Story Archaeology

Uncovering the layers of Irish Mythology through a regular podcast and related articles.

Revisiting the Importance of the Source

When I chose to study Early Irish, the principal reason was so that I could read the Irish stories and poetry that I so loved in their original language.  As a student of literature and philosophy, I knew that translation meant interpretation.  Being both cynical and a control freak, I wanted to remove the filter of the translator between the text and myself.

This began an extraordinary journey of discovery for me.  Even when studying a text which has an accepted published translation, I find myself going through the original text, word by word, exploring every possibility and permutation of translation until it makes sense to me.

In Story Archaeology terms, this is largely a question of disentangling the compacted layer that is the 19th century.  It was then that many early Irish texts first had published English editions and translations.  We now have more than a century of scholarship and exploration, yet most of the general public are still relying on those Victorian translations.  It is these versions that have become “general knowledge” about Irish mythology.

With all this in mind, I was still unprepared for the astonishing variants between some of those early translations and my readings of the original texts.  The “generally known” story of Sinann is a real case in point…

Eugene O’Curry’s tellng of the story of Sinann, followed by some notes by Isolde ÓBrolcháin Carmody

From EUGENE O’CURRY: On the Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish Vol 2

Lecture VII  [Delivered 18th June, 1857.]


pp 142 – 144

The third piece of O’Lothchain’s composition is a poem of sixteen stanzas, or fifty-six lines, on the origin of the name of the Sinann, now the river Shannon.   This poem begins: “The noble name of Sinainn seek ye from me; Its bare recital would not be pleasant, Not alike now are its action and noise As when Sinann herself was free and alive”….[1]  It is shortly as follows:

Sinann was the daughter of the learned Lodan, who was the son of Lear, the great sea-king of the Tuatha Dé Danann colony of Erinn, from whose son and successor Manannan the Isle of Man derives its name and ancient celebrity.  In those very early times there was a certain mystical fountain which was called Connlas Well, (situated, so far as we can gather, in Lower Ormond).[2] As to who this Connla was, from whom the well had its name, we are not told; but the well itself appears to have been regarded as another Helicon by the ancient Irish poets. Over this well there grew, according to the legend, nine beautiful mystical hazel-trees, which annually sent forth their blossoms and fruits simultaneously. The nuts were of the richest crimson colour, and teemed with the knowledge of all that was refined in literature, poetry, and art. No sooner, however, were the beautiful nuts produced on the trees, than they always dropped into the well, raising by their fall a succession of shining red bubbles. Now during this time the water was always full of salmon; and no sooner did the bubbles appear than these salmon darted to the surface and eat the nuts, after which they made their way to the river.[3] The eating of the nuts produced brilliant crimson spots on the bellies of these salmon; and to catch and eat these salmon became an object of more than mere gastronomic interest among those who were anxious to become distinguished in the arts and in literature without being at the pains and delay of long study; for the fish was supposed to have become filled with the knowledge which was contained in the nuts, which, it was believed, would be transferred in full to those who had the good fortune to catch and eat them. Such a salmon was, on that account, called the Eo Feasa, or “Salmon of Knowledge”; and it is to such a salmon that we sometimes meet a reference among our old poets, where, when speaking of objects which they pretend to be above description, they say, “unless they had eaten of the salmon of knowledge they could not do it justice”.…

To proceed, however, with the legend of the Shannon: It was forbidden to women to come within the precincts of Connla’s wonderful well;[4] but the beautiful lady Sinann, who possessed above every maiden of her time all the accomplishments of her sex, longed to have also those more solid and masculine acquirements which were accessible at Connlds well to the other sex only.[5] To possess herself of these she went secretly[6] to the mystical fountain; but as soon as she approached its brink, the waters rose up violently, burst forth over its banks, and rushed towards the great river now called the Shannon, overwhelming the lady Sinann in their course, whose dead body was carried down by the torrent, and at last cast up on the land at the confluence of the two streams. After this the well became dry for ever;[7] and the stream which issued from it was that originally known by the name of the lady Sinann or Shannon; but having fallen into that great succession of lakes which runs nearly through the centre of Ireland, the course of lakes subsequently appropriated the name to itself, which it still retains, whilst the original stream is now unknown.[8] The original Sinann is, however, believed to have fallen into the present Shannon, near the head of Loch Dearg, not far from Portumna.

NOTES by Isolde ÓBrolcháin Carmody

  1. This is the poem published as “Sinann I” in Gwynn’s Metrical Dindshenchas, Vol 3, poem 53, p. 286 ff
  2. Lower Ormond is South-East Munster, Waterford or Wexford. I don’t know O’Curry’s basis for this.  The poem clearly places the well of Condla under the sea.
  3. The sequence of nuts-bubbles-salmon is a bit confused: in the poem, the bubbles are formed by the juice squeezed from the nuts as the salmon eat them.
  4. It does not say in either Dindshenchas poem that it was forbidden for women to approach the well.
  5. I cannot find such gender distinctions in either poem.  Neither were the learned professions “forbidden” to women in ancient Ireland, although professional women usually had lower status than their male counterparts.
  6. The poem says that she had the idea to visit the well one night – it says nothing of it being a secret, and in fact states that she brought the finest of her household with her on this supposedly “secret” journey.
  7. I don’t know from where O’Curry gets this information of the well drying up after Sinann’s visit.
  8. Again, I think there is some confusion about the “streams” mentioned in the poem, of which one is the Shannon.  Perhaps O’Curry, believing the well to be somewhere in Lower Ormond (South-East Munster) imagines another river reaching from there to the “current” Shannon at Lough Derg, but that this stream is somehow now lost.  If he was looking for a river or stream in that region as a candidate, he might have settled on the river Nenagh, which is locally known as “Sinann”.  This is in North Tipperary, not too far from Lough Derg, where O’Curry says the body of Sinann was washed up near Portumna.

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