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Irish Placenames                                                                  

Placenames of Ireland with an extract from 'Irish Names of Places' by P.W.Joyce

(See below for a link to Irish Names of Places)


This is part of an essay introduction written  in 1999, to an archaeological survey of sites near Clogheen in South Tipperary.  I submit it here without changing it as the information it contains is relevant. Apart from the better known Bally, Kill, Rath and Dun, there are thousands of other Irish placenames that can lead to a fascinating hobby in their translation.

"A townland is the smallest geographical unit in Ireland with over 60,000 such  units recorded. The value of the names of these names to archaeologists cannot be overstated.  Very often the only evidence of an archaeological feature in the landscape is that preserved in the original Irish name and it is important that the archaeologist is aware of the possible translations of the names in modern usage.  A typical example in this area is that of a corrie lake in the Knockmealdown mountains named Bay Lough.  Here we have two perfectly correct words with a hint of Gaelic about the word ‘lough’.  However, the correct name of this lake has been lost in the mists of time and the name ‘Bay Lough’ is the phoenetic English translation of the word Bealach  (meaning a ‘pass’) which, in this case, is the mountain pass right beside the lake.  The 1840 Ordnance Survey map shows in almost indecipherable print the word Lachtatassonig.  This name is no longer remembered locally but its translation has significance for the archaeologist as it translates to The grave mound of the Sasanach.  Sasanach can mean the Englishman or more literally – the Stranger.  Indeed, when one considers that this name is at the foot of a hill that has also lost its Irish name, and has been given the English name ‘The Sugarloaf’, and when one further considers that the top of this hill is the site of a large stone cairn, the value of that name – Lachtatassonig – becomes wonderfully evident.  It is regrettable that the names of many subdivisions of townlands are now all but lost to us in Ireland as they contained valuable evidence for the archaeologist.  Such names always have as a component a reference to topography, history or archaeology.  A road, a hill, a tomb, a bend of a river, a building, or simply a rock, any of these can find expression in a townland name. For example, in the word ‘Kill’-  we find evidence for churches where no ruins are to be seen.  'Rath' can indicate a fort and leacht indicates a grave, and so on.  A comprehensive listing of such names serves no pupose here..."  

I can heartily recommend Irish Names of Places by P.W.Joyce in 2 volumes, to anyone who wishes to spend many happy hours reading how the many thousands of Irish placenames obtained their names. Unfortunately, it was published in 1902 and you will have to search the catalogues of the vendors of antiquarian books to obtain a copy. Here is a tiny  extract from the chapter on Nicknames, perhaps not politically correct in today's world but an indication of the way things were many hundreds of years ago:-


A cripple of any kind is designated by the word bacach (from  bac, to baulk or halt), but the word is generally understood to mean a lame man; and from whatever cause it may have arisen, this term is frequently reproduced in local names. As cripples very often take up begging as a means of livelihood, a bacach is understood in many parts of Ireland to be a beggar.  There is a townland near the city of Derry called Termonbacca, the termon or sanctuary of the cripple.  A different form of the word is seen in Knockavocca near Ferns in Wexford, the cripple's hill (cnoc-a'-bhacaigh), in which the b is aspirated to v.  With the b eclipsed by m we have Ballynamockagh near ballinasloe, Baile- na- mbacach, the townland of the cripples or beggars.


Joyce has chapters that cover the origins of Irish placenames derived from Historical events; Historical Personages; Early Irish Saints; Legends; Fairies, Demons, Goblins and Ghosts; Customs, amusements, and occupations; Agriculture and Pasturage; Subdivisions and measures of land; Numerical combinations;Habitations and Fortresses; Ecclesiastical Edifices; Monuments, Graves and Cemeteries; towns and villages; Fords, weirs, and Bridges; Roads and causeways; Mills and Kilns; Mountains, Hills and Rocks; Plains, Valleys, Hollows and Caves; Islands, Peninsulas, and Strands; Water, Streamlets, and Waterfalls; Marshes and bogs; Animals; Plants; Shape and position; Diseases and Cures; Poetical and Fancy Names; Offices and Trades; Strangers; Irish Personal and Family Names; Nicknames; English Personal and Family Names; Articles of Manufacture; Boundaries and Fences; Various Artificial Works; The Sun; The Athmosphere; The Sea; Colours; The Animal Kingdom; The Vegetable Kingdom; The Mineral Kingdom; The Surface of the Land; Quagmires ad Watery Places; Size and Shape; Situation; The Cardinal Points.
Google  'Google Books' for Irish Names of Places. (Thanks to Kathy Strickland of Illinois for kindly pointing us in the direction this link.)


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