Monthly Archives: January 2021

Kill (Cill, a church but also Coill, a wood)

Kill (also Kil, Kyle or even Cal) is second only to Baile as a common root word.  Care is needed because Kill can also derive from the Irish word for a church, Cill, or a wood, Coill.  Joyce reckons about one-fifth of 3,400 Irish place names with Kill refer to a wood. Telling the difference can come down to pronunciation in Irish or a church ruin. #Irishplacenames

Kill is directly taken from the Latin Cella (a room in a building) and marks therefore the arrival of Christianity in Ireland in the fifth century.  Other names in Irish for church all come from Latin: Eaglis, teampall, and domhnach.

Another indicator that Kill in a place name refers to a church is association with a saint’s name: St Canice (Kilkenny), St Columba or Colman (Kilcoman).  St Brigid gives us Cill-Bhrighde or Kilbride and Kilbreedy   Kilmurray might come from a surname but could be Cill-Mhuire, the church of Mary.

As Flanagan points out, if Kill is associated with a parish, the chances are it refers to a church.  Kill as a church is often joined with a local feature; Kildare (Cill-daro, Church of the oak tree), Kilroot (Cill Ruaidh, Church of the red [soil]).

The mellifluous Killashandra, Co. Cavan, is Cill na Seanrátha, the Church of the old fort. Shankill is simply Seanchill, old church and may mean that its original name, likely associated with a saint, is lost.

Tulach is a hill which gives us the parish of Kiltullagh in Co Roscommon.  As Joyce records, it could be the hill of the wood but the ruin of a church on the hill provides the solution. My grandmother Winifred Kirrane was born in Cloonfad East in the parish of Kiltullagh. Recall Cluain fáda, long meadow or pasture, often near a river or a marsh: that indeed is the topography of Cloonfad. 

Christianity in Ireland arrived in three ways. There were small colonies of Christians in the east of Ireland, thanks to the Irish influence in southwest Wales and the traffic across the Irish sea, including the slave trade. Palladius was sent from Auxerre (Burgundy) by Pope Celestine to Ireland in 431 as bishop of the Christians in Ireland. Palladius focused on the south, possibly with Cashel as his base. After his famous six-year stint as a slave, St Patrick returned from Roman Britain around 432. His activities were concentrated in the northeast, central and western areas (see Kathless Huges, The Church in Early Irish Society). His base is traditionally associated with Armagh. Where Palladius was learned and steeped in continental christianity, Patrick declared himself unlearned, speaking a rough Latin without a wide or sophisticated vocabulary. He never refers to Palladius or to any Christians in Ireland before his mission to convert the Irish. Accompanied by young Gaelic nobles and bearing gifts, he was a remarkably successful missionary.

The arrival of Christianity in Ireland was a profound event in Ireland’s history. It brought with not just a new religion but writing. This began a process or recording Gaelic society’s language, laws, literature, history and genealogies. Up to that point, the vast corpus of knowledge and culture was memorized. It is an incredible thought that a whole society lived essentially in a mind-palace. Christianity itself adapted its form to Gaelic society, its power-structures, laws and landholding. Irish monks left their churches and monasteries in the C7th and C8th centuries to establish monasteries and centres of learning in France, Germany and Italy, playing a critical role in saving Western civilization.

In the ruins of churches and monasteries, and in their associated place names, monks prayed, meditated and wrote (and illustrated) the books that changed the course of Irish history and saved western civilization.

Eamonn

Ottawa

30 January 2021

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Bally – Baile (place, home, town, townland)

Bally is one of the most common components of Irish place names, numbering some 6,400.  However, precisely what it means is complicated.  It takes Flanagan some six pages to explain.  Originally it appears to have meant simply a place.  It might even have meant a fort.  Joyce records that that may be why the lighthouse at Howth is called the Bailey because it was built on a promontory fort know as baile. In Cormac’s tenth century Glossary, Flanagan notes, baile is glossed as ráth or fort.

From ‘place’ baile evolved to mean homestead or settlement, referring most likely to the cluster of settlements rather than the unit of land around them.  The arrival of the Normans and the phonetic similarity to villa may have helped ensure its survival as the Normans settled in and adapted to Gaelic society.

Perhaps more directly, the new monastic orders that arrived in Ireland in the mid-12th century, prior to the Normans in 1169-70, had used baile to record grants and endowments of land, content that the term meant a specific unit of land. These are the first records of the use of the term for that purpose.

By the middle of the 11th century, then, when these records began to be kept of who had title to what land, Bally came to describe geographic units.  Again the size was not standard, reflecting the fact that baile was being used to describe the land around settlements of any size.  This evolved so that townlands, the smallest geographic unit, were often called Bally-this or that. Very often baile or bally was associated with a family name, presumably the chief who had possession of the land.  As villages and towns were established, it came to mean one.  The town in question could be of any size, echoing its loose definition of scope and its original meaning of place. 

In the east, as Joyce notes, Bally can be shortened to Bal, as in Balgriffin, Baldoyle, and Balbriggan.

