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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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