinuous course with the passive construction of the verb, “to breed,” and the salmon is associated with magic and strength in Irish mythology. “Shure” is rhythmically emphasized, and in the lines’ alliteration, the soft “s” of the river and its plentiful fish winds its way among the rougher “r’s” of the “rich” land (compare with “the sandy Slane” and “The spacious Shenan spreading like a sea,” above). The phrase “may else be rid” is commonly glossed as meaning, “as may be seen,” although the sense of “as may be cleared” [i.e., of timber or brush] is also possible (cf. one meaning of “rid” in the Oxford English Dictionary). If so, the lines call attention to colonial industry. One might also hear a punning echo of riding, as in, “that may else be ridden on.”
Spenser thereby highlights the territory of a formidable overlord, Thomas Butler, 10th earl of Ormond, lord of the Suir. The knightly Ormond was the wealthy champion of this “champian,” or countryside, and a close cousin of Queen Elizabeth I. He was also one of the Munster undertakers, the only Irishman among the original grantees. Elsewhere, Spenser compliments Ormond (and quite possibly his mansion at Carrick-on-Suir) in ambiguous fashion in a Dedicatory Sonnet appended to the 1590 edition of The Faerie Queene. In that poem, Spenser praises Ormond’s refined patronage of the arts, although the “waste” around Ormond’s “braue mansion” still needs some clearing.
Spenser clearly took a keen imaginative and territorial interest in Irish rivers. Rivers are contested territory between native and newcomer, subject and crown forces. Spenser’s spokesman Irenius in the View of the Present State of Ireland advocates building bridges “upon all rivers” and destroying fords “so as none might pass any other ways but by those bridges, and every bridge to have a gate, and a small gatehouse set thereon,” so as to control all traffic and to prevent crime among the locals (View 164).
The effort to control bridges and rivers in Ireland recalls an extremely violent episode in The Faerie Queene involving the villain Pollente. Pollente lives in a castle and tyrannically guards and tolls a bridge over a river “both swift and dangerous deepe withall” (V.ii.8.2). The hero of Justice Artegall confronts him, fights him in the river and beheads him in single combat, after which “His corps was carried downe along the Lee,/ Whose waters with his filthy bloud it stayned” (V.ii.19.1-2). Thus Pollente’s “powre [is] within iust compasse pen,” or contained by justice (V.ii.19.9). This justice encompasses Ireland: the reference to the “Lee” reminds the reader of the river of that name that flows through Cork city in Munster (the river is mentioned also at IV.xi.44.3-4).
Pollente’s name appropriately derives from Latin pollentia, “might” or “power”; he also “pols and pils” (i.e., robs) the poor (V.ii.6.8). One can also emphasize a pun here on “poll,” meaning the top of the head in English, since Artegall ironically makes a toll of his poll: his head is cut off and “pitcht vpon a pole” (V.ii.19.4). According to the OED, moreover, a “poll” was an Irish term, c. 1591, for a measure of land equivalent to fifty or sixty acres, also known as a “cartron.” Pollente can be associated through wordplay with specifically Irish territorial overlords.
After his death, Pollente’s “Castle” is subsequently assaulted, raided and razed. His daughter, Munera, who allegorizes bribery (with a possible echo of Munster in her name), has her golden hands chopped off by merciless justice. She, too, is thrown into the stream which “washt away her guilty blood” (V.ii.27.5). The episode is a highly disturbing one mingling blood and brutal justice in a potentially Irish landscape. Spenser elsewhere describes his adopted country in more peaceful terms.
James Bednarz, “Ralegh in Spenser’s Historical Allegory.” Spenser Studies, 4 (1983), 49-70.
Elizabeth Fitzpatrick, Irish Demons: English writings on Ireland, the Irish, and gender by Spenser and his contemporaries (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2000), ch. 8.
—. Shakespeare, Spenser and the contours of Britain: Reshaping the Atlantic Archipelago (Hatfield: U. of Hertfordshire Press, 2004), ch.’s 1-2.
Shohachi Fukuda, “Bregog, Mulla.” The Spenser Encyclopedia. Ed. A.C. Hamilton (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1990), 110.
—. “Fanchin, Molanna.” The Spenser Encyclopedia. Ed. A.C. Hamilton (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1990), 300.
Andrew Hadfield, Edmund Spenser: A Life (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012).
Pauline Henley, Spenser in Ireland (Cork: Cork UP, 1928): 85-97 and map between pp. 60-61.
W.H. Herendeen, “Rivers.” The Spenser Encyclopedia. Ed. A.C. Hamilton (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1990), 606-09.
Thomas Herron, “A Source for Edmund Spenser’s ‘Blandina’ in Holinshed’s Irish Chronicle.” Notes and Queries 246.3 (September 2001), 254-6.
P.W. Joyce, "On Spenser’s Irish Rivers.” Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 10 (1866-7), 1-13.
[web-published article by Joan Fitzpatrick, “Spenser and Land: Political Conflict Resolved in Physical Topography”]