Brú na Bóinne and Cnogba – the Boyne Valley in the Metrical Dindshenchas
At the beginning of Tocmarc Étaíne, we have the tale of the conception and birth of Óengus Mac Ind Óc and his claiming of Brú na Bóinne (Newgrange) as his territory. We touched on this story back in Series 1, Episode 3, “Tales of Eithliu”, and compared it to the Metrical Dindshenchas poems on Bóand, the Boyne River.
In the latest episode, “Tocmarc Étaíne 1: A Fly on the Wall”, we drew parallels between these stories and the Metrical Dindshenchas of Cnogba (Knowth), another fascinating part of the Boyne Valley Megalithic complex.
Here is a reposting of one of the Dindshenchas poems on Bóand and that of Cnogba, including my translation and notes at the end of each poem.
FROM THE METRICAL DINSHENCHAS VOL 3
ed. Edward Gwynn
translated by Isolde Carmody, based on Gwynn’s work.
The complete edition by Gwynn can be found here
pp 34 – 39: Poem 3
1. A Máilshechlainn mic Domnaill
O Maelsechlainn son of Domnall
do chlainn ingine Comgaill,
of the family of Comgall’s daughter:
adcós duit, a máil Mide,
I will tell you, O exalted of Meath,
senchas Bóinde báin-gile.
the history of white bright Boand.
2. Bóand, bendacht forsin sruth
Boand — a blessing on the stream
roordaig Críst co cóem-chruth,
that fair-formed Christ ordained;
conid hí ó glenn do glenn
so that she from glen to glen
sruth Eorthanan na Hérenn.
[is] the river Jordan of Erin.
3. Find Life, Find Gaileóin gairb,
Find Liphe [and] fierce Find of the Gaileon,
do chomóentaid dá chomainm,
from the union of two like names,
dia comrac atá Mag Find,
from their meeting is Mag Find [named]:
Find lúath Life ocus Mífind.
swift Find Liphe and Mifind.
4. Oén Find díb-sin, beres búaid,
One of these two Finds – it grasps victory –
sech tóeb Temrach anairthúaid:
[flows] past the side of Tara from the north-east:
ann comrecat ‘con chommar
there at the confluence it meets
ocus Bóand bán-bronnat.
with white-breasted Boand.
5. Bó Gúairi sech Tailtin tair
Bo Guairi which, eastward past Tailtiu
siles tre Loch Munremair:
flows through Loch Munremair,
Bó Gúairi ainm na haba
Bo Guairi is the name of the river
ria ráiter in mór-Banna.
which after [that point?] is called great Banna.
6. Mar atá Ordan is An,
As there is “Dignity” and “Water”
ó’ ráiter sruth Eorthanan,
from which the river Jordan is called,
in Bóand Bó ocus Find,
[so] Boand is “Cow” and “White”
do chomrac in dá ríg-lind.
from the meeting of the two royal waters.
7. Tánic Bóand ann andes
Boand came there from the south,
ben Nechtain cosin cairdes
the wife of Nechtain, to the love-making
co tech Elcmairi na n-ech,
to the house of Elcmar of the horses,
fer dobered mór ndeg-breth.
a man that gave many good judgements.
8. Is ann dorala in Dagda
It is there that the Dagda came
i tig Elcmairi amra:
into the wondrous house of Elcmar:
rogab for guide na mná:
he began pleading with the woman:
rodusasáit re hóen-lá.
he brought her to the birth in a single day.
9. Is ann fastaitís in ngréin
It was then they stopped the sun
co cend nói mís, mór in scél,
til the end of nine months – a great story
ic gorad in rafheóir ráin
warming the splendid great grass
i cléithi in aeóir imláin.
in the roof-tree of the perfect sky.
10. And asbert in ben abus
Then the woman said here:
“Comrac rit, bad é m’ óen-gus”:
“Meeting with you, that was my one passion”
“Is bad Oengus ainm in meicc”
And Oengus shall be the boy’s name,”
asbert Dagda tre daigbeirt.
said the Dagda, through good judgement.
11. Luid Bóand ó thig co tric
Boand went from the house suddenly
dús dá tairsed in tiprait:
to see if she could reach the well:
derb lé docheiled a col
she was [making?] sure of hiding her adultery
da soised ló a fothrucod.
if she could succeed in washing [in it].
