‘The Meeting of the Waters’

John Barrell

In the course of a year beginning in late 2013, I found myself at five separate places called the Meeting of the Waters. The first was the confluence of the Greta and the Tees on the Rokeby estate in Teesdale, thought to have been named by Walter Scott after the song of that title by the Irish Romantic poet Thomas Moore. This was then the only place I knew of so named. Next came a beautiful lake at Killarney which turned out to be called the Meeting of the Waters; again, it’s believed, at Scott’s suggestion. I decided to start collecting these ‘meetings’, so drove across to what I now think of as the real Meeting of the Waters, near Avoca, County Wicklow, where by tradition Moore wrote his song, though in fact he didn’t. Then, in the next few months, I found myself at another Meeting of the Waters, on the Outer Banks, off North Carolina, and near yet another, at Springbrook, in a temperate Queensland rainforest, seven miles from where I was staying, along a leech-infested path. I gave that one a miss. I had already collected more than a hundred places which were known, or had once been known, as the Meeting of the Waters, or which bore a name in one of the indigenous languages of Australasia or North America of which ‘the meeting of the waters’ had become the accepted translation. I’ve now collected two or three hundred such ‘meetings’. Every month I turn up several more.

‘As for the “meeting of the waters”, as the Irish are pleased to call the confluence of two little streams, pompously or poetically as you may please to decide, I think more has been made of it than either the waters or their meeting deserve.’ This is the English travel writer John Barrow writing of the Vale of Avoca in 1835. Like him, I find it hard to decide on the register of the phrase, so lyrical as a song title, so grandiloquent as a synonym for ‘confluence’; unlike Barrow, I find these meetings fascinating, but I don’t find it easy to explain why. There are confluences repeatedly visited, each time with a sense of fulfilment, of having arrived where I want to be. There are moments in my reading, as a child and as an adult, that describe the junctions of rivers or the great collisions of rivers and oceans, that have clung to my memory with tenacious power, and still affect me as much as they ever did. I am thinking for example of the poet James Thomson’s lines on the unimaginably vast rivers of South America, not rivers so much as seas, which, bearing ‘the liquid weight of half the globe’, crash muddily into the green Atlantic. I am thinking of favourite walks, or rather favourite places to sit when out walking, like the confluence of the Nidd and the Ouse at Nun Monkton near York, or of the streamlet behind our local pub and the River Wye, where sometimes at twilight you can see otters playing: places which seem as calm as the lines from Thomson are violent. But what has intrigued me most in the course of this project is its sheer inexhaustibility. It has led me on and on, to new places and new subjects: the phrase ‘the meeting of the waters’ has become itself the name of a confluence of topics, from community singing to canal-building, from the temperance movement to lovers’ meetings. The waters touch on some large issues in 19th-century history, perhaps most notably Irish, English and American national identity, and the colonial diasporas; but with each touch they branch out again, like the streams in a delta from which the sea keeps receding.

Daniel Maclises’s illustration for ‘Irish Melodies’
Daniel Maclises’s illustration for ‘Irish Melodies’

Moore’s ‘The Meeting of the Waters’ was first published in 1808 and by the end of the century it had become one of the best known of his Irish Melodies, along with ‘The harp that once through Tara’s halls’, ‘The Minstrel Boy’ and especially ‘The last rose of summer’. These songs were performed in concerts, and in the polite parlours and drawing rooms where Moore thought they belonged. ‘The Meeting of the Waters’ no doubt owed much of its popularity to the traditional air ‘The Old Head of Dennis’, to which it was set by the Dublin composer John Stevenson. But the words too were responsible for the song’s great appeal:

There is not in the wide world a valley so sweet
As that vale in whose bosom the bright waters meet;
Oh! the last rays of feeling and life must depart,
Ere the bloom of that valley shall fade from my heart.

Yet it was not that nature had shed o’er the scene
Her purest of crystal and brightest of green;
’Twas not her soft magic of streamlet or hill,
Oh! no – it was something more exquisite still.

’Twas that friends, the belov’d of my bosom, were near,
Who made every dear scene of enchantment more dear,
And who felt how the best charms of nature improve,
When we see them reflected in looks that we love.

Sweet vale of Avoca! how calm could I rest
In thy bosom of shade, with the friends I love best,
Where the storms that we feel in this cold world should cease,
And our hearts, like thy waters, be mingled in peace.

