The Myths and Legends of the River Boyne

The Myths and Legends of the River Boyne

Date: 06/07/2022

The river Boyne rises near Carbury, County Kildare and flows northeast through County Meath, where it enters the Irish Sea right between County Meath and County Louth. Despite its short course, the Boyne has historical, archaeological, and mythical connotations. 
The Battle of the Boyne, a major battle in Irish history, took place along the Boyne near Drogheda in 1690 during the Williamite war in Ireland. It passes near the heritage town of Trim, Trim Castle, the Hill of Tara (the ancient capital of the High King of Ireland), Navan, Slane Castle, the Hill of Slane, Brú na Bóinne, Old Mellifont Abbey, and the medieval city of Drogheda. This river has been known since ancient times. The Greek geographer Ptolemy drew a map of Ireland in the 2nd century which included the Boyne, which he called Βουουινδα (Bououinda), and somewhat later Giraldus Cambrensis called it Boandus.

Bóinn- Goddess of the Boyne

Boann goddess of the Boyne

According to legend, the mythical goddess Boann created the Boyne. Though forbidden to by her husband, Nechtan, Boann approached the magical Well of Segais, which was surrounded by nine magic hazel-trees.  Hazelnuts were known to fall into the Well, where they were eaten by the speckled salmon (who, along with hazelnuts, also embody and represent wisdom in Irish mythology).
Boann challenged the power of the well by walking around it tuathal (counter-clockwise); this caused the waters to surge up violently and rush down to the sea, creating the Boyne. In this catastrophe, she was swept along in the rushing waters, and lost an arm, leg and eye, and ultimately her life, in the flood. 
And so, this is where the river Boyne got its name. From the goddess Boann. Have a look at this great video, composed by Meath singer Róisín Ní Ghallóglaigh. The song tells us about the Boyne River and its history, mythology, geography, and environmental importance, using the medium of unaccompanied traditional song.

“Now Boinn lives immortal in the dark streams of our land, in the rich plains that for centuries were made fertile by her land”

The Salmon of Knowledge
Perhaps one of the best-known stories from our past is the legend of the Salmon of Knowledge and Fionn MacCumhaill. The Salmon of Knowledge is a story that is celebrated in the town of Trim through one of its public artworks, “A Hunger for Knowledge” which is in Castle Street in the town itself. Created from a 2,000-year-old piece of bog oak, the sculpture represents the well-known story of how the boy, Fionn Mac Cumhaill gained all the knowledge of the world.

Salmon of Knowledge sculpture
According to Irish mythology the first thing to ever come into creation was a hazel tree, and its branches contained all the knowledge of the universe. This hazel tree flourished over the Well of Wisdom (Tobar Segais) within which lived a great speckled salmon. 

The story goes that the salmon ate the hazel nuts which on one occasion fell into the well, thus acquiring all the wisdom of the universe. It was foretold that the first person to catch and eat the salmon would gain this knowledge.

Salmon on the Boyne
Nonetheless, many tried and failed, until a poet named Finnegas having spent seven years fishing the Boyne caught it. Finnegas instructed his apprentice, a young boy named Deimne Maol, to prepare it for him. Deimne burned his thumb while cooking the salmon.  Instinctively he put his thumb into his mouth to ease the pain and in an instant acquired all its knowledge. When Dimne brought the cooked meal to Finnegas, his master saw something in the boy's eyes that had not been there before. When asked by Finnegas, Deimne denied that he had eaten of the fish. 
When pressed, he admitted his accidental taste. What the old poet hadn't known was that Deimne had another name, given to him by his mother - Fionn, meaning fair haired one. It was this incredible knowledge and wisdom gained from the Salmon of Knowledge that allowed Fionn Mac Cumhaill to become the leader of the Fianna, the famed heroes of Irish myth. 

There are many places in the Boyne Valley where you can experience these Myths and legends. Visit the Porchfields in Trim and the new interpretive panels or discover the digital story trail here. Drop into any of our tourist information centres and our guides will help you with all the information you need.

To keep up to date with all our news and special offers just sign up to our newsletter here.