12. A thrí deogbaire in drúad,
The druid’s three cup-bearers
Flesc ocus Lesc ocus Lúam,
“Rod”, and “Sloth” [perh. In error for Lam, “Hand”, above?], and “Pilot”,
Nechtain mac Námat dorat
That Nechtain son of “Enemy” set
do chomét a chóem-thiprat.
to guard his fair well.
13. Doruacht chucu Bóand mín
To them came gentle Boand
dochum na tiprat iar fír:
toward the well, truly,
ércid tairsi in tobar tenn,
the powerful well rose over her,
corosbáid hí cen forcenn.
So that it drowned her in the end.
14. Dogabad uirre in cach trácht
She [the river] was dammed on both shores
nách soised inber na mbárc
so that it would not reach the shipping estuary.
ic Máelmórda, mét ratha,
by Maelmorda – great his wealth –
ic mac maisech Murchada.
by the goodly son of Murchad.
15. Dorónad trócaire Dé
God’s charity was practised
for leith Chuind don chomairle,
on Leth Chuind [i.e. the Northern half of Ireland] on that advice,
coréló in aidchi déin daill
so that it escaped the swift blind night
chucut, a Máil féil Sechlaind.
For you, O generous Maelsechlainn.
NOTES ON NAMES AND PLACES
There is an attested Celtic name, Bovinda = “White Cow”, which would come down to Old Irish as Bóand. It even shares a linguistic root with Sanskrit govinda.
aka Eochaid Ollathar. In Cath Maige Tuired [lines 423 – 426], he gives his full name:
Fir Benn Bruaich Brogaill Broumide Cerbad Caic Rolaig Builc Labair Cerrce Di Brig Oldathair Boith Athgen mBethai Brightere Trí Carboid Roth Rimairie Riog Scotbe Obthe Olaithbe.
For a translation of this and a recording of the name spoken by Isolde, see “Names of the Dagda“.
For now, we shall look at the name by which he is most commonly known; the Dagda. Firstly, it is worth noting that this apellation always has the definite article; in = “the”. The Morrigan also always has the definite article, and these two characters are closely linked in Cath Maige Tuired.
As for Dagda, the medieval glossators analysed this as dag-día = “good god”. However, I have not come across any examples where día, “god”, changes to da. Día has forms such as dea, deu, dé etc., but the -da element of the Dagda’s name is very consistent. Its genetive form is Dagdae or Dagda, and dative form Dagdo, Dagdea. Only this last form would be a possible form from dag-día, “good god”.
I propose that it is a dvandva compound; a word that is doubled for emphasis. As a comparison, note that Irish people sometimes say “at all at all” for emphasis. In which case, Dagda would be a doubling of da- / dag, “good”, making him “the best of the best”!
This would seem well attested as meaning “spite” or “malice”. As well as the word elcmar itself, there are also words such as elgnas, “deliberate mischief”, “malicious injury”. This would seem to fit the stories in which he appears, which concern duplicity and “mischief”. If Eithniu / Bóand has “Spite” for a husband, perhaps her relationship with “The Best of the Best” is more understandable?
A common name for the Dagda. Ollathar means “all-father”, a title given to many mythical fatherly characters such as Odin. Eochaid, sometimes written Eochu or Eocho, is centrally about horses, eich; perhaps best rendered “horseman” or “jockey”. It is an extremely common personal name, as attested in the Annals. Many personal names are based on animals: Congal = con, “hound” + gal, “vigour”; Fiacc = “raven”; Oisín = os, “deer” + ín, “little”.
Necht is an adjective meaning “pure”, “clean”, “white”; probably from nigid, “to wash”. It has several appearances as a personal name in the forms Necht and Nechtain, but is usually a female name. In the context of this Bóand poem, where the deceitful Bóand has betrayed her faultless husband, (remember, in the prose version, it is her husband Elcmar who is “Spite” or “Mischief”), the poet may have used the name Nechtain to reinforce his purity in contrast to Bóand’s sin. After all, this is the version of Bóand’s story where she is destroyed by the well in revenge for her wrong-doing.
To contrast the two Dinshenchas poems about Boand, see “More Poems about Sinann“.