The song proposed that the pleasures of landscape were best experienced in company, and this preference for sociability over solitude was also a preference for the beautiful over the sublime, and allowed Moore’s readers to enjoy nature on easier terms than, say, Rousseau or Wordsworth seemed to offer. This turning away from the sublime was reinforced by the supposedly peaceful character of the confluence. At the place in County Wicklow that had come to be called the Meeting of the Waters, the rivers Avonmore and Avonbeg meet to become the Avoca in the ‘Sweet vale of Avoca’. A literary tourist described the river below the confluence as ‘rapid and impetuous in its progress’. But in Moore’s account, there is nothing torrential about these rivers, which behave as quietly as all rivers will one day behave, when, as the song puts it, ‘the storms that we feel in this cold world should cease.’

In Ireland in 1808, ten years after the start of the rebellion, five years after it was finally snuffed out with the execution of Moore’s friend Robert Emmet, this landscape meant much more than it would ever have done in England, where news from Ireland was allowed to fade from the memory as quickly as it arrived. There were a number of bloody engagements in Wicklow in the summer of 1798, as the United Irishmen pushed up from County Wexford towards Dublin. In Arklow in June, a few miles to the south-east of the confluence, a force of United Irishmen was defeated by the British. In September at Aughrim, a few miles to the west of the Meeting, General Joseph Holt led his United Irishmen to victory over the British. This history must have been present to Moore when, in a footnote to the first printing of the song, he wrote that ‘The Meeting of the Waters forms a part of that beautiful scenery which lies between Rathdrum and Arklow, in the county of Wicklow, and these lines were suggested by a visit to this romantic spot, in the summer of the year 1807.’ The prayer for peace in the last line was probably also in the mind of James Power, Moore’s London publisher, when he declared that Irish Melodies ‘will do more … towards producing that brotherhood of sentiment which it is so much our interest to cherish, than could ever be effected by the arguments of wise, but uninteresting, politicians’. Of the thousands of references to the song and its title phrase that I have collected in the course of my research, only one, an account of Holt’s autobiography, mentions the song in the context of the 1798 rebellion. The general silence on that point may be vital to how the song came to be understood as the century got older.

An American print of The Meeting after a sketch by Thomas Fairland (c.1867)
An American print of The Meeting after a sketch by Thomas Fairland (c.1867)

In the years after it first appeared, up to 1830, the song seems to have become as popular in America as in Britain or Ireland. It was several times reprinted or imitated in American periodicals, and on this side of the Atlantic it was often republished, alongside Moore’s song about Sarah Curran, from the fourth book of Irish Melodies, there known simply by its opening words, ‘She is far from the land’, but now more defiantly identified as ‘The Betrothed of Robert Emmet’. Over the last twenty years, a reviewer of the final volumes of Irish Melodies wrote, the songs have been sung ‘by every one who possessed so much as an echo of a voice … we cannot imagine how the world of singers went on in the days when “Tara’s Halls”, and “The young May Moon”, and “The Meeting of the Waters”, were strains unborn.’

One of the clearest signs of how rapidly and how widely the song became popular is the inclusion of the Avoca Meeting on the tourist trail. The song and the place became popular together, and fed off each other’s popularity. Reflecting on how much interest there was in locating exactly which confluence was the true meeting place celebrated in the song – the one at Avoca, or, as some insisted, at Woodenbridge, a short distance downriver – Moore remarked that ‘all this interest shows how wise Scott was in connecting his poetry with beautiful scenery: as long as the latter blooms, so will the former.’ Long before an enthusiastic English tourist, writing in 1909, pronounced the Vale of Avoca ‘the most celebrated valley in the world’ by virtue of its connection with Moore’s song, the vale was much visited by literary tourists on the lookout for places associated with the English-language literature of Ireland. Numerous visitors from Britain as well as Ireland recorded their impressions of the place, reciting the song as they stared at the confluence. Less than ten years after the song’s first publication, the English writer Anne Plumptre visited the Meeting of the Waters, and wrote that to its name ‘the delightful muse of the Anacreon of Ireland, Mr Moore, has given a celebrity which can never be lost again’. As early as 1823 a tribute poem addressed by a ‘young lady’ to her ‘married sister’ appeared in the Monthly Review, which announced that the Vale of Avoca was already ‘famous in song’:

‘Sweet vale of Avoca!’ our tongues were repeating,
While our eyes from the bridge saw the two rivers meeting.
After carelessly flirting by hill, copse, and dingle,
Avonbeg, Avonmore, here harmoniously mingle.

