Components of Irish placenames
About Irish placenames: If you spend time examining a pretty accurate map of Ireland, it becomes evident that there are sounds and bits of words that recur over and over again in numerous placenames.
This is true of any culture (eg English -borough, -pool, -ham, -cester, -town; French -ville, German -burg).
Ireland is no unusual, except that its placenames may trace their genealogy to three language families: Gaelic,English and Viking.
If you know the name of an Irish placename, it is generally feasible to trace out its roots.
Many of them are made up of descriptions of the locality.
For example, if there are two features, like lakes, near together, the bigger one will frequently have -more in its name, and the smaller one -beg.
Human buildings often make their way into names: droichead is a bridge, and dun is a castle.
Many others are named after persons, mainly the lords who held the estates on which they were erected.
Castledawson and Manorhamilton are examples.
A word of caution, though.
A huge number of Gaelic terms sound similar, and in many instances the Anglicisation of Gaelic placenames has confounded the spelling, making it appear as though a placename signifies one thing when it fact means something quite different.
Too many individuals fall into the trap of adopting the English spelling, looking it up in an Irish dictionary and presuming they have the appropriate meaning.
This is a list of some of the most prevalent placename components in Ireland:
– Signifies a lofty position in Gaelic languages. This ususally indicates a physically high point, but it may also signify a place of prominence. For example: the Ards Peninsula (county Down), Ardstraw [A high, or notable, rath] (county Tyrone), Ardfert (country Kerry) (county Kerry). A couple sites look to be a ‘Ard’, but are really not. For example, Ardee (county Louth) is really an abbreviation of the earlier name ‘Atherdee’, where ‘Dee’ is the name of the river on which it sits.
Bally, Ballyna, Ballina
Bally is an exceptionally frequent prefix to town names in Ireland, and is derived from the Gaelic phrase ‘Baile na’, meaning ‘place of’. It is not completely correct to render it ‘town of’, given there were few, if any, towns in Ireland at the time these names were coined. For example, Ballyjamesduff [Place of James Duff] (county Cavan), Ballymoney (county Londonderry) (county Londonderry). The Irish name for the location of present-day Dublin was ‘Baile Átha Cliath’, which, if anglicised, would be written something like ‘Ballycleeagh’. Note that ‘Dublin’ is originally a Viking term
This means ‘little’ in Gaelic. Usually placed at the conclusion of a name, this frequently denotes that this feature is the smaller of a pair of neighboring features. A similar name ending in ‘more’ is commonly seen nearby. For example, Killybegs (country Donegal), Lambeg (county Antrim) (county Antrim). North of Lough Neagh, Ireland’s biggest lake, lies a considerably smaller lake named Lough Beg
When found at the end of a name, this signifies that the town grew alongside a bridge, or became renowned as a bridging location. These town names are generally of English linguistic origin. For example, Banbridge (county Down) which developed established around a bridge across the river Bann. Newbridge (county Kildare) sprang up when a bridge over the Liffey was erected at that place. (Newbridge is increasingly being called Droichead Nua, which is a Gaelicised form of the original English name.) This highlights the significance of bridges to commerce.
Carrick means ‘rock’ in Gaelic languages, and Carricks are common over Ireland. For example Carrickfergus [Rock of Fergus] (country Antrim), Carrickmacross [Rock of MacRoss] (county Monaghan), Carrick-on-Suir (county Tipperary) (county Tipperary).
A prefix whose roots are in the English language. Towns with this name previously, and in a few instances still do, had a castle. For example Castlederg (county Tyrone), Castlebar (country Mayo), Castleisland (county Kerry) (county Kerry).
A Gaelic term signifying a dry region. This name is far more frequent in Connaught than elsewhere in Ireland. This is because Connaught was wetter, therefore a dry and well-drained location was more precious and highly valued. For example, Clonmel (country Tipperary), Clonmacnois (county Offaly), Clonfert (county Galway) (county Galway).
This phrase derived from the Gaelic designation for a location of Oak trees [Doire], or often a grove or clearing of the same. Oak trees are abundant in various areas in Ireland, hence there are many occurrences of the name Derry. The most notable site to bear this name is Derry city (county Londonderry) (county Londonderry). Other instances are Derryaghy (county Antrim) [a former hamlet which is now part of Belfast city], Edenderry (country Offaly) (county Offaly).
Down, Dun, Don
These prefixes all developed from the Gaelic term ‘Dun’, indicating a fortified location. As Ireland has always experienced conflicts, there are numerous instances of fortified sites. Donegal [Fortress of the Foreigners] (county Donegal), Dungannon (county Tyrone), Portadown [Port of the fortress] (county Armagh), Dungarvan (county Waterford), Downpatrick [Fortress of Patrick] (county Down) (county Down).