In modern Irish usage, baile means home as in ‘tar abhaile’, come home, or ‘mo sheoladh baile’, my home address. 

So identified with Irish towns and villages that writers often resort to it when dreaming up fictional towns.  Tom Murphy’s 1985 play, Bailegangaire (Baile-gan-gaire, town without laugher) earned its name from the plot.  The BBC’s series (1996-2001) was set in the fictional Ballykissangel which somehow derived from its Irish fictional place name Bally Coisc Aingeal, the town of the fallen angel.  Go figure.  I never watched it so I can’t help there.

From the ridiculous to the sublime, W.B. Yeats used it when creating the name of the Norman tower he purchased and restored near Gort, Co Galway: Thoorballylee, Túr (tower) baile Ó Laoigh (surname).

The biggest Baile needs a separate blog: Baile Áth Cliath, Dublin.

Eamonn

23 January

Ottawa

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Lis (Lios) – Fort

Along with rath and dun, lis means a fort, more specifically the place around a dwelling.  As Joyce notes, where rath may have begun as referring to the rampart and lis to the internal space, that distinction faded over time. Lis is common to 1,400 place names (Joyce) but the distribution is mysterious.  It displaces rath in the north yet is rare in the east, and along the west coast, notably absent from Donegal.  There are heavy clusters in counties Cavan, Monaghan and Roscommon.

Lis has less status that dun (or the rare Daingean, fortress, as in Dingle) or rath and it does not appear in the epic tales, or feature much in the great books of law passed down.  It is often combined with a colour – bán, dubh, buí, ruadh, white black, yellow, red – or size, mór or beag, as in Lismore and Lisbeg. Lis can appear at the end of the place name in its genitive form, as in Moyliss (moy, a plain), Knocknaliss (cnoc, a hill),  and Gortalasse (gort, a field).

The diminutive Leasán or Lisheen appears in twenty townlands, says Joyce; Lissen Hall near Swords is a good example. Lissadell, famed influenced on W.B. Yeats, means Lios-an-doill, the fort of the blind man (Joyce). The definite article appears too as in Lisnamuck in Derry, the Fort of the Pigs (Lios na Muc).           

As Flanagan points out, Lis is often combined with uisce, water; possibly because the ditch outside the rampart was filled with water as an extra defence. Of the twenty-five or so instances of the, most appear only in the west; Lissaniskey for example, Lios an Uisce in counties Cork, Tipperary and Roscommon. If it was a strong fort it might earn the prefix dur, giving us durlas as appears in the anglicized Thurles, Co Tipperary, translated by Flanagan as stronghold.

Lis is at times associated with a name, like Liscolman, or Listowel, Lios-Tuathail, Co Kerry. The Norman Lisrobert, occurs in Co Mayo.  Indeed, it appears that in some instances the Norman conquerors took over an existing lis and built their own fortification on top, such the motte-and-baily at Lismahon, Co Down, and the castle at Liscarroll, Co Cork.

#Irishplacenames

Eamonn

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Rath (ráth), Ring Fort

#Irishplacenames

Rath (Ráth) is a really interesting place name component because it is very common (appearing in about 700 townlands), is transliterated directly into English, and reaches back into our ancient past and its mysteries.

Built during the Iron Age (700/600 BC to 100 AD), a rath is a fort, a circular rampart often enclosing a dwelling comprising several buildings (residence, kitchen, housing for calves, sheep and pigs, and a kiln for drying corn). In place names, rath applies to the whole settlement. 

Less commonly found but also a ring-fort is lios, which tends to appear in the north and is rare in the southeast (Flanagan).  Joyce suggests that originally rath applied to the rampart and lios to the enclosed area, a distinction lost over time (Social History, vol. II, p. 59).

As enclosed spaces raths functioned as residences for the nobles (all landowners) and non-noble freemen with property (though not land), known as bó-aire, meaning a cow chief.

Dún solely refers to the residence of the king (rí) or chieftain but raths served as royal residences too, for that purpose called ríráth generically.

Raths without evidence of buildings may have been used as enclosures for cattle to keep them safe at night.  In Gaelic Ireland, wealth was measured in cattle which in turn determined status in society.  Client relationships were forged through the exchange of cattle. Ireland had wolves so predation was a risk but the real danger to cattle came from kings raiding each other to seize cattle. Ireland’s epic the Táin Bó Cúailnge, concerns the tale of the cattle raid of Cooley and rivalry of the royalty of Connaught and Ulster concerning the possession of the greatest bull in Ireland. Rathcroghan (Cruachain) in Co Roscommon features a lot in it, as the royal residence of the chief protagonist, Queen Maebh.

Raths are often situated on low hills. Rathdrum, the fort of the ridge. Since Ráth is pronounced ‘raw’ in Irish (Joyce), you find it as Ra in English.  Raheny, up the road from Clontarf, for example. Joyce gives it as Eanna’s rath, but Flanagan gives it as Ráth Eanaigh, the fort of the march as does Loganimn.ie. Not to be confused with Raheen, Ráithíní, little forts.