In 1826, in the New York Literary Gazette, with the song still less than twenty years old, the Vale of Avoca is offered as the climax of a list of literary Eldorados: ‘a fairy land, an Atalantis Utopia, the summum bonum, the goal of life’s race, the vale of Avoca!’ An article on the founding of Kenyon College in 1827 describes it as situated on one of ‘the most delightful streams of water’ imaginable, which ‘though not yet rendered classic, by the pen of genius, the transparency and coolness of its waters, and the richness and variety of its natural scenery, would seem to entitle it to equal celebrity with the vale of Avoca, the Avon, or Wye.’ The claim of the vale to be regarded as ‘classic ground’, hallowed by its association with a writer of genius, would be repeated in 1842 by a contributor to the short-lived Bradshaw’s Journal: ‘Here we tread on classic ground, for the genius of Moore has thrown a halo round the scene, and led many a pilgrim to the spot.’ In the superb edition of the Irish Melodies with designs by Daniel Maclise, the song was illustrated by a picnic of rather arty types, a full dress rehearsal for Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe. When it was reprinted in Graham’s American Monthly Magazine in 1850, the accompanying essay described the Vale of Avoca as ‘classic ground’, which ‘thousands have since visited; and the tourist through Ireland would as soon think of neglecting the lakes of Killarney as “the vale in whose bosom the bright waters meet”.’

An engraving by J.C. Bentley after William Bartlett (c.1842)
An engraving by J.C. Bentley after William Bartlett (c.1842)

We can trace the popularity of Moore’s song, and the changing nature of that popularity, through the advertisements and reviews of concerts which appear regularly in British and Irish newspapers and periodicals from 1840 to 1900, and more sporadically thereafter. In Britain and Ireland I have found more than 540 performances of ‘The Meeting of the Waters’ between 1838 and 1900, increasing in number from 37 in the 1840s to a peak of 126 in the 1880s, with another 89 in the 1890s. There then appears to have been a sudden decline, with only 62 performances in the first three decades of the 20th century, including ten on the wireless. If we compare these figures with the number of advertisements for the sheet music, and for song books which include ‘The Meeting of the Waters’, we find a rather different pattern. Of 456 such advertisements, 260 were published in the last three decades of the 19th century, and 136 from 1900 to 1930: a decline, to be sure, but nothing like the decline in concert performances. These figures may point to all sorts of things – the vagaries of selection in the database I was using, the changing function of periodicals, a developing indifference or hostility to the culture of Ireland, increased ownership of upright pianos, the effects of the First World War – but they do seem to suggest that the peak popularity of Moore’s song was in the last decades of Victoria’s reign. Both the notices of concerts and the adverts for sheet music attest that, in Britain at least, this popularity was a nationwide phenomenon. In Ireland the overwhelming majority of the 140 or so 19th-century performances I have found took place in Dublin and Belfast, no doubt largely an effect of the concentration of people and publications in those two cities, but in 19th-century Britain we find the song performed frequently in all the great provincial cities and in more than a hundred other towns; and in London and its suburbs on well over a hundred occasions.

I first heard the song when I was a child, and it seemed then to be owned by Irish tenors, but it had not always been so. In the 1840s I found 25 performances of the song by male soloists, and only five by women; but over the next forty years some celebrated contraltos, Rebecca Isaacs, Louisa Pyne, Antoinette Sterling and Janet Patey, achieved almost exclusive ownership of the song: the databases show Patey performing it at least 43 times. Between 1850 and 1890 I found only 40 performances by male solo singers as against 197 by women; when in 1871 a male soloist from the British version of the Christy Minstrels performed it in London, a reviewer wrote that, good as he was, ‘we would prefer to hear [it] sung by a lady.’ The songs appear to have moved up and down the hierarchy of concert music from one decade to the next. In the 1840s it seems to fit in easily wherever it is wanted, sometimes on programmes of high status songs and orchestral music, along with Beethoven, Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, and sometimes on programmes of British and Irish popular songs. As the song was performed chiefly in private houses, it must have been valued for giving those who did not feel up to trying lieder or operatic arias a chance to perform something more familiar, less demanding. For most of the 1850s it seems to figure chiefly on programmes of mixed ballads and arias, but towards the end of the decade and throughout the next it begins to feature in a new kind of concert, consisting of what had long been called ‘national songs’, now described as ‘compositions of our best native masters, English, Irish, and Scotch’, performed in programmes that came to be called ‘The Rose, Shamrock, and Thistle’ – no mention of the leek or the daffodil – in celebration of the unity of the three nations. In the 1870s the song is more usually performed in ‘popular concerts’, or ‘ballad concerts’, often featuring recognised and respected opera singers whose participation probably reinforced the sense that such songs had a worthy place in musical evenings at home.

