Irish Folklore: Water Values


Two words that most Irish people know – no matter how limited their Gaelic vocabulary – are ‘uisce beatha’: the Irish for ‘whiskey’. Uisce beatha – as everyone loves to explain ad nauseum – literally means ‘water of life’. Most Irish people are pretty proud about that description. It’s a cool intellectual construct after all, based around a relatively cool product (unless, of course, you’ve overindulged). What’s not to like?

Respect for water as an important necessity of life is a common theme in most early cultures. If you delve a little deeper into the reasoning behind that, it’s quite easy to see why. On the most basic individual level, water is required to sustain life (i.e. if you don’t replenish your body fluids, you die. If you don’t wash, no one will want to have sex with you).

At the most basic early social level (tribe/community) water was also a fundamental essential for the cleaning and preparation of large volumes of food, transport, farming, etc. All early settlements of any size were invariably based near a supply of water for this reason.

Because water was so important in a physical sense, our ancestors also acknowledged this importance in their spiritual practices. Those areas where water emerged from the earth (springs, wells, lakes, etc.) were considered sacred spaces in that they were believed to serve as a conduit for bringing imbas (esoteric knowledge) into the physical world. During the early medieval period in Ireland, many rivers were believed have an association with a specific female river deity (Bóinn for the Boyne, Sionnann for the Shannon etc.) although these were probably all manifestations of the original Land Goddess (generically referred to as Mother Earth in modern parlance). These sites were venerated and votive offerings were often made there. This is why so many of our archaeological treasures have been recovered from ‘watery’ (or ‘previously watery’ places).

If you move across time to our more complex contemporary society, you can see that the value system for water had changed dramatically from what it was 1000 years or even 100 years ago. Most western societies, take it for granted that homes will have a reliable supply of water through home plumbing. If there’s a shortage of supply, it’s simply pumped in from elsewhere.

Over time, this easy availability has resulted in water being devalued from sacred resource to simple commodity (such as electricity, communications inputs etc.) delivered through a tap. Although we retain many aspects of our ancestors reverence for water through our spiritual rituals (baptisms, holy water at church fonts etc.), this is quite a significant change in mindset.

The biggest disjunction of all, however, occurs at the higher, more powerful levels of society (government /commercial institution) where water’s only perceived to have value when it has some kind of input to – or impact on – power (political or financial). To some degree, this is probably why such questionable decisions that impact on local water supply are being made. Over the last few decades we’ve seen increasing disregard for local water supply as a result of uncontrolled industrial/agricultural pollution and fracking driven by commercial interests and facilitated by governments.

Needless to say, this is a  simplistic description of how changing value systems and structures can have a detrimental effect on a society. Nevertheless, when considering aspects of modern society it’s often useful to take a step back and consider what our ancestors might have thought. With respect to water, although there’s no doubt they’d be impressed by the technological advances made over the last millennium, you can’t help but imagine their alarm at a society that treats what they would have considered a fundamental necessity of life, with such disdain.