Sunday, 7 February 2016

Some old names for the town of Drogheda in Irish myths and place name lore

My home town is today called Drogheda. The common accepted nomenclature of Drogheda says that it is derived from the Irish Droichead Átha, meaning "Bridge on the Ford". I've always been curious about that, mainly because a ford or crossing point is something that obviously pre-dates a bridge, so that the name seems to refer to two distinct and different methods of crossing the river. Before bridges were built, rivers were crossed at shallow places called fords, or indeed at shallow places where the crossing was augmented by some sort of stone causeway built along the river bed.1

A view of Drogheda with its bridge over the Boyne from a mid-18th Century
painting by Gabriele Ricciardelli (Highlanes Gallery)
An ancient ford of the Boyne at Rosnaree, several miles upstream of Drogheda, is marked on early OS maps. It might have been one of the principal crossing places of the Boyne in prehistory, and was possibly the place where the great northern road from Tara, the Slíghe Midluachra, passed through the Boyne Valley adjacent to the great monuments of Brúg na Bóinne.

The ancient ford of the Boyne at Rosnaree. (Source)

In 'Island of the Setting Sun - In Search of Ireland's Ancient Astronomers', Richard Moore and I presented evidence that the name of the Boyne river might have been inspired by the Milky Way, the great "river of the sky" and that the Boyne might have been considered its earthly counterpart.

Some of Drogheda's numerous bridges.
So I have this pet theory, and it's only a theory, without much foundation, that perhaps the old name of Drogheda does not mean "Bridge on the Ford", but maybe something like "Ford of the Wheel" - droichead being related to the word droch, which means "wheel".2 I've also seen it written somewhere (although I cannot immediately recall the source) that suggested the word droichead stems from droch representing the wheel-shaped arches of a bridge. My theory is that the "ford of the wheel" is the crossing point of the earthly Milky Way, the river Boyne. Indeed, another great wheel of the sky - the Zodiac, through which the sun, moon and planets journey through the sky - was recognised in earlier times by the Irish phrase rael-draoch, the "circle or wheel of the stars".3

Anyway, I digress. Enough of the pet theories and deviations from the main topic at hand, which is the ancient name of the town we call Drogheda today.

In prehistoric times, the area where Drogheda is situated today was likely known as Inber Colpa (spelt different ways, including Inbher Colptha). There are a couple of different stories accounting for the origin of this name. One of these says that it is named after the shin-bone (Colptha) of the great monster the Mata, which was said to have been slain by the men of Éireann at a mysterious stone near Newgrange in Brug na Bóinne. Another story says the name is accounted for by the death of the Milesian brother Colpa during their battle with the Tuatha Dé Danann, who caused a fierce tempest to blow up as the Milesians attempted to land at the Boyne. You can read more about these stories in Island of the Setting Sun. Inber is an Irish word that means "the meeting of the waters", or a harbour or estuary.

Of particular interest to my little investigation here, though, are a couple of names for Drogheda which I had not previously encountered. Droichead Átha and Inber Colpa are well attested, but much less well known but equally interesting are some other names which were apparently given to the town, or features in its vicinity, in times long ago.

In their recounting of a famous story called 'The Colloquy of the Old Men', Cross and Slover in their 1936 book 'Ancient Irish Tales' refer to the separate journeys of  Oisín (son of the celebrated Finn McCool) and Cailte, son of Crunnchu mac Ronain. After visiting Finn's old nurse, Oisin and Cailte separate, one going north to seek Oisín's mother, who is one of the Tuatha De Danann; the other moving south toward Tara:

... Oisin went to the fairy-mound of Uch Cletigh, where was his mother, Blai daughter of Derc Dianscothach; while Cailte took his way to Inber Bic Loingsigh which at present is called Mainister Droichid Atha (the monastery of Drogheda) from Beg Loigsech son of Arist that was drowned in it, that is, the king of the Romans' son, who came to invade Ireland; but a tidal wave drowned him there in his inber (river-mouth). He went on to Linn Feic (Fiacc's Pool), on the bright-streaming Boyne; southwards over the Old Mag Breg, and to the rath (stronghold) of Drum Derg, where Patrick mac Calpuirn was.

Mellifont Abbey. 
There are a few things that are interesting in this passage. We know that Fiacc's Pool is likely situated on the bend of the Boyne beneath Ros na Rí (Rosnaree) and was the celebrated place where Finneces caught the Salmon of Knowledge, from which Finn gained all his wisdom. The 'Inber Bic Loingsigh' which was better known as the Monastery of Drogheda, is a curious one indeed. Bic of Beg is probably the Irish word for small. Loingsigh could be a variant of loingeasach, meaning "abounding in ships or in fleets".4 In his 1997 book Conversing with Angels and Ancients: Literary Myths of Medieval Ireland, Joseph Falaky Nagy asserts that the Mainistir Droichit Átha referred to in the text is Mellifont, the first Cistercian monastery founded in Ireland (in 1142). Not being a scholar in medieval Ireland, I cannot argue with him. However, the location of Mellifont a number of miles northwest of Drogheda, on a smaller tributary of the Boyne called the river Mattock, means it is some distance removed from the river mouth where Beg Loingsech was apparently drowned.

The story of the mysterious drowning of Beg Loingsech is interesting indeed. There are obvious parallels here between Inber Bic Loinsigh and Inber Colpa. Bic Loinsigh was the son of the king of the Romans, who "came to invade Ireland", but a tidal wave drowned him at the river mouth. Colpa was a son of Mil, the king of Spain, and he was drowned somewhere near the mouth of the Boyne by a storm whipped up by the Dé Dananns while trying to land for the purpose of taking Ireland from them. The Milesians could also have said to be "abounding in ships"; many of them were destroyed in the Dé Danann tempest. The parallels between these stories are so striking that one cannot but draw the tentative impression that they are two versions of a single old mythic narrative involving the naming of the Boyne estuary.

Another obscure ancient name from Drogheda is mentioned all too briefly in O'Donovan's Ordnance Survey letters, and it would be interesting to see if further research into this name - and its variants - yields information of interest. Here is what O'Donovan says, after writing briefly about the name Droichet Atha:

There are other ancient names of it still retained by some persons. Sarsfield, whom we have mentioned on our former letters, says the ancient name of it was Ath Dhunruaidhe, and Jones says the ancient name of it was Dun Dubhruaidhe . . . Others say it was called Treda prior to it having got the denomination of Drogheda - if it was so-called, Treda seems to have been the first Anglicized name of it. Droichet atha (Droichet Atha) occurs in several places in the Annals of the Four Masters . . .5

Literally translated, Ath Dhun Ruaidhe would mean "the ford of the red fort" or something similar and Dun Dubhruaidhe would mean "the fort of black-red" or something to that effect. O'Donovan puts a footnote in for the Sarsfield and Jones references which asks the question "Are these names preserved in any document?" Regrettably, the answer would appear to be no.


1. Drochet can also refer to a causeway as well as a bridge. See DIL.
2. See Vallancey (referenced in Newgrange: Monument to Immortality) and also for droch = coach-wheel, see the Shaw Gaelic Dictionary.
3. Newgrange: Monument to Immortality, Anthony Murphy, 2012, p.92.
4. Shaw Gaelic Dictionary, p.358.
5. Louth Ordnance Survey Letters, Co. Louth Archaeological Journal Vols. IV, V & VI, p.92.

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