The Meeting of the Waters.

If I had been aware of the phrase “the meeting of the waters,” it was only very vaguely; I’d probably seen it but couldn’t have told you its history or what it referred to. Now that I’ve read John Barrell’s 7,576-word essay about it in the LRB (27 July 2017, pp. 23-28), I know much more about it than I ever expected to; by next year — hell, by next month — I will probably have forgotten it all, but it was an enjoyable ride, from the Vale of Avoca (about which Thomas Moore wrote the poem so titled, first published in 1808 and destined to become fantastically popular as a song) to the Erie Canal (into which two bottles of water were poured, “the one taken from the depths of the Indian ocean, and the other from the Atlantic,” to symbolize the meeting of all the waters of the world with the Great Lakes”: “The whole occasion was known as ‘The Meeting of the Waters’, and at the dinner that evening Moore’s song was played by the band of the Academy at West Point”). I will quote one paragraph for the sake of its Joycean conclusion:

Following the song’s publication, its title phrase develops a rich history, as a general term for the confluence of two rivers, as an informal place name applied to such confluences, and as a metaphor for comings together of almost every imaginable kind. It can be difficult to tell whether the phrase is being used simply to mean ‘confluence’, rather than as a place name, and in collecting my examples I have tried to distinguish between these uses by regarding the phrase as a place name only when it is marked by initial capitals, italics, or inverted commas, or when it appears as the title of a picture of a specific place. Thus, in Ireland, the phrase seems to have functioned as a place name in the Vale of Avoca, of course, and at Killarney, and elsewhere as an adjunct to a previously established place name: at Macroom between Cork and Killarney; at Navan in County Meath; at Glenariff, County Antrim; at Glengariff, County Cork; and at places in Counties Mayo, Sligo, Louth, Down, Tyrone, two more in Wicklow, three in Waterford. My criteria do not allow me to include the statue of Moore placed over Dublin’s largest public urinal and described in 1900 as ‘a vile misshapen monstrous pewter image erected in memory of the National poet’. They did right, Joyce tells us in Ulysses, ‘to put him up over a urinal: meeting of the waters’.

Completely irrelevant but equally irresistible, from the Wikipedia article on Fath-Ali Shah Qajar (who ruled Persia when Griboyedov was killed, as detailed in the Tynyanov novel I reviewed here):

In 1797, Fath Ali was given a complete set of the Britannica‘s 3rd edition, which he read completely; after this feat, he extended his royal title to include “Most Formidable Lord and Master of the Encyclopædia Britannica.”


  1. SFReader says

    the Erie Canal (into which two bottles of water were poured, “the one taken from the depths of the Indian ocean, and the other from the Atlantic,

    Reminds me that WWII historical anecdote about general Bagramyan, Stalin and bottle of Baltic water.

    Basically, it goes like this: in July 1944, Soviet offensive unexpectedly reached the Baltic sea, cutting off a large group of German forces in Latvia and Estonia. To boast their success, general Bagramyan ordered soldiers on the beach to fill a bottle with water from the Baltic sea to present it to Stalin.

    But by the time when the bottle reached Moscow, the Germans counter-attacked and drove back Russians from the sea.

    So Stalin sent the bottle back saying “Pour it back where you filled it”

    It took several months, but the Red Army again reached the Baltic and a great spectacle was made of pouring the bottle with Baltic water back into the sea.

  2. Great story!

  3. Isn’t there a tradition of various royals being baptised in water from the Jordan?

  4. John Cowan says

    I think the first “meeting of the waters” I ever heard of was in Pittsburgh, where the Allegheny and the Monongahela meet to form the Ohio. The Allegheny is blue, the Monongahela brown, and the Ohio is two-toned for quite a long way downstream. A similar thing happens in Cairo, Illinois, where the blue Missouri meets the brown (or yellow) Upper Missisippi.

  5. JC: the Mississippi meets the Ohio (twotone or not) in Cairo IL. The Mississippi meets the Missouri near St. Louis.

    OTOH Wisconson allegedly means “meeting of the waters”. per wikipedia.

  6. Is there a name for the best-known snatch of a song, habitually sung by one who doesn’t know the words, or perhaps even the tune, of the rest? The opening couplet of Moore’s is one of those for my father.

    The last post-1798 rebel was not Robert Emmet but Michael Dwyer, who held out a few months longer in the Wicklow Mountains, not too far from the Vale of Avoca. The Killarney Meeting of the Waters is a narrows connecting two of the famous lakes, rather than a river confluence.

    The nickname “Meeting of the Waters” for the Dublin public convenience beside Moore’s statue may predate Joyce. It was still current 20 years ago, after the facility had been permananently closed; it was recently demolished, so the nickname may fade away.

  7. John Barrell says Thomas Sautelle Roberts’ 1804 print is “the only evidence I have that the confluence of the Avonmore and Avonbeg was called the Meeting of the Waters before the song was published [in 1808].”