Óengus Mac Ind Óc:
The son of the Dagda and Eithliu / Boand. These two versions of the story give origins for the two parts of his name. Oengus [= Aengus] is presented as ’óen = “one” and gus = “passion”. Surprisingly, this is a pretty accurate linguistic analysis. Gus is a common element of male names (e.g. Fergus), and its main meaning is “force”, “vigour”, “fierceness”. It is also sometimes used in the sense of a deed or task, and even possibly “nature” (i.e. essence of a person).
Mac Ind Óc is explained in the poem in terms of ind mac óc, “the young son”, because of being conceived and born in a single day. However, óc is also used as a term for a young man, and thus, a warrior. So mac ind óc might proprely be translated as “son of the warrior”.
In the light of this birth story, where the Dagda makes Elcmar think that a single day has passed, when it has in fact been nine months, it is worth looking at an episode later in “The Wooing of Étain”, where Óengus seeks to be acknowledged by his father. The Dagda gives him a strategy for taking Brú na Bóinne from Elcmar, by asking to be made king there for a day and a night. When this time is up, Óengus refuses to relinquish ownership, saying that all time is made of days and nights. So the combination of the Dagda and his son, Óengus, seems to have a manipulation of time at its core.
From the Metrical Dindshenchas, Volume 3, poem 4, pp 40 – 46
Edited by Edward Gwynn;
Translated by Isolde Carmody
Notes to the text appear at the end. Terms with notes below are marked in bold.
Fland Mac Lonnán cecinit.
Fland Mac Lonnán chants:
1. Búa, ingen Rúadrach rúaid
Búa, daughter of red-haired Rúadrí
ben Loga mic Céin cleth-rúaid,
wife of Lug, son of Cian, of the ruddy spears,
is ann rofoilged a corp;
it is there her body was buried;
fuirri romúrad mór-chnocc.
Over her was built a great hill.
2. Cnocc ic Búa i medón Breg,
Búa has a hill in the midst of Brega,
baile i tartad in deg-ben,
the place in which the good woman was laid
isin phurt-sin sund ana;
in that precinct over there;
is ainm don chnucc-sin Cnogba.
The name of that hill is Knowth.
3. Acht cid étromma ria rád
But, though lightest to say
d’anmannaib Cnogba comlán
Of all of Knowth’s [Cnogba’s] names,
dílsi dó cnocc Búi amach
More fitting for it is “Búa’s Hill” from now on
ó Búa ingin Rúadrach.
From Búa the daughter of Rúadrí.
4. Ingen Elcmair ann robái:
There was a / the daughter of Elcmar there
ba lendán Mider don mnái:
Midir was beloved of the woman
lendán di-si féin in flaith
she herself was beloved of the noble
fer a Síd Midir mór-maith.
The man from Síd Midir, great and good.
5. Englec ingen Elcmair áin
Englec the daughter of splendid Elcmar
lendán Óengussa imláin;
[was] beloved of perfect Óengus;
Oengus mac in Dagdai dil
Óengus the son of the dear Dagda
nírbo lendán don ingin.
Was not beloved of the girl.
6. Dolluid Mac in Óc ergna
the discerning Mac in Óc came
fodess co Cerainn Cermna
sunwise / southward to Cerainn Cermna
‘sin tShamuin teintig thríallaig
It was Samain of fires and journeys,
do chluiche fri comfhíannaib.
For a game against the other Fíana
7. Dolluid Mider, messu de,
Midir came, worse still,
he caught up with her after them:
berid Engleic leis ó thig
he takes Englec with him from the house
assin co Síd Fer Femin.
Out of there to the Síd of the Men of Femin.
8. Ó rochúala Óengus án
When splendid Óengus heard [about]
a lenmain imma lendán,
the abduction of his beloved
dothéit dia fochmarc, fír dam,
he went to seek her, (I have the truth),
cosin rochnocc óa rucad.
To the great hill from where she was taken.
9. Rob é lón a shlúaig, líth nglé,
This was the provisions of his host, clear feast!
cnói cró-derga na caille;
blood-red nuts of the forest;
léicid a lón de for lár,
he lets go his rations onto the ground,
feraid guba immon cnocán.
He performs a lament around the little hill.
10. Cía ‘dberar fris cnoc Búi drend,
Though it is called “Búa’s hill” of the encounters
is é in cotarsna comthend,
it is the opposite just as strongly,
fuaramar conid de atá
We have found out it is so [called]
don chnó-guba-sin Cnogba.