A Gaelic term signifying a bridge. The best example is Drogheda (county Meath), which is an evolved spelling derived from the Gaelic term. Also the town of Droichead Nua [New bridge] (county Kildare) (county Kildare).
A Gaelic term signifying a ridge. Examples include Dromore [The bigger ridge] (county Down & Tyrone), Drumquin [Quinn’s ridge] (county Tyrone), Drum [the ridge] (county Monaghan)
Names including ‘ford’ might have either a Gaelic or Viking origin. If the site is by a narrow harbor, it is likely to be Viking. The term originated from the Viking ‘fjord’. Examples include Waterford [Fjord of the father], Wexford [A very shallow fjord], Strangford [the strong fjord (ie, strong current)] (county Down) (county Down). Alternatively, it might be a Gaelic/English term signifying a shallow crossing place in a river. For example, Longford.
A Gaelic term meaning ‘strangers’ or ‘foreigners’. For example, Donegal [Fortess of the aliens]. Note : Galway is not an example of this term. It translates to something like ‘a port at some little islands’. The name ‘Gaelic’ itself means ‘outsiders’, since it stems from the language of pre-Celtic peoples who referred to the Celts as foreigners or ‘Gaels’.
A Gaelic term signifying a valley between mountains. For example, Glenariff (country Antrim), Crossmaglen (county Armagh)
An English term used for any town on or on a hill. For example, Markethill (county Armagh), Richill (county Armagh) (county Armagh).
A Gaelic term denoting a church. Famous examples are Kildare (Cill Dara) meaning ‘the second church’, Kilkenny. The Shankill district of Belfast is Gaelic meaning ‘ancient church’.
A Gaelic term signifying a hill. There are several instances of this, including Knock (country Mayo), Knock (Belfast, county Down) and Knockmore [the huge hill], county Antrim. For a time many centuries ago, Carrickfergus (county Antrim) was known as Knockfergus.
Evolution of Placenames
As individuals of varied linguistic origins have resided in Ireland, so the names have developed.
Gaelic names being Anglicised
The most typical evolution in Ireland happened when English started to take over from the Gaelic languages as Ireland’s primary language.
This frequently resulted in the names remaining the same, but their spellings altering.
For example, Beal-fierste became Belfast, Tir Eoghain became Tyrone, Doire became Derry.
There were relatively few towns in existence in Ireland until the Normans gained power in the 1100s.
Thus, many of the new town names were anglicised spellings of Gaelic area names, rather than the names of real settlements.
Viking names being Anglicised
Many sites in Ireland had been named by the Vikings, and they also developed into English spellings.
For example, Strangford [Strang Fjord] (county Down), Dublin [Dubh Linn] and Wexford [Weis Fjord].
Sometimes the Vikings and the Gaels had various names for the same object, but only one ever remained.
For example, the Gaelic name for the territory of Dublin was Baile Atha Cliath, but this term was never used to refer to the town (although it has begun appearing as such on roadsigns in the last several decades) (although it has been appearing as such on roadsigns in the past few decades).
New English names emerging
As new towns were founed after English had become the primary language, they naturally received English names.
For example, Newtownabbey (country Antrim), Waterside (county Londonderry), Celbridge (county Kildare) or Lucan (county Dublin) (county Dublin).
English names being Gaelicised
After the Republic of Ireland became independant, the government re-named certain English name towns into Gaelic counterparts.
For example, the county Kildare town of Newbridge, established in 1816, was Gaelicised literally as Droichead Nua.
Some more towns had their names fully altered.
For example, Kingstown (county Dublin) became Dun Laoghaire, a re-Gaelicised form of the name (Dunleery) by which it had been known until 1821.
Dunleery, in turn, had been an Anglicised form of a Gaelic name for the region.
In reality, in the late Norman era many Norman (early English) names of places were Gaelicised by the locals as the influence from across the Irish Sea diminished.
Names are still changing nowadays.
In 1837, the town of Newtownards (county Down) was spelled Newtown-Ardes.
The county Londonderry town of Limavady was then known as Newtown-Limavady.
There are likely to be other adjustments in the future.
The town of Craigavon (county Armagh) was created (very badly) from scratch in the mid 20th century and named after a former Northern Ireland Prime Minister.
The town of Shannon (county Clare) was founded immediately after the establishment of Shannon airport.
It presently has 7000 inhabitants.
People have still not resolved on a single internationally acceptable name for towns such as Toome/Toomebridge, Londonderry/Derry and Carrickmore/Termon Rock.
Key: Irish placenames