Turner’s ‘Junction of Greta and Tees at Rokeby’ (1816)
Turner’s ‘Junction of Greta and Tees at Rokeby’ (1816)

From about this time the sheet music is often advertised in the form of a part-song for soprano, contralto, tenor and bass, and it seems clear from the very large number of advertisements for the music thus arranged that the song was frequently performed this way in private houses. Four-part harmony presumably gave more point to the idea of peaceful or harmonious mingling of hearts, even of the four nations, at the conclusion of the song. There is a delightfully incorrect sentence in Ruskin’s autobiography, Praeterita, published in the late 1880s, describing his childhood response to musical evenings in the London suburb of Herne Hill. ‘As it was,’ he writes, ‘the scientific German compositions were simply tiresome to me, and the pretty modulations of Italian, which I understood no syllable of, pleasant only as the trills of the blackbirds, who often listened, and expressed their satisfaction by joining in the part-songs through the window that opened to the back garden in the spring evenings.’

Whether that window also opened to the garden in the autumn mornings, Ruskin does not say; but either way this passage anticipates – or perhaps actively influenced – a review which appeared in the Academy in 1906 of a performance in London, at the Aeolian Hall, by a group called the Folksong Quartet, ‘whose special business it is,’ the reviewer writes, ‘to sing four-part arrangements of old folk-tunes, and very delightful and refreshing they are’. ‘We constantly need,’ the review continued, as

a corrective to taste, to be made to listen to the simple grace of primitive melodies, the pure beauty of fundamental harmonies stripped of the complex adornment which the best of modern music uses, if we are to keep our faculties unimpaired in this respect … When a concert begins with such old tunes as ‘Early one Morning’, and ‘The Meeting of the Waters’, sung unaccompanied, with freedom of rhythm and complete unanimity of expression, we are at once taken out of the stuffy concert-room atmosphere and into the fresh air with the scent of spring in it.

The ballads here bring into the drawing room the sense of freedom and nature which, in Herne Hill, it was left to the blackbirds to provide.

Inevitably the song’s ubiquitous appearance at popular ballad concerts meant that it began to be criticised for its popularity with socially ‘mixed audiences’. When the celebrated contralto Helen D’Alton sang it at the Royal Albert Hall in 1874, the reviewer for the Musical Standard described it as ‘an over-rated effusion of maudlin sentiment, which once moved to tears a certain section of society … but is now felt to be a bore, because artificial and unreal’. The following year the huge audience at the Albert Hall for a concert of Irish music was taken by the reviewer for the Musical World as ‘betokening the popular ascendancy of the “ballad” over matter of more value’.

But by the 1870s ‘The Meeting of the Waters’, however sentimental, however simple, however Irish, was probably more enjoyed in London, and much more widely sung, than ever before. And from then on, the song, despite its private, quietly lyrical (not to say sentimental) character, was coming to be regarded, at least on this side of the Irish Sea, as one of the national melodies par excellence of the four nations, partly no doubt an effect of the growth of the Irish community in London. But the appetite for Irish song was no longer universal. ‘The Meeting of the Waters’, according to a Newcastle reviewer in 1889, ‘mightily pleased our forefathers of the Byronic age’, but we count it ‘namby-pamby, silly, profitless versifying’. ‘To hear “The Meeting of the Waters”,’ a London reviewer complained in 1895, ‘or “The Minstrel Boy” may be very entertaining for Irishmen, but, frankly, they are very tiresome for anybody else.’ The song was probably the first item to be written into the programmes of the annual St Patrick’s Day concerts held in London and elsewhere between 1870 and the 1890s: I have found about forty of these at which the song was sung, and only one where it was not. But in those decades the song also featured on the programmes of numerous very English musical events, concerts for example held to support village cricket clubs or to fund repairs of English parish churches. From the last decades of the century, the song is increasingly sung by amateur choirs, often children’s choirs in events organised by the new Tonic Sol-fa movement, which taught children to sing without obliging them to learn to read music.

