• Ali Isaac

mythical 'lake-bursts' of ireland

Firstly, I'd just like to wish you all a very Happy New Year; 2020 has to have been one of the most difficult years humanity has experienced since WWII, but with the vaccines on the horizon, it looks like we will soon be able to put this horror behind us. We have loved ones to grieve, and new lives to build; it is hard to see how how we can ever go back to 'normal' as it was, but can maybe look forward to a new and better, more hopeful future. Until then, stay safe and well. And thank you so much for following this blog, for your emails, messages, and comments. You have helped me keep going through my own hard times, and I hope I have in some small way helped to maintain your connection with Ireland.


Although we awoke to snow this morning, by mid-afternoon, the rain had washed it all away. It seems that, in recent days, all the water in Ireland has seeped into Cavan. Many of the lower-lying fields I pass through on my daily 5k have been flooded, as you can see from the picture above, and the River Blackwater, which runs into Lough Ramor, and on to join the River Boyne, has burst its narrow banks.

My local landscape is always changing, is constantly in a state of flux, and that is how it is meant to be. Nature has her own coping mechanisms, which may seem harsh and unduly dramatic to us at times, but they have evolved over millennia, and they work. It is only the interactions of humankind which cause irreversible disruption and destruction. Nature, in her stark honesty, is always beautiful.

(c) Ali Isaac

Flooding seems catastrophic to us, but often this is because humans ignore the signs and build their homes and cities on flood plains. In fact, floods are necessary; they are cleansing, they increase fertility of the soil, they are life-giving, they shape the land.

In Irish myth, rivers are often associated with women, particularly when they flood. One example suggests the River Boyne is named after the Goddess of the Tuatha de Danann, Boan. Her name means 'white cow', and cattle were essential to the survival of early Irish people. The Danann were famous for their herds of fine white cattle.

Boan's story blames the formation of the River Boyne on her desperate search for knowledge. Knowledge was power, and both were historically denied women. The Well of Knowledge was owned by Nechtan, who was Boan's husband, and when he continually denied her access, she decided to go alone. The story goes that the Well was so infuriated by her presumption and disobedience, the water rose up and chased her across Ireland all the way to the sea, where she was drowned. The channel it carved in the landscape filled with water and became the River Boyne.

I'm sure this story was a lesson to all women about observing their proper, subservient role in life.

You can read more of Boan's story in my blog post, The Goddess in Our Stars.


There are several other such stories:the River Shannon, for example, is said to be named after Sionann, granddaughter of Lir, who also went searching for knowledge. The River Bann is associated with the Princess Tuag, who was fostered at the Hill of Tara, and was reputed to be so beautiful, that at only fifteen years of age, she was abducted by the sea-God Manannán, and subsequently drowned. The perishing of women in water seems a common theme.

You can read more about Tuag's story in my post, The Fosterling in Irish Mythology.

My recent visit to the Shannon Pot, the source of the River shannon, where Sionann is said to have perished. (c) ali isaac

But these are river-bursts, rather than lake-bursts. The lake-burst supposedly had its own genre of tales known in medieval times as 'tomamond' in Irish. And they are often associated with men, rather than women.

You can read more about early Irish genres of literature in my post, How to Write a Bestseller like the Ancient Bards.

Lough Erne (in Irish, Loch Éirne) lies in Co. Fermanagh, and is the fourth largest lake in Ireland. It is actually comprised of two lakes, the Upper and Lower Erne, which are connected by the River Erne, and between them nestles the town of Enniskillen.

Lough Erne has two origin stories, both very different, but which concern drownings. In one version, High King of Ireland, Fiacha Labrainne (who himself was named after the River Labrainn, which burst its banks when he was born) went to war against a tribe of people who were known as the Érainn. I don't know what their quarrel was, but seemingly Nature was on Fiacha's side, for during the battle a huge torrent of water burst from the ground, drowning all the King's enemy warriors, and leaving in its wake the body of water we know today as Lough Erne.

Enniskillen (c) Ali Isaac

The second story concerns Érne, who was 'chieftainess of the girls of Cruachan and keeper of [Queen] Medb's combs and caskets'. It seems that a warrior named Olc Ai came from the Otherworld via the cave of Oweynaghat to seek revenge after Amorgen the Blackhaired, presumably a mortal living at Medb's fort, had slept with fairy-woman, Findchoem. He didn't come to do battle with Amorgen, though, oh no. Instead, he took his fury out on the innocent women of Cruachan. It is said that Olc Ai shook his great beard at the girls and gnashed his teeth so fearfully, that Érne and her women were driven insane with terror and fled. They waded into the lake in their desperation to escape, and were all drowned.