For that “nut-lament”, “Cnogba”.
11. Cométar ocainn ‘malle
We have preserved together
a mebrugud na láide,
the memory of the poem,
ocus cía bé dlug bías duib
and whichever reason will be with ye [i.e. ye prefer]
is uáithe in brug dar búadaib.
It is from that [story is named] the territory higher than victories.
12. Senchas aile-so, is éol dam,
This is another history, it is known to me,
a chnuic út atá oc Dubthach:
of the aforementioned hill which Dubthach has:
dorónad, cid mór in mod,
it was made, however great the work,
lasin mBresal mbó-díbod.
By that Bresal Bó-díbad
13. Díbad ar búaib bái ria lind
There was a plague / destruction on cattle in his time
in cach inad i nÉrind,
in every spot in Ireland,
acht secht mba is tarb tuilltís tress
except for seven cows and a bull whose strength would swell
oc cach brugaid ria remess.
for every hospitaller in his lifetime.
14. Tócaibther leis in cnocc crúaid
The harsh hill was built by him
fo chosmailius tuir Nemrúaid,
in the likeness of Nimrod’s tower,
co mbad de tísad for nem;
so that from it he might go [up] to heaven;
is é fáth ara fuaibred.
That is the reason it was attempted.
15. Fir Érend dia dénum dó
It was the men of Ireland who made it
in chnuicc sin uili i n-óenló:
that whole hill in one day:
rothócaib díb giallu in gein
the person [i.e. Bresal] took hostages [legal sureties] from them
fri hobair in laithi-sin.
For the work of that day.
16. Adubairt fris a fiur féin,
His own sister said to him,
nách leicfed rith don rogréin,
that she would not let the great sun run [its course]
ní biad adaig, acht lá glan
there would not be night, but pure day
co roiched súas in sáethar.
Until the labour reached up [i.e. was completed]
17. Sínid uaithe a fiur for fecht,
His sister proceeds [lit. stretches from herself] on her course,
doní co dron a drúidecht:
Firmly she performs her magic:
nir utmall grían ósa cind;
The sun was not restless [i.e. was still] above her head;
rofasta hí ‘sin oen-rind.
She stopped it in one point.
18. Dolluid Bresal, báes rongab,
Bresal came, a frenzy seized him,
ón chnucc dochum a shethar:
from the hill towards his sister:
dorónsat slúaig deccra de:
the host made of it an affliction fosfúair i Ferta Cuile.
He found her at the Mound of the Fly / Hollow / Chambers
19. Luid ina gnáis, ciarbo chol,
He went to have intercourse with her, though it was incest,
don tsiair, ciarbo shárugod:
to the sister, though it was rape:
frisin cnoc sin sunda amne
thus, on this hill here,
adberar Ferta Cuile.
It is called “Mound of Incest” [pun on col]
20. In uair nár lá dóib iarsin,
Then it was not day for them after that,
is dóig linn corbo adaig,
We think that it was night,
ní dernad in cnocc co cend;
The hill was not made to the top [i.e. not finished]
tíat for cúlu fir Érend.
The men of Ireland go back [home].
21. Atá in cnocc óshin ille
The hill is from then to now
cen tuilled air ar airde:
without swelling on its height:
ní ba mó achach ósheo immach
it is not greater [i.e. will not increase], alas, from now on
co tí in bráth briste brethach.
until Judgement Day’s broken judgement [i.e. the end of the world].
22. Fland sunna, solus a dán,
This is Fland, bright his craft,
innises sin, ní sóeb-rád:
who recites this, it is no false-speaking:
rogu sceóil, scáilid mná is fir,
the best of stories, scatter it, women and men,
mebrugaid beóil oc buádaib.
Mouths recall it in victories.
A population group and plain in the Meath area, but distinct from Mide. Seems to cover the East Midlands, parts of modern Counties Dublin, Meath and Kildare.
Bresal seems to have the same etymological root as the chaotic king Bres Mac Elathan, i.e. “Uproar , Din”. Bó-díbad is literally “Cow-Destruction”, and this Bresal is reknowned for the cattle plague that occurred during his lifetime. He is elsewhere cited as a son of Rúadrí / Rúadraige, which may, by reference to external sources, connect him with the Búa of the first section of this poem.