In England, ‘national songs’, according to advertisements in the Musical Herald, for example, or the School Music Review, included ‘Golden slumbers’, ‘Greensleeves’, and ‘Cherry Ripe’. But along with such peaceful compositions, another kind of national song was required: patriotic songs that could represent the four nations as proud of their individuality, and proud members of the British Empire. Such songs were particularly needed in the twenty years around 1900, crammed as they were with opportunities for people to demonstrate their loyalty to the empire in song. There was the Diamond Jubilee, the relief of Ladysmith, and of Mafeking, and the funeral of the queen. In May 1902 there was the victory in South Africa and the first Empire Day, celebrated by many schools each year thereafter, though not officially made annual until 1916, and celebrated each year by publishers too, with albums of ‘Songs for Empire Day’. Then there was the coronation of Edward VII, his funeral eight years later, the coronation of George V, and the outbreak of war in 1914. All these events could be and often were commemorated by schools in song, and the Tonic Sol-fa movement, with its concentration on singing in unison, was perfect for encouraging national songs as demonstrations of national and imperial unity. The impression of unity was often reinforced by a drill of elaborately choreographed actions, and by the fact that singing in unison apparently homogenised national and regional differences by purging local dialects and so ‘removing’, as one writer put it, ‘any trace of provincialism in exaggerated vowels or clipped consonants’. Something of this survived into my own schooldays, and I can still recall the actions that accompanied ‘The British Grenadiers’, and the efforts of our music teacher to remove all trace of South London from our rendering of it.

But which songs would count as truly national and also as patriotic? In England of course there was no difficulty: two hundred years of military and naval meddling all round the world had produced a wealth of belligerent ditties. In Wales and Scotland songs like ‘Men of Harlech’ and ‘The Bluebells of Scotland’ existed in two versions, as encouraging resistance to the English and as anthems extolling the virtues of Empire; the latter versions of both songs turned out to pass muster as ‘patriotic’. But Ireland was much more troublesome, in several senses. In 1899 the Quarterly Review published a long notice of a report on primary education in Ireland. ‘One deficiency that the Commissioners failed to touch upon,’ the reviewer complained, was ‘the almost entire absence of national music from Irish schools’ – and this at a time when primary musical education in mainland Britain was so swamped with songs that were, or sounded like, folk songs that some educationalists had become worried about an epidemic of ‘folksongitis’. ‘It is surely unnecessary,’ the review continued, ‘to point out the great beauty and individuality of Irish airs, which even the bungling efforts of Moore as a musician could not spoil. If it be inexpedient to instil “The Wearing of the Green” or “Who Fears to Speak of ’98” into the infant mind, there are melodies in plenty, such as “Aileen Aroon”, “The Little Red Lark”, and “The Meeting of the Waters”, to which no objection, political or musical, can be raised.’ Peace and love, it seems, were what the Empire meant to the Irish, and so in the 1900s, while English children were belting out ‘Ye Mariners of England’ or ‘Hearts of Oak’ (or ‘The British Grenadiers’), and Scottish and Welsh children were singing anaesthetised songs of past resistance, Irish children were singing a song about confluent streams, mingled hearts and the end of conflict – though their parents might have remembered it as a song dear to members of the Land League, partly perhaps because Charles Stewart Parnell’s estate lay in the Vale of Avoca, a stone’s throw from the confluence.

The song eventually died out of the popular and school repertoires in Britain, though I am not sure when. Through the 1920s it was still being advertised by publishers, with great regularity, but mainly as a national song to be sung on Empire Day, or in versions of the ‘Empire Song Book’, or in song books for home use and ‘community singing’. The advent of the Irish Free State and the increasing reluctance of the Irish to mingle their hearts in peace with those who had so violently oppressed them may have made no difference to how the Empire in England was celebrated in song. In 1937 ‘The Meeting of the Waters’ was included in the Souvenir Coronation Song Book: National Airs of the Empire, along with several other Moore classics, including ‘She is far from the land’, which I do not suppose George VI knew was an elegy to a republican executed for imagining the death of George III.