Lough Ree is the fourth largest lake in Ireland, is located near Athlone, and is fed by the River Shannon. Lough Ree is usually translated as 'lake of Kings', but according to legend, it was named after a man named Rí, or Ríbh. He was the son of Mairidh, King of Munster, and he had a brother named Eochaid. When Mairid took a young wife, Ebhliu, she and Eochaid fell in love, and decided to elope. Ríbh went with them. Halfway through the journey, however, the bothers parted company, and Ríbh continued west.

Ríbh had been loaned a magic horse by Sidhe-King Midher to carry all his belongings. Midher gave him strict instructions: do not let the horse stop, do not remove his bridle, and do not let him stray. The horse walked for many days without a break, so when it eventually stopped to pass urine, Ríbh felt sorry for the poor beast, and decided it was time for a rest; he unloaded his possessions, and took off the bridle, whereupon the creature immediately galloped off. Unintentionally, Ríbh had broken all of Midher's rules, but he thought this was as good a place as any to make his home. He built a house, and lived there very happily with his family.

All this time, the mighty stream of urine the magic horse had loosed into the ground remained still, but on the eve of Lughnasadh thirty years later, it inexplicably rose up and gushed forth, washing away Ríbh's house, and drowning him and all his family. The water spread all across the plain, forming the body of water we now know as Lough Ree.

Lough Corrib is the second largest lake in Ireland. Located in Co. Galway, it contains over 300 islands, and is considered to be an important conservation site. Corrib is an anglicisation of the Irish Loch Oirbsean.

According to the Leabhar Gabhála (an origin story for the people of Ireland tracing back to the seventh century, and preserved in many prose and poetry versions), there were two Manannán's: one was the son of Ler, which means 'sea' in Irish, and another who was known also as Orbsen, son of Allot. The Yellow Book of Lecan (a manuscript dating to c. 1400AD), actually claims there were four Manannán's!

For some reason, Orbsen went into battle with Uillin, grandson of Nuada of the Tuatha de Danann. Unfortunately, he was slain, and as his grave was being dug, a wave of water burst forth from the ground and became a great lake, which subsequently was named in his memory, and the plain on which the combat took place was named Magh Uillin after the victor. Both warrior's names are still preserved in the landscape today as Moycullen, and Lough Corrib.

Lough Neagh comes from the Irish Loch nEachach, meaning 'Eachaidh's lake'. It is the largest lake on the island of Ireland, and is surrounded by the counties Antrim, Down, Armagh, Tyrone and Derry. Remember when Ríbh helped his brother Eochaidh escape the wrath of their father, King Mhairidh of Munster, when he ran off with his father's new young bride, Ebhliu? Well, he suffered a similar fate as his brother.

When the two brothers parted, Eochaidh continued into Ulster. He also had been lent a magic horse under similar conditions. When the horse stopped and lay down, a well sprang up from the ground and Eochaidh decided to build his home there. He placed a cap over the well, and put a woman in charge of tending the well, but one day, after drawing water, she forgot to replace the cap, and the water flooded out, thus forming Lough Neagh. Eochaid and all his family were drowned, apart from his daughter, Liban, who became a mermaid. But that's another story...

You can read Liban's story in my post Manannán's Land: Irish Myths of the Sea.

Finally, here is a short film made for Heritage Week 2020 discussing the lake-burst trope in Irish legend and folklore, particularly in relation to Lough Neigh, which you might find interesting.


Leabhar Gabhála / The Book of Invasions, The Royal Irish Academy, www.ria.ie

Ruaidhrí Ó Flaithbhertaigh (1685), tr, Rev. James Hely (1793), Ogygia, www.archive.org

Annals of the Four Masters Part 7 (see M3751.1), www.celt.ucc.ie

The Yellow Book of Lecan, Irish Script on Screen, The Royal Irish Academy, MS 23 P 2

The Death of Eochaid, Son of Mairidh, from the Book of the Dun Cow Translated by Standish O'Grady, Mary Jones Ancient Texts.org

Whitley Stokes (tr.), The Prose Tales in the Rennes Dindṡenchas, www.ucd.ie

An Announcement: I'd like to share some good news with you, if I may. Last year I was selected out of 3700 hopeful candidates by the Penguin Write Now Program 2020 to work on my manuscript, Imperfect Bodies, a creative non-fiction project, under the mentorship of a Penguin/ Random House editor. I met my editor (via Zoom) just before Christmas, she is from Penguin Sandycove in Dublin, and I am really excited to begin working with her this week. This is a wonderful opportunity for which I am so grateful, and I am sincerely hoping there will be a book contract out of it, so please send me your most positive vibes and wishes!

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