“Cow”. There are a number of mythological women with some version of “cow” in their names or titles: Bóand, “White Cow” of the Boyne River; Caillech Bóí Bére, “Veiled One, Cow of Beare” of the Beare Penninsula in the South West. This Búa is described as wife of Lug, along with her sister, Nás, “Death?”. Búa is also given as daughter of Rúadrí, “Ruddy King”, who is elsewhere given as father to Bresal Bó-Díbad (see above).
Hogan seems to refer this to Cerenn and Cerne. This latter is probably 3 miles SSE. of Navan, and 5 miles N. of Tara. It is listed alongside Cnogba in a number of sources as neighbouring territories.
Knowth, Co. Meath; part of the Boyne Valley neolithic complex, one of its three main tumuli (artificial burial mounds or passage tombs) along with Newgrange (Brú na Bóinne) and Dowth (Dubad / Dub Aedha / Duibfhid).
In this poem, it is given different synthetic etymologies:
- cnocc Búi = “Búa’s Hill”
- cnó-guba = “nut lament”
To find out about the fascinating archaeology of Knowth, visit these websites:
Official page: http://www.newgrange.com/knowth.htm
This site has excellent images of Knowth’s many decorated kerbstones: http://www.megalithicireland.com/Knowth.htm
This term means “infringement, violation” and comes to mean “sin”. While it certainly is used in legal senses, it seems to me to carry an implication of violating “natural law”. It particularly refers to “incest”, and thereby to a degree of kinship which is an impediment to marriage. Claude Lévi-Strauss, one of the founders of modern anthropology, saw incest as a “universal” tabu i.e. not culturally specific. It still represents a wrongness of a primordial nature.
Gwynn translates this word as “a marvel”, which seems to me a stretch. While the word can refer to something marvellous or out of the ordinary, this is a secondary meaning. The principal sense of deccair, which continues into Modern Irish, is of something difficult or troublesome. It means “a marvel” only in the sense of something hard to accomplish. In the context of the poem, however, I feel “affliction” is a better rendering; Bresal’s people consider his “stupor” as some trouble or difficulty that has come over him and caused him to rape his sister.
We have met Elcmar before, as he is the husband of Bóann at the time of her conception of Óengus Mac Ind Óc with the Dagda. (See “Texts of Eithliu”). It is also he who holds the seat at Newgrange (Brú na Bóinne) when Óengus comes to claim his inheritance by more verbal trickery concerning time and space. Since his name means “Spite”, it is tempting to see him as a perpetual “fall guy” for the manipulation of those around him.
Englec ingen Elcmair
While Englec is given as a daughter to the long-suffering Elcmar, we mustn’t assume the she is therefore Bóand’s daughter – after all, Óengus is Bóand’s son but not Elcmar’s. Besides, while the last section of the poem concerns incest between a brother and sister, it would have been as clearly marked if that were an issue here.
For Englec’s name, it could be understood as “Stone Track” or “Slab Territory” or perhaps even “Water Wrestling”!
I have been unable to find another reference to this place, but as we pointed out in the episode, Knowth is surrounded by many “satelite” mounds.
The term ferta means a “(grave-)mound”, but it is the term cuile that is more provocative. It could be the genitive of cuil, “fly” (the insect), cúl, “nook, hollow” or cuile, “pantry”. This last is curious (although less likely to be in the genitive singular) because it is a room particularly associated with women, and seems sometimes to mean “bedroom”.
There is also a term, “ben chuil” meaning “concubine”. Bé Chuile is one of the bantúathad, “wise women” of the Túatha Dé Danann who speaks during the second muster of the troops before the Battle of Moytura. (Sections 116-7, lines 509 – 513).
When the place is named as Ferta Cuile the second time, we have heard about the col, “incest”, and so now we can understand Ferta Cuile as “Mound of Incest”.
Hunting and / or warrior bands. We will be hearing much more about these gangs when we dive into Find Mac Umaill!
Literally “sun-stop” i.e. a solstice. In Modern Irish, we term it gríanstad, with the same meaning.
This term means “lament”, but is distinguished from terms that mean wailing or sobbing. Its entry in the “Dictionary of the Irish Language” notes;
Especially of lamentation or keening, as part of ancient funeral rites.
