C) The Lady in the water in Irish tradition

The belief in underwater realms inhabited by beautiful divine maidens is widespread in Irish tradition. Tír fó Thuinn (‘Land-Under-Waves’) is reached by diving into the waters of the sea, a well, a lake or a river, which mark out the frontier between the natural and supernatural worlds.1714 For instance, the king of Fódhla (i.e. Ireland), Ruadh son of Ríghdonn, goes to the subaquatic Tír na mBan (‘Land of Women’), a paradisiacal island inhabited by gorgeous women and concealed under the waves between Ireland and Lochlann - a place which is uncertainly located, possibly corresponding to Scandinavia.1715 This underwater island is also visited by Máel Dúin and Bran on their respective voyages to the otherworld recounted in the 8th-century Imram Curaig Maíle Dúin [‘The Voyage of Máel Dúin’s Boat’] and in the 7th-century Imram Bran [‘The Voyage of Bran’].1716 A text called Aided Chlainne Tuirenn [‘The Tragic Stories of the Children of Tuireann’] tells that Brian, Iuchair and Iucharba, the three sons of Tuireann, were asked by Lugh Lámfhota to retrieve the magic cooking-spit from Inis Fionnchuire (‘the Island of Fianchaire’), situated underneath Muir Torraín, between Ireland and Britain, where three times fifty beautiful women dwelled.1717

The belief in a divine woman in the waves is illustrated by an archaic poem, dating from the very beginning of the 7th c. AD, which describes the waves as the hair of a goddess, who can be identified with the Mórrígain. The verse, sung by the well-known Irish poet Ninníne,1718 tells of the drowning of Conaing, son of Aedán Mac Gabráin, King of Alba,1719 by a divine fair-haired woman inhabiting the waters (In bean rola a mong find). It occurs in the third fragment of the early 7th-century Annals of Tigernach (489-766 AD)1720 and in The Chronicum Scotorum, dated AD 622.1721 As for The Annals of Ulster, dated 621, it only gives the first stanza, the verses of which are very corrupt.1722 It is important to point out that The Annals of Inisfallen, dated 615,1723 and The Annals of the Four Masters, dated 617,1724 do not refer to the poem. They only mention the battle of Cenn Delgten, wherein fell two sons of Libren, son of Illann Mac Cerbaill. Hereafter is the poem of The Annals of Tigernach, translated by Whitley Stokes:

‘Conaing mac Aedaín maic Gabrain dimersus est. Bí Nindine eices cecinit:
Tonda mara morglan[a],
[is] grian rodatoicsetar (rodotoicsitur),
ina churach flescach fann (fleachadh find)
for Conaing concoirsetar (cond coseatar).
In bean rola a mong find
in[a] churach fri Conaing,
ised ro tibhi a gen
indiu (andiu) fri bili Tortan.
Conaing, son of Aedán, son of Gabrán, was drowned. It was Ninníne the poet sang:
The waves of the sea, great and clear,
and the sun followed him,
into his weak wicker-boat,
together they were flung at Conaing.
The woman threw her white mane
into his boat at Conaing,
that is what caused her to smile today at the Tree of Tortu.1725

In The Celtic Realms, Milles Dillon and Nora Chadwick propose another translation, which is more a creative interpretation of the original text than a literal translation:

‘The deep clear depths of the sea and the sand on the sea-bed have covered them. They have hurled themselves over Conaing in his frail little curach. The woman has flung her white mane against Conaing in his curach. Hateful is the laugh which she laughs today. 1726

The fair hair of the goddess drowning Conaing stands for the waves of the sea, because mong, which means ‘hair’, ‘mane’, ‘locks’, was also used as a metaphor to designate crested waves in Old Irish literature.1727 This reference indicates that the goddess is the personification of the sea, which she inhabits. The Tree of Tortu (Bile Tortan), mentioned at the end of the poem, was the ancient tree standing in the land of the Uí Tortan sept* in Ardbraccan, near Navan, in County Meath (see Chapter 2).1728 Significantly, the same fair-haired female figure resurfaces in an 11th-century poem of the Metrical Dindshenchas, entitled Bile Tortan, which describes the collapse of that tree. She is portrayed with fair curly hair laughing heartily at the death of the tree:

‘Ultán Tige Túa. In ben roscaíl a moing find
roscaíl mór cuarán come-grind:
is cass conatbi a gen
iar fuirmed Bili Tortan.
Ultan of Tech Tua. The woman who loosed their fair locks,
many a trim sandal hath she loosed:
gleefully she laughed
at the felling of Tortu’s Tree. 1729

Edward Gwynn explains that the fall of the Tree of Tortu implies the death of some king, possibly Ailill Molt, who was slain in the battle of Ocha in 482 AD - lines 49-72 of the poem are indeed suggestive of such an idea.1730 This preternatural female figure, who laughs at the death of Tortu’s Tree in the 7th-century poem in The Annals of Tigernach and the poem of Bile Tortan, clearly points to the Mórrígain.1731 This goddess is described in Irish texts hovering over the battlefield screaming and laughing at bloodshed - such as in the 9th-century poem, entitled Reicne Fothaid Canainne [‘The recitation of Fothadh Canainne’], which alludes to her mane and her awful laugh:

‘[…] dreman inathor dīmar, nodusnigh an Mórríoghan. Donārlaith do bil ōige, isī cotanasōide, is mōr do fodboibh nigius, dremhan an caisgen tibhes. Rolā a moing dar a hais […]
[…] horrible are the huge entrails which the Mórrígain washes. She has come to us from the edge of a pillar (?), ‘tis she who has egged us on; many are the spoils she washes, horrible the hateful laugh she laughs. She has flung her mane over her back […]1732

As regards the theme of the loosing of the sandal referred to in the poem of Bile Tortan, Gwynn argues that it is certainly “preparatory to washing the bodies of the dead”; a role which is fulfilled by the Mórrígain in Reicne Fothaid Canainne [‘The recitation of Fothadh Canainne’].1733

It is interesting to note that the Mórrígain is said to be ‘fair-haired’ (mong find) in the poem of The Annals of Tigernach and in the poem Bile Tortan. It relates her to another supernatural lady known as Mongfhind (‘Bright-Maned’) in Irish literature.1734 Even though Mongfhind is presented as a mortal woman in certain sources, it is clear that she was originally a goddess. She appears in the legends as the nurse and teacher of young warriors, such as Diarmait ua Duibne and Gíona mac Lugha, two leading heroes of the Fianna band, and Mac Lughach, the grandson of Fionn mac Cumhaill.1735 In an 11th-century legend, Mongfhind is portrayed as the stepmother of the king Niall Naoi-Ghiallach. She tried to usurp the throne for her sons by tricking him, but she fell into her own trap and eventually drank the poisonous drink she had prepared for Niall. She died at Samhain, which is why she is now remembered as the patroness of this festival.1736 The Mórrígain is likely to have been an emanation of the primary land-goddess Mongfhind, who must originally have been connected to water and sacred knowledge, since her name, composed of mong and find, metaphorically refers to ‘crested waves’ and to ‘brilliance’ or ‘wisdom’. This is a double aspect which seems to be typical of river-goddesses, for instance the river-goddess Bóinn, whose name derives from an old *Bóu-vinda, ‘the Cow-White (Goddess)’ or ‘the Bovine Wise (Goddess)’.1737

The idea of a goddess residing in water is particularly well represented in Irish mythology. A pattern emerges from the various legends: that of the drowning of a divine lady in the sea or the waters of a lake or river. After that tragic event, the goddess dissolves in the waters and merges with it: she becomes the sea, the river or the lake where she perished and gives her name to it. In addition to the faired-hair Mórrígain, whose hair shapes the sea, a legend recounts how the goddess Clidna, later Clidna (‘the Territorial One’), was drowned at Cúan Dor (the Bay of Glandore), in Co. Cork. Since then, she has inhabited the wave which broke over that beach, called after her: Tonn Chlíona, that is ‘the Wave of (the goddess) Clíona’.1738 This wave was one of the three great waves, with Tonn Rudraige (‘Rudraige’s Wave’) at Dundrum (Co. Down) and Tonn Tuaig (‘Tuag’s Wave’) at Inber Glas, sitatued near the mouth of the river Bann (Co. Derry), which jeopardized the life of Irish people in ancient times.1739