*

In Britain and Ireland, while the song was at its most ubiquitous, the title phrase too was everywhere. Though rivers and streams, and rivers and seas, are often described as ‘meeting’ in the 18th century, and though the meeting of rivers is a frequent image of the union between one thing and another, this particular phrase is very uncommon: before Moore’s song was published, I have found only four instances of it, only one of which means a confluence of rivers or streams: ‘The lands of Airds,’ according to an advertisement for the sale of an estate in 1784, ‘are pleasantly situated at the meeting of the waters of Dee and Ken.’ The word ‘water’ is evidently used here in the Scots sense of ‘stream’, familiar, for example, in the ‘Water of Leith’; but it does not seem yet possible to refer to a confluence of rivers as ‘the meeting of the waters’ without specifying those waters by name. The first example of Moore’s usage, as the equivalent of ‘confluence’, or as a place name, is in the title of a print after Thomas Sautelle Roberts showing the meeting of the waters that is the subject of Moore’s song. It was published in 1804, and 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.

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’.

No doubt because the phrase was so evocative, not just of Moore’s song but of picturesque landscape more generally, it appears profusely on postcards, especially between about 1890 and 1920. So far I have found postcards of nearly fifty places called the Meeting of the Waters in the Anglo-Celtic archipelago: 20 in Scotland, 14 in England, nine in Ireland, three in Wales, and one in the Isle of Man. In the US I have found cards of 16 ‘Meetings of the Waters’, in Canada six, in New South Wales three. Some of these places gave rise to multiple cards: I stopped collecting cards of Avoca at 31, of Killarney at 26, of the Greta and Tees at 15, and so on. It is just possible that all these ‘meetings of the waters’ bore that name before they appeared on postcards; more likely the name was attributed by the publisher to suitable places. Once marketed under that name, however, these places became ‘meetings of the waters’ whatever else they were called, and however quickly the name was forgotten when the postcards were no longer on sale.

Altogether in mainland Britain I have found nearly ninety places that at one time or another have borne the name the Meeting of the Waters, excluding meetings of fresh water and salt. Eight are in Wales, more than thirty in Scotland, mainly in the Borders and on the River Dee, and more than forty in England, mainly concentrated in Yorkshire and the North Country, among which we can include the confluence of two streams near Haworth, which Emily Brontë called ‘the meeting of the waters’. I have found 15 in Ireland, and in Australia and New Zealand about forty, some no doubt settlements established by the Irish diaspora, the majority known by names in indigenous languages which are uniformly translated or mistranslated as the Meeting of the Waters. In Canada I have found 14 ‘meetings’, again sometimes as translations of indigenous names, and in the US more than sixty. The grandest and most famous Meeting of the Waters in the US is celebrated outside Union Station in St Louis, where a monument by the sculptor Carl Milles, made in the late 1930s, portrays the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi as a big water fight between naked revellers fuelled by a commemorative brew of Coca-Cola, which was issued with a special bottle-cap. I found one on eBay.

In the period from 1840 through to the early years of the 20th century, the title phrase of Moore’s song came to be used for a host of figurative purposes. A crowd gathering to celebrate a festival in Kolkata was ‘the meeting of the waters … a mighty confluence of innumerable living streams’. The history of poetry and the history of painting are described as meetings of the waters, as the medieval romantic tradition combines with the classical. The dean of Pimlico has ‘a meeting of the waters of benevolence and sarcasm around his well-cut mouth’ and Froude compares Scottish history with a fierce Highland torrent, broadening and slowing down as it reaches the Lowlands, and finally coming to the ‘meeting of the waters’, the Act of Union, ‘from which … the united fortunes of Great Britain flow on to their unknown destiny’. Japan is ‘the meeting of the waters’ of East and West and multicultural England is described by Jusserand as the ‘meeting of the waters’, Norman, Saxon and Dane coming together so that ‘England is now “merrie England”, bursting with life and vigour’. In Italy, according to the Fortnightly Review in 1902, the waters were meeting but failing to mingle, as if at the confluence of the Rhone and the muddy glacial Arve, the civilisation of Northern Italy has met the ‘opposing current of southern semi-mediaevalism’, ‘and the clear course of the one has been contaminated by the turbid stream of the other’.

In the US the most frequent figurative use of the song’s title was to do with the coming together of divergent religious beliefs, denominations and movements: sometimes a good thing, usually not. It was a good thing to R.W. Hume, when, in an essay entitled ‘The Meeting of the Waters’, he proposed a triple alliance between ‘the movement for the Liberty of Woman, the Temperance Reform, and the Rights of Laborers’. It was less good when the phrase referred to ‘the mingling of the crystal stream of Occidental Christianity with the perturbed current of Oriental mysticism and idolatry’, or when a divine was so seduced by the ecumenical movement that he ‘fell a victim to the meeting of the waters, and almost or quite lost his reason from the intoxication of the new ideas’. A Reverend Paul Revere Frothingham is warned about the danger of being drawn into ‘the great vortex of the Chicago meeting of the waters’, apparently a ‘Parliament of all Religions’. It is probably in this religious and ecumenical sense that the phrase chiefly survives today: the last archbishop of Canterbury but two, George Carey, wrote a book on Christian unity called The Meeting of the Waters. The literal meeting he had in mind, he explains, was of the Greta and Tees, with which he became familiar when was a vicar in Durham.