This term is usually translated as “lover”, but it can be confusing in how sentences are constructed in terms of who loves whom! In fact, I think I got it backwards when we recorded the episode. I have solved the problem by translating it as “beloved”. It makes a bit more sense of the love triangle, but I don’t think it affects the overall shape of the story. (Official apologies to Óengus Mac Ind Óc!)
Lug, son of Cian
This Lug, husband of Búa (see above), is the same Lug who plays such a tricky role in Cath Maige Tuired. You can hear about his exploits there in Series 2 – The Battle of Moytura: Episode 3 – Techt Lugo.
Midir plays a central role in the tale Tocmarc Étaíne, “The Wooing of Étaín”, sometimes referred to as “Midir and Étaín”. In that tale, he is foster-father to Óengus, and sends Óengus to get Étaín from her father. By the end of the tale, Étaín has been born again to a different mother, and married to another man, from whom Midir abducts her. So, in common with the tale in our poem, Midir has a close relationship (whether positive or negative) with Óengus, and abducts or elopes with a woman. It may seem strange, then, that his name seems to mean “Judge” or, more precisely “he judged”.
Óengus mac in Dagdai / Mac ind Óc
The story of Óengus’ conception by the Dagda and Bóand is told both in the second poem on Bóand (see above) and at the opening of Tocmarc Étaíne (see “ ”), which also describes how he gets his epithet, Mac Ind Óc, “Son The Young”. He very often appears alongside his father, the Dagda, (whom we discussed in depth in Series 2 – The Battle of Moytura: Episode 4 – Ar Shlicht in Dagdae), and they often perform tasks for one another. In Tocmarc Étaíne, “The Wooing of Étaín”, Óengus is fostered to Midir, whom he believes to be his natural father at first. Óengus has to fetch Étaín from her father as part of a reparation for injurydone to Midir. These two have a close yet fraught relationship.
“Red King”. He is given as father to Búa at the beginning of this poem, but elsewhere is given as father of Bresal Bó-díbad. In the last story of this poem, Bresal rapes his sister, who is otherwise unnamed. The implication may be that, since this is a Dindshenchas on Cnogba / Cnocc Búa, that Bresal’s sister is another Búa, or even the same as the one married to Lug.
The line ‘sin tShamuin teintig thríallaig is translated by Gwynn as “on a blazing, hurrying Samain”. But, given that Samain is a crucial time of the year, I feel it makes more sense as “it was Samain of fires and journeys”. Samain, in its modern form of Hallowe’en, still involves bonfires and the children’s “Trick or Treat” journey around the houses of the neighbourhood.
secht mba is tarb
“Seven cows and a bull” who are said, in this poem, to be the sole bovine survivors of the cattle-plague of Bresal Bó-díbad. This is also said to be all that remained to the hospitaller, Buchét, and his wife, Odras, in the tales Esnada Tige Buchét, “The Melodies of the House of Buchét”, and the poem on Odras (Metrical Dindshenchas, Volume 4, poem 49, pp 196 – 199). Indeed, the qualities of the one remaining bull in our present poem seems to be that it grows stronger oc cach brugaid ria remess, “for every hospitaller in his lifetime”. I feel this is a passing reference to the stories of Buchet and Odras.
Síd Fer Femin
This is now Slievenamon, north of Clonmel in Co. Tipperary.
This is often referred to as Brí Leith, mythological home of Midir. It is now known as Ardagh Hill or Slieve Golry in Co. Longford. Hogan notes (s.v. sliab) that “in districts of a flat surface a very inconsiderable elevation is called sliabh”, even though the term is usually rendered “mountain” in English. Size is relative.
“Nimrod’s tower” i.e. the Tower of Babel. This is the Judeo-Christian myth of the tower built so that mortals could ascend to Heaven. In the story, God destroys the tower and punishes mankind by making them speak mutually incomprehensible languages. The medieval Irish were fascinated by this story, especially since they knew Latin only as a written language, and spoke a different language to their closest neighbours in Britain.
- Posted in: Articles ♦ Dindshenchas 09: Tocmarc Étaíne 1 - A Fly On The Wall ♦ Series 03: Dindshenchas and the Art of Mythic Cartography ♦ Texts and Translations
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