Tag Archives: #Irishplacenames

The Beauty, Magic, and Mystery of Slieve Gullion – Sliabh gCuillinn

Slieve Gullion, Armagh’s highest peak, is surrounded by a natural dyke, formed by a collapsed volcano, the famous Ring of Gullion.  This made it a great place for outlaws and rebel locals to hide since time immemorial and a dangerous place for travelers (particularly taxmen and other officials).  The dramatic pass between Slieve Gullion, and the Mourne Mountains was the traditional gateway between Leinster and Ulster, the famous Gap of the North. A narrow defile between steep slopes, it was easy to hold against an invading force.  For centuries, even millennia, competition for control of South Armagh and its pass has played a major role in our history. 

The Gap of the North was a focal point of conflict for centuries between local Gaels and the invading Normans and English. It has been said that during this struggle, south of the frontier wealth was measured by land, the English way, and north of it measured in cattle, the Gaelic way.  South Armagh earned a new reputation during the Troubles as a redoubt of the Provisional IRA. 

As one of the Department’s travelers during the Northern Ireland conflict, I would regularly drive north to meet contacts.  As you crest the elevation just south of Dundalk, Slieve Gullion and the Mourne Mountains would loom ahead, the Gap easily spotted as your entry point to the north.  I have a vivid memory of that skyline ominously strung with plumes of black smoke curling into the air after clashes around the parades issue in the summer of 1997. Soon you were speeding through the Gap of the North, hilly shoulders either side: on that trip heading to Drumcree, at the behest of the then Minister for Foreign Affairs, Ray Burke.  When you traveled north, there was always a subtle sense of relief, of unguardedness, on the return journey as you scooted out of the Gap and were back south.

The European Union Single Market removed the need for a border and opened the way for the Northern Ireland peace process and the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.  To spot where the border is today, you have to keep an eye out for a change in the colour of the road markings.  Thanks to a lot of diplomatic ingenuity by the Irish Government and the EU Commission, the open border has stayed open despite Brexit.

Today, the Ring of Gullion, the Mourne Mountains and the Carlingford Lough are great destinations walkers, hikers, and day trippers.  For when Covid-19 restrictions are lifted, check out its history and ways to explore it here https://www.ringofgullion.org/

Slieve Guillion’s beauty comes from its physical appearance, the conical hill of Armagh’s highest peak surrounded by crags and set beside the Mourne Mountains. Its magic comes from the fact that it is the epicentre of Ireland’s ancient saga, the Táin Bó Cuailgne, or Cattle Raid of Cooley. The mystery comes from its place name.

Sliabh is straight-forward, meaning a mountain (or moor or mountain land) and always comes with a qualifier, like mór (big) or rua (red). The spectacular Slieve League in Co Donegal is Sliabh Liag, mountain of the flagstones (Flanagan). Slievenamon in Co Tipperary is Sliabh na mBan, Mountain of the Women. However, there is no certainty as the meaning of Gullion. It appears that Gullion could mean one of three things; Culann (a name), cuillean (a slope) or cuileann/cuillinn (holly).

The uncertainty around the meaning of Gullion is all the stranger since it is so central to the action of the great Irish saga, the Táin, when Queen Maebh of Connaught launched her raid to seize the Brown Bull of Ulster from the Cooley Penninsula. To get there she and her army had to pass through the Gap of North at Slieve Gullion. She had one problem.  The mythic hero, Cú Chulainn, stood in the gap determined to save Ulster and win eternal fame by defeating her army single-handedly.

Cú Chulainn got his name from Culann, the smith who forged the weapons of the King of Ulster, Conchobhar MacNessa. Culann was hosting a feast for the king and his knights at his fort and had released his ferocious hound () to guard them.  Setanta, the young Cú Chulainn, was late for the feast and killed the attacking hound, much to Culann’s anger.  To assuage him, Setanta offered to become his hound, Culann’s hound.

Since Culann’s forge was at Slieve Gullion (pretty appropriate given its volcanic origins), it would seem logical to assume that it translates as Culann’s mountain, with Gullion an Anglicization of Culann. Not so fast.

Flanagan does not shed any light on it directly.  Logaim.ie does not throw much light on it, simply noting that it is a non-validated name. Joyce, however, proposes and then disposes of the notion that Gullion refers to Culann.  If so, he writes, it would be spelt Sliabh-Culainn.  Rather he thinks that it is Sliabh-Cuillinn “which admits of only one interpretation, the mountain of the holly.” 

Flanagan does say that Cuilleann means ‘steep unbroken slope’ and appears as Cullion in Cos Down and Tyrone.  But she does not reference Gullion, even though to me it sounds close and of course as Armagh’s highest peak certainly has steep slopes. Since topography predates vegetation which predates human habitation, perhaps logic suggests that Gullion is Cuilleann.  She goes go on to say that cuilleann is close to cuileann, meaning holly: “and as a result many names have been erroneously constructed as referring to ‘holly’. We may never know for sure what Gullion means but unravelling its mystery is a good way to reveal the rich heritage of this beautiful area.

Eamonn

Ottawa, 13 February 2021

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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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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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