The song was adopted by the temperance movement along with other ‘aqueous music’ suitable for water-drinkers. In 1881 the Aberdeen Weekly Journal reprinted the catalogue of a spoof ‘Fine Art Loan Exhibition’ of ‘Paintings, Statuary, Objects of Vertu, and Relics of Past Ages’, held at the Greyfriars’ Mission Hall Bazaar, Dumfries. In prophetic anticipation of Michael Craig-Martin’s 1973 work of conceptual art, a glass of water on a shelf with the title An Oak Tree, the exhibition included ‘a Bottle of Mineral Waters’, ‘kindly lent from the collection of Greyfriars’ Temperance Society’, and given the title ‘The Meeting of the Waters’.

I know of only two places in Britain, the meeting of the Greta and Tees, and of the North and South Tyne, which are still known as the Meeting of the Waters, though seventy or eighty years ago there were probably more than twenty; whereas if I search the names of settlements at confluences in the US, the phrase crops up quite often, usually as the agreed, though not always the accurate, translation of an indigenous place name. According to the Chicago Tribune in 1968, whenever a place was mentioned that had preserved an indigenous name the bishop of Allentown in Pennsylvania, Joseph McShea, would ask the company if they knew what it meant, and when, invariably, they did not, he would explain that it was ‘an old Algonquin, Mohawk, Mohican, or whatever, name meaning “the meeting of the waters”’. ‘This worked fine,’ the Tribune reported, ‘for Allegheny, Shenandoah, Monongahela, and even Skaneateles and Schenectady. Never has he been challenged.’ Never, that is, before the Tribune called his bluff.

Until recently, if not until now, the phrase had in the US the meaning ‘consultative meeting of representatives of different groups’: I’ve seen an interdisciplinary medical conference advertised as ‘a meeting of the waters’. Since the beginning of the last century, numerous books have been published called The Meeting of the Waters, including an Australian novel of 1907 and a volume by Fritz Kling, subtitled ‘Seven Global Currents that Will Propel the Future Church’, which came out in 2010. I think only one book so titled, George Carey’s, originated in Britain. It’s not hard to think of reasons why the phrase should have retained a greater currency in the US than in Britain. There is for example the much greater importance in the early 19th century of river transport, and so of confluences; the more important position attributed to the Irish in the creation of an American national culture, as compared with the situation in Britain; and the notion of America as a melting-pot of races and nationalities, and religions and denominations, differences of all kinds looking to mingle in peace.

To these reasons, I want to add one more, perhaps the most important in revealing how early, and how widely, the phrase and the song became embedded in the consciousness of early 19th-century Americans. At the beginning of the century, the Appalachian mountains seemed to present a barrier to the western expansion of the US. The story of how this barrier was overcome has been frequently told, so I will keep it short. The answer, at once obvious and apparently impossible, was to drive a canal from Albany up the Mohawk Valley and so through the mountains to Lake Erie. This was a distance of over 350 miles, and nowhere in the world had a canal of anywhere near that length been attempted before. ‘It is little short of madness to think of it,’ Jefferson announced. But De Witt Clinton believed it could be done, and in 1817, when he became the governor of the state of New York, he was determined to see the canal built.

In October 1823, when Moore’s song was only 15 years old, Niles’ Weekly Register offered an account of a ceremony which had taken place at the 53rd lock on the Erie Canal, at Albany, celebrating the junction of the canal, which by this time was completed from Albany through to Rochester, with the newly completed Champlain Canal, running northwards to Lake Champlain and so to Canada. The importance of the occasion was described in the Commercial Advertiser: ‘By means of this great artificial river … the Atlantic states and the rich and widely extended regions of the west will become neighbours, and a close community of interests will induce them to cling together with a degree of tenaciousness and constancy, which even a daily recollection of their consanguinity would not otherwise have produced.’ De Witt Clinton was ‘high priest’ of the General Grand Chapter of Royal Arch Masons, and the opening ceremony was a Masonic ritual presided over by the excellent Grand High Chaplain, the most excellent Grand High Priest, and other grandees of the chapter, who together laid the capstone of the lock. Samuel Mitchell, also a member of the chapter, then ‘mingled with the waters of the canal, two bottles of water’, ‘the one taken from the depths of the Indian ocean, and the other from the Atlantic’, to symbolise 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.