    Liam Price’s “The place-names of Co. Wicklow – I: The barony of Ballinacor North” p.12 discusses this. I don’t have a copy, but there is online information at the Placenames Database of Ireland (sections “Archival records” of pages for “Meetings” and “Connary”):–
    * “Meet.g of –y Water” apears in 1760 on “A Map of Wicklow” by Jacob Nevill.
    * There may also be a 1705 cite?
    * On one bank is the townland of Meetings (the name gradually superseded the old name “Carrigmorna” between the 1760s and 1830s)
    * Near the other bank is the townland of Connary (name attested 16th century, from Irish cómhgaire “meetings” — meaning either the confluence or nearby road junction)

  8. Michael Trevor says

    JC: Kit Wright’s “Iron City Love Song” (no. 6)

  9. 6. Iron City Love Song (Kit Wright)

    Pittsburgh civic
    Fountain, flow

    Down below
    The Pittsburgh Hilton,
    Roll on in
    To O-hi-o.

    I am thinking
    Of my darling,
    Miles and miles
    Away from me.

    All I see,
    Dark fork of rivers,
    Now she goes
    By E-ri-e.

    I am dreaming,
    Of the sea

    Where the waters
    Leap together.
    In her arms
    I soon shall be.

  10. @mollymooly: The catchy part of a song, which people remember and sing along with, is the “hook.”

  11. Ellen K. says

    As noted, it’s the Ohio River that meets the Mississippi River at Cairo, Illinois. The Missouri River, which meets the Mississippi River farther upstream, is actually responsible for a good portion of the Mississippi’s brownness.

  12. John Cowan says

    That’s what I meant, yes.

  13. Would those parts of a poem that are the only lines that anyone remembers be technically known as “the hook”?

    Pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar.


    The Isles of Greece, the Isles of Greece,
    Where burning Sappho loved and sung.

    In my understanding the hook of a song could equally well be an instrumental part like the fuzz guitar riff in “Satisfaction”, the descending bass line in “These Boots are Made for Walking” or the organ vamp in “96 Tears”.

    Maybe we need another term for those little bits of poems.

  14. The good bits.

  15. Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean – roll!
    Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain.

  16. John Cowan says

    I remember a parody, all but one word:

    The Isles of ?, the Isles of ?
    Where burning Berra swat and swung

    Dr. Google isn’t helpful, and I can’t find any relevant isles; the Bronx is part of the mainland. But the second line deep within my heart is sculptured.

  17. Leo Rosten’s Giant Book of Laughter:

    The isles of Greece, the isles of Greece!
    Where burning Berra swat and sung,
    Where grew the arts of war and peace,
    Where Mantle rose, and Musial sprung!

  18. John Cowan says

    I think sung is a typo for swung, but thanks! Swat is also normally regular, but it’s been made irregular-weak like hit here, metri causa.

  19. Trond Engen says

    Meeting of the waters

    It’s odd that English doesn’t have an older and more handy native term for “confluence”. ‘Meeting’ alone will do, I suppose, but it’s not old, and I don’t find at as a village name in Britain. Maybe ‘fleet’ as in several villages near where the Ouse and the Trent form the Humber, but I rather think that has to do with flooding.

  20. It doesn’t, offhand, seem like a concept that cries out for a single word; it’s not something you encounter every day and need to talk about.

  21. John Cowan says

    The delightful word ucalegon.

  22. I see a lot of hits for people saying it’s a delightful word (allegedly meaning “a neighbor whose house is on fire”) but no evidence that it’s ever actually been so used; the OED doesn’t have an entry, and Google Books turns up hits for the eponym Ucalegon (Οὐκαλέγων, one of the Elders of Troy), including the very apposite “‘Proximus ardet Ucalegon’, from the fourth book, lines 311-12, of the Aeneid, could not by any stretch of the imagination have been reckoned part of the store of tags familiar to every educated person” (from Michael Edwards and ‎Christopher Reid, Oratory in Action, p. 157), so I’m going to go ahead and add it to the towering stack of “words that people think should exist but in reality don’t.”

  23. John Cowan says

    I remember ol’ Bill Safire bringing it up while saying that English has no need for a word meaning ‘man who is having an affair with his ex-wife’.

  24. January First-of-May says

    It’s odd that English doesn’t have an older and more handy native term for “confluence”.

    Russian has стрелка (literally “arrow”, apparently from shape similarity) for the inter-stream side of a confluence, but the general concept likely just isn’t talked about that much – the word is apparently слияние, but it already sounds weird to me.

  25. Nor in the Century Dictionary, which however yielded ubiety, as in Southey’s “If my ubiety did not so nearly resemble ubiquity, that in Anywhereness and Everywhereness I know where I am.” That’s one sentence the English language could have done without.

  26. Tolkien calls the confluence of the Celebrant/Silverlode and the Anduin, or rather the triangle of land just above the actual confluence, the Gore of Lórien, cf. gore ‘triangle of land, triangle of cloth, front of a skirt’. That ought to do. The confluence of the Harlem and Hudson Rivers here in NYC is the Hell Gate, presumably from its dangerous rocks and shifting tides (both rivers are tidal, but the tides aren’t synchronized). The view from the commuter train is wonderful.

  27. presumably from its dangerous rocks and shifting tides

    Nope, it’s “a corruption of the Dutch phrase [sic] Hellegat.”

  28. Actually I was confused: I was thinking of Spuyten Duyvil (“spouting/spewing devil”); locally both words have the PRICE vowel. Hell Gate is at the confluence of the Harlem and East Rivers, at the opposite end of the Harlem River.

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