Ranelagh, Raghnallach, Ragnal’s place.  Ramelton, Ráth Maeltain, Mealtan’s place. Raphoe, Ráth Bíoth, fort of the hut.

Rathgar is Ráth Garbh or rough fort: Rathgar is rough no longer and is one of Dublin’s premier suburbs.

Rathfarnham, where I live, had been a village outside Dublin up to the start of the twentieth century but is now absorbed as a suburb.  It is interesting because while Joyce translates it as Farannan’s Rath, Flanagan gives us Ráth Fearnáin, Rath of the alder.

Joyce and Flanaghan agree that Multyfarnham refers to Farannán’s home but Joyce says it is Farannán’s mills (muilte) while Flanagan says it the summit of Farannán’s house (mullach, a summit, tighe a house).  Checking the logainm.ie database, Joyce is correct about Multyfarnham and Flanaghan correct about Rathfarnham.

Rath can also feature at the end of the place name.  Ardara, Co Donegal, in Irish is Ard-a’-raith, meaning the height of the rath. Drumragh, Co Tyrone, the ridge of the fort. Corray, Co Sligo, is Cor-raith, the round/pointed hill of the fort or rath.

Eamonn

Main Sources:

Irish Place Names, Deirde Flanagan and Laurence Flanagan (Gill &Mcmillan, 1994, 2002)

The Origins and History of Irish Names of Places, P.W. Joyce (The Educational Co of Ireland, 1869-1920)

A Social History of Ancient Ireland, P.W. Joyce, (M.H.Gill & Son, 1920).

In Search of the Irish Dreamtime, J.P. Mallory, (Thames and Hudson, 2016)

https://www.logainm.ie/ga/

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Finding Ireland’s dreamtime and history in Irish Place Names

The components of Irish place names are recurrent; for example Kill, Clon, Rath, Glen, Clock, Mullach, Carrick, and Lough (respectively church, meadow, fort, valley, stone, summit, rock, and lake.  ‘Ard’ means high, ‘bally’ means a homestead, place or town, ‘knock’ means a hill, and ‘doon’ or more commonly ‘dun’ means a fort.

Irish place names are most often portmanteaux of these descriptive parts. The combinations produce myriad variations. Necessarily so because there are more than 64,000 townlands in Ireland (the smallest geographic unit ranging from a few acres to a few hundred) and millions of place names.

Many place names originated in what has been called the Irish dreamtime, before recorded history, and are associated with myths, legends, and leading figures. Many others derive from the time of recorded Irish history, notably the arrival of writing and Christianity in the fifth century and then a major influence on place names with the arrival of the Normans, English, and Scottish settlers from the twelfth to the eighteenth century.

Irish places names are then lodestones for our language, history and folklore.  

For the next while I’ll be tweeting how to decode Irish place names and telling their stories. I’ll choose places that have the most common components, along those that are prominent or have interesting backgrounds.  Some will feature simply because I know them. I’d be happy to look up suggestions.

A word on the sources. P.W. Joyce’s The Origin and History of Irish Place Names proved to be very popular when it was published in 1869. Joyce followed this up with a second volume a few years later and a third volume in 1920. It was pioneering work, done within the limitations of research at the time. Joyce travelled about the country collecting oral histories and stories and checking pronunciation (to confirm orthography).  The stories helped ensure the proper interpretation and the correct etymology.  He relied on and acknowledged the research of great linguists and scholars of old Irish, notably figures like John O’Donovan, Eugene O’Curry, and particularly for his work on place names, the Rev. William Reeves.

These experts and sources, along with the census, the collections in the Royal Irish Academy, and the Ordnance Survey of Ireland (maps of course being so essential), were his tools.  

There is however a caveat.  The late Deirdre Flanagan (née Morton), editor of the Bulletin of the Ulster Place-name Society, lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast and an expert on Irish place names reckoned that up to one third of Joyce’s translations are in error.  To be fair to Joyce, he makes it clear time and again that the process of decoding place names is fraught, prone to error, and requiring informed guesswork. To double check Joyce therefore, I am using Irish Place Names (Gill and Macmillan, 1994, 2002) by Deirdre and [also late] Laurence Flanagan (Keeper of Antiquities at the Ulster Museum).   However, that does not mean that Flanagan is accurate in all things.

Where there is a dispute between the two, there is the fantastic https://www.logainm.ie/ga/, the place names database created by Dublin City University.

A good example is Multyfarnham, Co. Westmeath. Joyce and Flanaghan agree that Multyfarnham refers to Farannán’s home but Jocye says it Farannán’s mills (muilte) while Flanagan it as the summit of Farannán’s house (Mullach, a summit, tighe a house). Flanagan’s doesn’t sound right. Logainm gives it as Farannáin’s Mill. Joyce translates it as Farannan’s Rath, Flanagan gives us Ráth Fearnáin, Rath of the alder. Logainm translates fearnáin as alder. Score one all!

Eamonn

Eamonn McKee

Ottawa, January 2020

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