There are two versions of this legend, probably dating from the 10th or 11th c., in the Metrical Dindshenchas. The first poem is entitled Tond Clidna I and describes her elopement with Ciabhán from Tír Tairngire (‘the Land of Promise’). After landing at Trá Théite (the shore at Glandore), Ciabhán went hunting and Clidna remained in the boat. A great wave then rose over the shore and drowned the lady, who has been dwelling in this particular area of the sea since then:

‘Clidna chend-fhind, búan a bét, 'con tuind-se tánic a héc; damna d'a máthair beith marb inní dia tarla in sen-ainm.
Dia ndernad in t-óenach the ac lucht tíre tairngire, is é thuc in mnái tre cheilg, Ciabán mac Echach imdeirg.
Rígan ind óenaig thall tra, ingen dar' chomainm Clidna, tar in ler lethan longach tuc leis Ciabán cass-mongach.
Rofhácaib hí forsin tuind, luid uaithi echtra n-étruimm, d'iarraid selga, monur mass, luid roime fon fhid fholt-chass.
Tánic in tond tara éis, do Chiabán nírbo deg-shéis; mór gním, ba dimda linne, bádud Clidna cend-fhinde.
Tond dúine Téite na tríath, issé a hainm roime in bar n-íath nocorbáided 'mon tuind tra ben diarbo chomainm Clidna.
Lecht Téite 'sin tráig-se thúaid; rogáet immese a mór-shlúaig; lecht Clidna 'sin tráig-se thess, fri Síd Duirn Buide anairdess.
Fliuchthar folt in Duirn Buide i tondaib in trom-thuile: cid dimda do neoch fuil ann, is sí Clidna nosbáidenn.
Ildathach is a dá macc, robáitea in triur ac tochmarc; is mairg roadair don luing náchasanaig ar óen-tuind.
Cóica long lótar tar sál, teglach tige Manannán; nocharb í 'n chongaib cen gá: robáitea ar thondaib Clidna.
Clidna Cendfind, lasting her exploit, at this wave came her death; cause for her mother to die was the matter whence arose the ancient name.
When the gathering was held yonder; by the people of the Land of Promise, 'twas he carried off the woman by deceit — Ciaban son of Eochu Imderg.
The queen of the gathering yonder in sooth, the maiden whose name was Clidna, Ciaban the curly-haired bore with him, over the wide ship-ridden sea.
He left her on the wave, he went from her on a giddy venture, to seek a chase, — fair deed! he went forward under the tangled wood.
The wave came after he was gone: to Ciaban it was no lucky sound: a great event, — we grieved thereat — was the drowning of Clidna Cendfind.
The Wave of Dun Teite of the chiefs, that was its name before in your land, till there was drowned in the wave in sooth a woman whose name was Clidna.
The grave of Teite and her strand are northward; she was slain amid her great host: the grave of Clidna and her strand are southward, south-east of Dorn Buide's Mound.
The locks of Dorn Buide are wetted in the waves of the mighty flood: though it cause displeasure, it is Clidna that it drowns.
Ildathach and his two sons were drowned all three on their wooing: woe to them that stuck to the ship, that protected them not against a single wave!
Fifty ships went over sea, the folk of the household of Manannan; That was no band without spears: they were drowned in the waves of Clidna.1740

The second poem, entitled Tond Clidna II, explains that Ciabhán sailed to Mag Meall (‘Pleasant Plain’), where he fell in love with the beautiful daughter of King Genann. He absconded with her on his small craft. A terrible storm then burst out and a huge wave drowned Clidna at Trá Théite:

‘Genann mac Triúin, torum ndil, ba hé tríath in tíre-sin; ó rogab fonn flatha fáe, ba cáime dia chlaind Clidnae.
Brígda in bedg, bresta in forrach, doluid Ciabán cass-mongach, dia ránic Mag medrach Mell tar drong ndegrach na dílenn.
Iar techt i tír, tólaib gal, conid ann roarlastar trí cóicta gol, erctha raind, im Chlidna ingin Genainn.
Trí cóicta túath fil 'sin raind; gíall cach túaithe il-láim Genaind; dofil sund ingin cach ríg 'm irla ingine ind ard-ríg.
"I n-anmaim Dé tíag-sa dó; biur-sa lium in ingin-so: is sí doróega cen locht, Clidna chend-fhind chness-étrocht."
Cechaing céim ina churach, fáchaid in tír trén-brugach, conid iarsin Síd nEna; guilsetar na hingena.
Tuir ocus túatha in maige dosfúartha fon golgaire: línsat airer na trága, d'imfhastud na gabála.
Atbert Genann — garg a gráin: "Cia fuaitges i n-athgabáil," atbert-som tar ler longach, bertis Ciabán cass-mongach.
Atbert Genann, ósin t-shlúag: "Maith, a Chlidna chaindel-grúad: ind inbaid ticfa do lá, cía mod arafesur-sa."
"Bíd th'aire frissin lá atbél: atbiur frit, bid é mo scél, ticfa tond tennfas trilis, corua tar th'adba it inis."
Conid iarsin, trúag in dál, doluid Clidna la Ciabán; dirgset in seól, sóeb in sess, timchell hÉrenn aniardess.
Esnad na gáithe gairge, ocus anfad na fairrge dosrat fri grian, síd nad lac, i n-inbiur Trága Tellat.
Mogenar do Chlidna cháid, ó doluid issin éc-dáil, issin airm rochlóechlói deinn co fil a hainm ós hÉrinn.
Ní sochtmar anocht in tracht, Tond Chlidna cid aréracht: benaid béim fri Banba mbind iar sáeth ingine Genainn.
Genann son of Tren, — pleasant [...]! - he was chief of this land; since he got the kingly seat under him, the fairest of his children was Clidna.
Vigorous the dash, spirited the onset, wherewith came the curly-haired Ciaban, when he reached cheerful Mag Mell over the fierce concourse of ocean.
After coming to the land, with brave deeds in plenty, it is there he uttered thrice fifty cries, that fill a verse, for Clidna daughter of Genann.
Thrice fifty tribes are there to the province; a hostage for every tribe in Genann's hands; hither comes a daughter of every king, to tend the tresses of the high-king's daughter.
"In the name of God, I will go thither, I will bear off with me this maiden: she it is that I have chosen, the faultless Clidna Cendfind, radiant of skin."
He stepped forward into his boat, he leaves the land of strong keeps, so that thereafter it was called Sid nEna; the maidens lamented.
The lords and the folk of the plain were left behind lamenting; they filled the tract by the shore to arrest the rape.
Said Genann — fierce his hate: "who seizes the pledge?" — said he across the ship-ridden sea, they should carry off curly-haired Ciaban!
Said Genann, over the host: "'Tis well, O Clidna, with cheeks aflame! some time shall come thy day in such wise as I shall declare.
"Keep watch for the day of my death! I tell thee — this shall be my message! there shall come a wave whose crest shall sparkle, and shall whelm thy home in thine island."
So thereupon — woe for the tryst! Clidna went her way with Ciaban; they hoisted sail — unstable the craft — round Erin from the south-west.
Roar of the rude wind and storm of the sea carried them on the sand — a mound of strength — in the estuary of Traig Tellat.
Hail to chaste Clidna, since she went to the tryst with death, at the place where she changed hue, so that her name is known over Erin.
Not silent to-night the strand, if the Wave of Clidna have arisen: it striketh a blow against resounding Banba after the woe of Genann's daughter.1741

The same story with minor variants appears in the later Bodleian Dinnshenchas 1742 and in the 12th-century text Acallamh na Senónach [‘The Colloquy with the Ancients’].1743 It is interesting to note that Clidna, like Sionann and Bóinn, was linked both to water and wisdom. In medieval tradition, she is indeed believed to give inspiration to poets.1744

The legend of the drowning of Clidna in the sea can be paralleled to the story of Eba, related in a poem called Traig Eba, contained in the Metrical Dindshenchas. The two stories indeed have the exact same pattern. Eba, the leech-woman accompanying Cessair in her journey to Ireland, was drowned under the waves when she was sleeping on a stretch of the coast of Co. Sligo, which now bears her name, Traig Eba:

‘Traigh Eaba, cidh diatá? Ní ansa. Día tanic Cesair ingen Betha mic Naoí lucht curaigh co h-Erinn. Tainic Eaba in ban-líaidh léi, cho rocodail isin trácht, co robáidh in tonn iarom. Conidh de raiter Rind Eaba & Traigh Eaba dona h-inadhaibh sin osin ille.

