The beauty of an Irish place name is that it usually describes something. Back in a time when we were pretty much left to ourselves, local landmarks like rivers, hills, forts, and so on, were used to provide reference points. Every single field, rocky outcrop or bend in a stream was named locally for easy identification.
People’s names were also useful – maybe a local chieftain long forgotten, or a local saint, lent their name to a meeting place or physical feature.
Later, our various ‘visitors’ down through the centuries – Vikings, Anglo-Normans, English – made contributions either by introducing new names or adapting local ones.
Roll on to 1824 when the British began the first Ordnance Survey of Ireland. The intention was to map the land for tax and ownership reasons so details of every village and townland were required. Of course Irish was pretty much an oral language and very few place names had been recorded. To be fair, efforts were made to research local traditions and documentary evidence but, in the end, the names were written phonetically in English. This meant that although many places kept their beautiful sounding names, the meanings were lost – its only by looking at the Irish version that we can understand their origins.
Irish is actually one of 6 Celtic languages. The others are Scottish Gaelic, Manx (Isle of Man), Welsh, Cornish and Breton.
Before we start…
*Nowadays, Irish signposts present place names in two versions – English (usually in CAPITALS) with the Irish version above it in italics. About 90% of those place names, I’m delighted to say, are still of Irish language origin.
*You’ll notice that most place names have 2 parts – a prefix (at the beginning) and a suffix (end). One part usually refers to a physical or man made feature, while the other part describes it further by referring to its size, or its owner, etc.
*By way of explanation I’m using the following ‘formula’:
ENGLISH NAME ON SIGNPOST Irish name Irish explanation (if necessary) (Literal English Translation)
Let’s get going….
I’ve selected 10 common words that you’ll find throughout the country.
This is a very common prefix.
It comes from baile, meaning town or homestead. However, as there were so few towns way back in the past, it probably usually refers to home.
BALLYMORE Baile Mór mór = big (Big Town / Home)
BALLYDUFF An Baile Dubh dubh = black (Black Village)
BALLYCULLEN Baile Uí Cuilinn cuilinn = holly – so there were probably lots of holly bushes in the area
Sometimes Bally is at the end of the name:
SHANBALLY An Seanbhaile sean = old (The Old Town / Homestead)
This stems from either coill (meaning wood) or cill (meaning church).
This really comes down to studying local maps – looking for either an old church or woodland
KILKENNY Chill Chainnigh Chainnigh or Canice was the saint who founded the town (Canice’s Church)
KILLARNEY Cill Airne Airne = sloe berries, so this one probably refers to a wood rather than a church (the wood of the sloes)
SHANKILL Seanchill (old wood or church) Sometimes we just can’t tell which it is!
3. Dun / Doon
Dun and the less common Doon come from Dún
A Dún was an important fort – usually belonging to a king or chieftain (we may not know anything about these people)
DUNQUIN Dún Chaoin Caon is an unknown person (Caon’s Fort)
DUNGARVAN Dún Garbhán Garbhann was an Irish 7th century saint. (Garbhann’s Fort)
DOONBEG Dún Beag beag = small (Small Fort)
A Ráth was an earthen ringfort. There were thousands scattered across the country although most have now vanished due to farming and urbanisation. The majority seem to have been for domestic purposes – family dwellings or animal enclosures.
RATHNURE Ráth an Iúir iúir = yew (Ringfort of the Yew Trees)
RATHCOOLE Rath Cuil Cuil could be Cumhaill (name) or coill (wood)
RATHMICHAEL Ráth Michíl (Michael’s Ringfort)
This comes from cluain, meaning meadow
CLONTARF Cluain Tarbh tarbh = bull (Meadow of the Bull)
CLONSILLA Cluain Saileach saileach = willow (Meadow of the Willow)
CLONMEL Cluain Meala meala = honey (Honey Meadow)
Bun means foot or end and often refers to the mouth of a river
BUNMAHON Bun Machan Machan is the name of a river, which flows into the sea at this Waterford village, so in this case the name means “at the end of the Machan”
BUNCLODY Bun Clóidí (End of the River Clody)
BUNBEG An Bun Beag beag = small (The small River Mouth)
7. Carrick / carrig / cargy
Carrick and its variations come from carraig meaning a rock
CARRICKBEG An Charraig bheag (The little Rock)
CARRIGALLEN Carraig Álainn álainn = beautiful (Beautiful Rock)
BALLYNACARGY Baile na Carraige (Town of the Rocks)
Knock comes from cnoc which is a hill
KNOCKADERRY Cnoc an doire doire = oak (Hill of the Oak)
KNOCKBOY An Cnoc Buí búi = yellow (Yellow Hill)
KNOCKLYON Cnoc Lín lín = flax – so flax obviously grew here at some stage
Trá is a beach or strand
TRAMORE Trá Mhór mór = big or great (The Great Strand)
TRALEE Trá Lí Lí = Lee (local river)
FINTRA Fionntrá fionn = fair or white (White Beach)
You probably recognise this one from our Scottish neighbours. Glen comes from Gleann meaning a glen or valley
GLENDALOUGH Gleann Dá Loch Dá =2 loch = lake (Glen of the 2 Lakes)
GLENAGEARY Gleann na gCaorach caora = sheep (Glen of the Sheep)
Have you been paying attention? So cuilinn is……….?
That’s right …… holly – this is Glen of the Holly
Why don’t you try these ..
Ballyjamesduff Baile Shéamais Dhuibh (The Home of Black Seamus)
Clonmore Cluain Mhór (Big Meadow)
Kilmichael Cill Mhícil (Michaels Church)
Dunmore Dún Mór (The big Fort)
We’ve over 60,000 towns, villages and townlands but that’s probably enough for today!!!