The following year a banquet was held in New York to commemorate the first anniversary of the partial opening of the canal. On the menu, as well as ‘Gallipagos turtle’, was a ‘richly decorated pie’ from which ‘a pair of white carrier pigeons flew out and over the hall, bearing intelligence from Albany that the meeting of the waters had taken place’. By the autumn of 1825 the canal was open ‘all the way through’ from Albany on the Hudson to Tonawanda near Buffalo on Lake Erie; Tonawanda, you will not be surprised to learn, was translated as ‘the meeting of the waters’. A ceremony of the ‘Meeting of the Waters’ was held in Geneva, at the north end of Seneca Lake and itself newly connected to the Erie canal system, and ten days later a final opening ceremony was held at Sandy Hook, which divides and protects Lower New York Bay from the Atlantic. Here Clinton performed ‘the ceremony of commingling the waters of the Lakes with the Ocean’, pouring a bottle of water drawn from Lake Erie into the Atlantic.

The official record of the ceremony included a brief rhapsody on how the state of New York would be enriched by the new canal. But that was by no means the real point of the venture, it was explained, in a version of Moore’s song especially rewritten for the day:

It is not that Wealth now enriches the scene,
Where the treasures of Art, and of Nature convene;
’Tis not that this union our coffers may fill
– O! no – it is something more exquisite still,

’Tis that Genius has triumph’d – and Science prevail’d,
That Prejudice flouted, and Envy assail’d.
It is, that the vassals of Europe may see
The progress of mind, in a land that is free,

The song was called ‘The Meeting of the Waters of Hudson and Erie’, but it seems that Moore’s phrase had too demotic a ring to capture the grand ‘immixtion of the mild waters of Lake Erie with the briny floods of the Atlantic’, as the official record of the ceremony termed it. To indicate that this was a lasting union, not a brief affair, the final ceremony was known as ‘the marriage’ or ‘the wedding’ of the waters; the wedding of the ‘Lord of the Seas’ and the ‘Lady of the Lakes’. But it was soon revealed as a polygamous marriage: after Clinton had poured water from his bottle into the ocean, Mitchell produced no fewer than 15 more bottles, filled, so he claimed, from the Ganges, the Indus, the Nile, the Gambia, the Thames, the Seine, the Rhine, the Danube, the Mississippi, the Elbe, the Neva, the Columbia, the Orinoco, the Plate and the Amazon, which were all emptied into the sea. A ‘ludicrous exhibition’, retorted the New York Spectator; ‘a piece of ridicule and absurdity’, announced the Evening Post. As more canals were projected or built – the Lake Erie and Allegheny Canal, the Savannah and Ogeechee Canal, the Miami and Erie Canal from the lake to the Ohio river, the Illinois Canal from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi – it was the ‘meeting’, not the ‘marriage’ or the ‘wedding’ of the waters that was usually celebrated. Moore’s phrase had a new lease of life with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, widely described in Britain as well as in the US as ‘the meeting of the waters’, and again from the first proposals for the Isthmian Canal to unite the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, through to its opening in 1914.

The western section of the Erie Canal was the highest above sea level and took the longest to complete, and here the commissioners became particularly dependent on Irish immigrant labourers, hired off the ships arriving in New York harbour. There seems to have been no particular acknowledgement in the various opening ceremonies of their contribution to the building of the canal; the speeches of officials refer to the work of digging ‘Clinton’s ditch’ only to congratulate themselves on how economical they had been in the matter of labour costs. It seems probable, however, that the ubiquity of Moore’s song as the anthem of the project was an effect not just of how appropriate its title phrase was to the ceremonies scripted by the New York masons, but because it was a song well-known to the Irish part of the labour force. The fact that a popular Irish song had been adapted and adopted by the masonic commissioners may have given the navvies some sense that they had a stake in the project, or some sense that their work was recognised and acknowledged. Its adoption may have been useful in producing, however factitiously, a peaceful mingling of hearts between capital and labour.