• Ali Isaac

The Power of Water in Irish Myth

Updated: May 8, 2020

It is generally accepted that in ancient times, our ancestors believed one could access the Otherworld via water.

It’s understandable; water’s surface acts as a mirror to reflect the sky, mountains, trees all around them. It looked the same as their world, and yet different, easily banished with the merest touch of the surface. Not only that, but the water could be quick to take life if one fell into it, offering the return of only the empty shell of a body. Where could the spirit have gone, if not into the Otherworld?

Ireland is full of lakes and rivers, each of them with their own legends attached. Co Cavan, where I live, is said to have a lake for each day of the year, and I am inclined to believe it; a new watery vista is revealed at every turn and twist of the road, whichever one you might be travelling.

These lakes and pools were thought to be filled from the Otherworld, and as such, bathing in them, or drinking their water, would bestow Otherworldly magic on the mortal concerned, such as poetic inspiration, wisdom and knowledge, or healing. 

The largest lake in the county is called Lough Sheelin; it’s about 6.5km long and 1.5km wide. Its name derives from the Irish Loch Síodh Linn, meaning ‘Lake of the Fairy Pool’, such a romantic name!

Local folklore claims it was not always so big. Originally, it was just a small spring, from which the fairy folk, or Sidhe, allowed the local villagers to collect drinking water, but the rule was that they must always replace the cover.

One day, a careless villager forgot to do this, and the Sidhe were so incensed, they caused the water to rise up, flooding the well and the nearby village, and thus forming the lake as we see it today.

Lake reflecting cloudy sky framed by stony shore and reeds
Lough Ramor, Co, Cavan

A few minutes drive in the other direction brings us to another large lake, Lough Ramor (Loch Ramhar in Irish). Its ancient name is Muinreamhair, which means literally, ‘fat neck’. Although this sounds like an insult, it is thought to actually be named after an ancient King or warrior of the area, and refers to his muscle and strength.

Incidentally, legend claims that Lough Ramor first ‘burst forth’ nine years after Nemed came to Ireland, a few hundred years after ‘the Great Flood’.

Loughanleagh is a mountain in Co Cavan which hosts three ancient cairns at the highest point (1119ft) on its summit. It takes its name from a small  lake which was also to be found there, known as Loch an Leighis, which means ‘Lake of Cures’.

Its water and mud were famous for curing skin complaints, and even as late as the eighteenth century, sufferers would come in their thousands at partake of the lakes curative properties, although this practice almost certainly derived from far more ancient origins. Unfortunately, the lake no longer exists; sadly, turf cutting in the vicinity has drained all water from the bed.

I first came across this legend of the healing lake when reading a translation of the Cath Maige Tuiredan ancient document detailing the Battles of Moytura. In it, the Tuatha de Danann invade Ireland. Dian-Cecht, the Danann’s physician blesses the Well of Slaine, or Healing, throwing into it one of every type of herb growing in Ireland (along with a few choice incantations).

Huge stone cairn, grassy foreground, man taking photo
Heapstown cairn, no water to be seen

Here, the wounded Danann warriors could bathe and thus be healed and fully restored, ready for the next day’s fighting. Later, realising this, their enemy the Fomori attacked the Danann camp, filling the lake with boulders dragged from the River Drowse, so rendering the lake impossible to bathe in, and forming the huge cairn of Heapstown.

Ireland boasts its fair share of water deities, among them Lir, Manannán mac Lir, Boann and Sinnan. Lir and Manannán were gods of the sea, but Boann and Sinnan were river goddesses.

As you have probably guessed by now, the Shannon is named after a young lady called Sinann, who happened to be the grand-daughter of Lir, god of the sea. She decided to visit Connla’s Well and ate the fruits of the Tree of Knowledge, although she knew it was forbidden. As a result, the waters of the well rose up, carrying her out to sea and drowning her there. So the River Shannon was formed.

curve of river, reflecting cloudy blue sky, black and white cows grazing in river bank
The River Boyne

This story is remarkably similar to that of Boann. This time, Connla’s well is the source of the River Boyne, which is now known as Trinity Well. Boann goes there seeking knowledge against the will of her husband, Nechtan, who owns the well. Again, the waters rise and carry her out to sea, where in some versions she is drowned, but in others survives although maimed.

Is it just my sceptical mind, or do these stories bear some sign of Christianisation? That knowledge is the preserve of men only, and that women must obey their husbands, or suffer dire consequences…

Ler, or Lir, means ‘sea’ in old Irish, but this god is also sometimes known as Allód. He is the father of Manannán mac Lir, but is rather more well known for the story of his other offspring, the Fate of the Children of Lir, although it is by no means certain that this is in fact the same Lir

In this tale, Aedbh, Lir’s first wife and mother of his children dies, so he takes another wife, Aoife. Lir is devoted to his children, and in a fit of jealousy, Aoife casts a horrific spell on them turning them into swans for the duration of a magical lifetime lasting 900 years, which they spent at Lough Derravaragh, the Sea of Moyle, and the waters of Inis Gluaire.

This story forms part of the Trí Trauighe Scéalaigheachta, or the ‘Three Sorrows of Storytelling’ along with the Fate of the Sons of Uisneach, and the Fate of the Children of Tuirean.

Turquoise sea, white sandy beach, black rocks sticking out of sea, purply-blue mountains beyond
Turquoise water, beach in Co. Kerry

In Irish mythology, the Otherworld islands, said to be Manannán’s home, lie ‘beyond the ninth wave’. The ninth wave is said to be greater than any other wave before it, and is also known as the ‘Wave of Transformation’.

The Tuatha de Danann attempted to protect Ireland from the attack of the invading Milesians by shrouding the land in fog and storms. They ordered the Milesians to go back beyond the ninth wave but the poet Amergin countered the Danann magic, and breached the spell; supposedly, it was the ninth wave itself which broke through.

The Imramma is a sacred sea voyage in Irish mythology which takes the traveller beyond the ninth wave in search of the magical Otherworld and the Gods which inhabit it. In this way, we can see that the voyage is more a spiritual journey than a physical one, the wave of transformation perhaps bringing with it the wisdom and knowledge we all ultimately seek.

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