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.