Traig Eba, whence the name? Not hard to say. When Cesair daughter of Bith son of Noah came with a boat's crew to Erin, Eba the leech-woman came with her. She fell asleep on the strand, and the waves drowned her. Hence these places were called Rind Eba and Traig Eba from that time forth.1745

From this, it follows that water was believed to be the residence of goddesses in Celtic times. The sacredness, divinisation and worship of the sea, rivers, lakes, springs and bogs is attested by the wide-ranging and far-reaching tradition of the deposition of votive offerings in sites linked to water in Ireland, Britain and Gaul, from the Bronze Age to the Gallo-Roman period. It testifies to an important cult devoted to water deities. Numerous rivers, springs and fountains are besides called ‘divine’ or ‘goddess’ in those countries. Finally, Irish legends and poems depict underwater divine realms and tell of goddesses embodying the waves of the sea. As will be detailed in the following sections, particular individual goddesses personifying specific sites are known from Celtic times. Irish medieval literature and Gallo-British epigraphy have revealed many different names of goddesses of rivers, fountains and springs, who appear to have been venerated locally in some cases or on a larger scale in others.


Mackillop, 2004, p. 405.


O’Curry, 1863, p. 235-240 ; Löffler, 1983, pp. 280-281.


Mackillop, 2004, pp. 270-272, 405 ; Ó hÓgáin, 2006, pp. 39-40, pp. 333-334 ; Meyer & Nutt, 1895-1897 ; Whitley, 1888, pp. 447-495 and 1889, pp. 50-95.


Löffler, 1983, pp. 281-284 ; Mackillop, 2004, pp. 273, 353-354 ; Ó hÓgáin, 2006, pp. 313-314 ; O’Duffy, 1888. This is a late medieval text, and the reference in it to ‘Muir Torraín’ is quite fanciful. ‘Muir Torraín’ is more properly the Tyrrhenian Sea, off the south of France.


Ó hÓgáin, 2006, pp. 358-359 ; Ó hÓgáin, 2003, p. 56.


Conaing’s death is entered at the year 605.


Stokes, 1896a, pp. 175-176.


Hennessy, 1866, pp. 76-77.


Hennessy, 1887, pp. 92-93 and note 5.


Mac Airt, 1951, pp. 84-85.


O’Donovan, 1951, pp. 240-241.


Stokes, 1896a, pp. 175-176.


Dillon & Chadwick, 1973, p. 144.


Ó hÓgáin, 2006, p. 357.


Ó hÓgáin, 2003, p. 56 ; Bieler, 1979, pp. 162-163 ; Hennessy, 1866, p. 77 ; Stokes, 1887, p. 185 ; Stokes, 1895, p. 279 ; Gwynn, 1913, pp. 148-149 & 1924, pp. 240-247, 440-441.


Gwynn, 1924, pp. 244-245. This text is contained in the Book of Leinster (199 b 61) and in the Yellow Book of Lecan (col. 344).


Gwynn, 1924, pp. 440-441.


Dillon & Chadwick, 1973, p. 144 ; Gwynn, 1924, p. 441.


Meyer, 1910, pp. 1, 16-17. See Chapter 3.


Gwynn, 1924, p. 441, note 45.


Ó hÓgáin, 2006, pp. 357-358 ; Mackillop, 2004, p. 334.


Stokes, 1990, p. 16 ; Ó hÓgáin, 2006, pp. 174-176, 324 ; Mackillop, 2004, pp. 139-140, 253, 318.


O’Grady, 1892, vol. 1, pp. 326-332 ; Dillon, 1946, pp. 30-33 ; Westropp, 1913, pp. 201-202.


O’Rahilly, 1970, p. 105 ; Ó hÓgáin, 2006, pp. 38, 235-237.


Ó hÓgáin, 2006, pp. 85-86 ; Gwynn, 1913, p. 514 ; Mackillop, 2004, pp. 90-91 ; Green, 1992a, p. 62


Ó hÓgáin, 2006, p. 86 ; Makillop, 2004, p. 410.


Gwynn, 1913, pp. 207-210.


Gwynn, 1913, pp. 211-215.


Stokes, 1892, pp. 12-13.


Stokes & Windisch, 1900, pp. 108-109 ; O’Grady, 1892, pp. 200-201.


Ó hÓgáin, 1982, pp. 215-223.


Gwynn, 1924, pp. 292-293, 453.