Irish Place-Names: Now it All Makes Sense

Irish topography suffered a lot at the hands of English speakers. You may say that it actually became richer, with every place virtually having two names – the original Irish one and an English transliteration of it. The thing is, more often than not, English transliteration of Irish place-names makes zero sense.

Do you think county Mayo was named so because its inhabitants are extremely fond of egg-based white salad dressing?

Let me shed some light on the Irish topography for you. Speaking the Irish language or at least knowing some basics of it shows you a totally different portrait of Ireland. Every name holds centuries of history, memories of glorious past and verbal landscapes of Ireland through the eyes of its inhabitants. And ofttimes, anglicised names of Irish towns are simply embarrassing.

Welcome to Ratass, co. Kerry! You might want to come here just to take a selfie with the sign. Before the need for an English version of this name, the place was known as Rath Teas, Irish for “ring-fort of the south”. ‘Rath’ is one of the words for ‘fort’ that you will see in many Irish place-names, like Rathsallagh (salach stands for ‘dirty’, so this town in co. Tipperary is a “Dirty ring-fort”).

Speaking of dirty, there is an infamous town called Muff – actually, there are several places with this confusing name, including one village in Donegal that even holds an annual Muff Festival. In the linguistically correct reality, the name in original Irish is An Magh, meaning ‘plain’, and it is merely the descriptive characteristic of surrounding landscape. This brings us back to Mayo, which as we already mentioned is a not a tribute to mayonnaise: this county sounds quite poetic when you spell it the right (Irish) way: Maigh Eo, “the plain of the yew trees”. We Irish love trees, and so there is plenty of place-names featuring different types of wood: Kildare is Cill Dara, “church of the oak tree”, and Derry is Doire, ‘grove, forest’.

There is a couple of towns with names like Poulnamuck (Poll na Muc) and Poulnagappul (Poll na gCapall), meaning ‘Hole of the pig’ and ‘Hole of the horses’ – a wonderful testimony to Ireland’s farming mentality and love for animals… and holes. Clontarf, near Dublin, site of the most epic historical battle in medieval Ireland, is originally Cluan Tarbh, “Meadow of the bulls”.

Dublin, on the other hand, in Irish is Baile Átha Cliath – you will sometimes see the name on bus and train schedules. This means simply “Town at the hurdled ford”, while ‘Dublin’ is the English transliteration of Dubh Linn, “black pond”. It would’ve been a real pain for the Irish Tourism Board and me to promote “black pond” as a top-notch travel destination, but Baile Átha Cliath presents its own pronunciation difficulties. The áth part (‘ford’) can also be found in place-names like Athenry (Áth an Rí, “Ford of the King”), Drogheda (Droichead Átha, “Bridge of the Ford”).

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Belfast is actually Béal Feirste in original Gaelic. Béal is the word for mouth (of the river), and the second part fearsaid (gen. sg. feirste) means “Ridge of the tidal sands”. If you think of it, all it takes to name your town is to look around and describe what you see. In Ireland, this was either bodies of water and riverbanks, or endless undulating hills, woodlands and marshes. Another coastal county centre, Sligo, is spelt Sligeach, which likely means “filled with shells”, from Irish slige.

Cork, on the other hand, is called Corcaigh in the Irish Gaelic, which stands simply for ‘marshes’ – what this land was pretty much comprised of before the town came to exist. Who knows how Dingle got its bizarre English name (it kind of rings the bell…), but the original Irish is An Daingean, which means ‘Fortified Town’.

The fortress theme seems to be predominant in the names of Irish towns and counties. There is county Down, which, as you might suspect, is not a country of downers, but simply An Dún, another word for fortress; Donegal in Irish is Dún na nGall, “Fortress of the Foreigners”.

Distinction between Derry and Londonderry is very politically charged

Another popular part of Irish place-names is cill [kill], which means ‘monastic cell, church’, as seen in such names as Killarney (Cill Airne, “Church of the Blackthorn trees”), Kildare (Cill Dara, “Church of the oak tree”), Killashandra (Cill na Seanrátha, “Church of the old fortresses”).

I insist that you learn some Irish behind the place-names, because for me, it may be the question of life and death: cill (church) or kill? Worship me or be done with me?

Finally, Galway – this is a tough one. Its original Irish name is Gaillimh, following the eponymous river Galway stands upon. As one 17th century text states, the river was named after a woman, Gaillimh iníon Breasail, who drowned in the river. She is said to be the daughter of Breasail, the local chieftain, but perhaps, much like Boann of the Boyne river, Gaillimh was a local river goddess long before any urban settlement was planned on the site of modern Galway city.

The more you travel around Ireland, the more your will notice such common roots in the place-names as caiseal ‘circular fort’ (Cashel), lios ‘ring fort’ (Lismore, “Big Fort”), muileann ‘mill’ (Mullen), tobair ‘well’ (Tobermorey, “Well of (Virgin) Mary”), sliabh ‘mountain’ (Slieveroe, “Red Mountain”), cnoc ‘hill’ (Knockanaffrin, “Hill of the Holy Mass”), leitir ‘hillside’ (Letterkenny, “Hillside of the O’Cannon’s”), tulach ‘mound’ (Tullamore, “Big Mound”), tuaim ‘burial mound’ (Tuam), gleann ‘valley’ (Gleancolumbkille, “Valley of St Columb Cille”). Along with varied Irish landscape, comprised mostly of hills, rivers and valleys, the original Irish place-names are the echoes of country’s history, pre-Christian mythology, and Catholic devotion of later years. This is in case you are wondering why all road signs in the country have to be bilingual. Every place has so much character we had to name them twice.

Personally, I love seeing it when I’ve just arrived in Dublin airport and all the signs are bi-lingual. That’s when I know I’m home.

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