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    Placenames in the Gaeltacht

   Names in the Gaeltacht


The study of placenames has a considerable tradition in Ireland and goes back at least to the work of P. W. Joyce (4 vols. published between 1869 and 1913). There is much contemporary work, for instance the Toponomia Hiberniae by Breandán Ó Cíobháin (Dublin, 1978- ), the Place-Names of Northern Ireland survey (Belfast, 1992- , several volumes already published on eastern Ulster). There are also studies for individual counties and a government department entitled the Place-Names Office of the Ordnance Survey of Ireland which publishes information on toponyms. In addition to these sources there are a number of journals such as the Bulletin of the Ulster Place-Name Society (Belfast), Dinnseanchas ‘Topography’ (Dublin) and Ainm ‘Name’ (Belfast). More recent monographs on place names are Room (1986), Flanagan and Flanagan (1994) and a re-edition of Joyce (1923) in 1990. For personal names, see MacLysaght (4th edition 1985, originally published in 1957) – on surnames – and Ó Corráin and Maguire (1981) – on firstnames. There is also an ambitious on-going names project entitled Locus which is directed from the University of Cork and which has published much of its findings on the internet (Locus Project).

The name ‘Éire’

Ptolemy mentions the Iverni (from a pre-Ptolemic Ierne) as one of the tribes of Ireland. Their name has survived as Érainn which can be traced by to a form of *Everni, a tribe supposed to be located in the region of Co. Cork (O’Rahilly 1946: 7ff.). Ériu is the name for Ireland (also the term for an earth goddess) which later became Éire. According to O’Rahilly these terms are related and both go back to the names of goddess *Everna, *Everiu. The names, going on the evidence of Indo-European cognates, would appear to have meant something like ‘she who travels regularly, she who moves in a customary course’ (O’Rahilly 1946: 26), i.e. the goddess was a sun-goddess.

The Greek term Ivernia gave Latin Hibernia (with Caesar and Tacitus, for example). The modification of the Greek original with an initial h and a medial b may well be due to the influence of Latin hibernus ‘wintry’ as O’Rahilly suggests (1946: 7). A popular view associates Hibernia with Caesar who is said not to have invaded Ireland because of the prolonged winter there.

Names of the provinces

The four provinces of Ireland are: Munster, Leinster, Ulster, Connacht. The second syllable of the first three of these derives from a Norse ending staðr ‘place’ or from a combination of genitival s + tír ‘country’. The first syllable is derived from a name for the tribe which lived in the area designated as is the entire form of the fourth province. Originally there were five provinces, as the Irish word cúige ‘a fifth, province’ indicates. The additional province, Meath, was incorporated into Leinster.

Norse names

The Scandinavians are responsible for the founding of most Irish towns which are situated at the estuaries of major rivers. Dublin and Belfast are two exceptions; the former city predates the coming of the Vikings and the latter is a new settlement from the beginning of the 17th century. In some instances the English names of towns are derived from the Norse names and have nothing to do with the Irish form: Loch Garman ‘Wexford’, Port Láirge ‘Waterford’, An tInbhear Mhór ‘Arklow’, Howth < Norse huvud ‘head’, Leixlip ‘salmon leap’ was translated literally into Irish as Léim an Bhradáin ‘leap of the salmon’. The island of Dalkey (south side of Dublin) is another example of this: the English name comes from Norse dalkr ‘thorn’ + ey ‘island’, cf. Irish Deilginis ‘thorn island’.

Norman names

The number of Norman place names is remarkably small, especially considering the large amount of Norman surnames which became established in Ireland and the many loanwords in Irish from the Norman invaders. One reason might be that the Normans did not found towns. Instead they built keeps in the countryside and ruled from fortified castles. But even there few if any Norman names are to be found. Perhaps it has to do with the acceptance by the Normans of the names which went with the territories occupied by the Irish. Occasionally there are recognisable instances of Norman names, e.g. English Brittas, Irish Briotás (south of Dublin) < Old French Bretesche ‘boarding, planking’ or English Pallas, Irish Pailís ‘stockade’.

Common place name elements

There are many recurring elements in Irish place names, particularly at the beginning of words. Nearly all of these are references to places or buildings as the following selection shows: Kill- ‘church’, Bally- ‘town(land)’, Dun- ‘castle, fort’, Rath ‘fort’, Slieve- ‘mountain’, Knock- ‘hill’, Glenn- ‘valley’,Árainn ‘ridge’. Among the more common suffixes are: -more ‘big’, -beg, -een ‘small’, e.g. Dunmore ‘big fort’, Gorteen ‘little field’, Doonbeg ‘small fort’. All of these are native morphemes with the exception of Cill, the dative of cealla (from Latin cella). Among the anglicisations there are two which are ambiguous as they can correspond to one of two Irish prefixes: 1) Kill < cill ‘church’ or coill ‘wood’. 2) Bally < baile ‘town’ or bealach ‘way’.

Folk etymologies

The small island just north of Dublin, Ireland’s Eye, has nothing to do with ‘eye’: the second element is Scandinavian ey meaning ‘island’. Waterford seems like a straightforward case of ‘water’ plus ‘ford’ but the name is Scandinavian – Vadrefjord – and refers to the point at the river estuary where wethers ‘castrated rams’ were shipped to other ports. The first element is unrelated to the Old Norse word for ‘water’, vatn.

Names in the Gaeltacht

Below English equivalents are given to those Irish placenames from various Gaeltacht areas for which there are recordings in the present project. Most names here, as in the rest of Ireland, are approximate phonetic renderings of the Irish originals. Sometimes, translations are used, e.g. Woodstown for Baile na Coille ‘townland of woods’, though this practice does not apply to locations in the Gaeltacht areas for which there are speaker recordings, with the exception of An Sean Phobal ‘Old Parish’ in West Waterford.

On occasions, placenames have an article before them. If such names are feminine then the initial consonant is lenited. For instance, Carrick in South-West Donegal is An Charraig ‘the rock’ in Irish where the initial C /k/ becomes Ch /x/ after the article.

Donegal Gaeltacht

Map of Donegal Gaeltacht areas

The county of Donegal is Dún na nGall ‘fortress of foreigners’ in Irish but it is usually referred to by Irish speakers as Tír Chonaill ‘country of O’Connell’. The north-western part of the Donegal Gaeltacht is called Cloich Chionnaola ‘Kineely’s stone’, English Chloghaneely. The name Gaoth Dobhair ‘estuary of river Dobhar (= water)’ refers to both a town and the district in which it is located. Dunglow from Irish Dún Cluiche ‘fort of stone’ is called An Clochán Liath ‘The grey stepping stones’ in Irish. The meaning of Anagaire is uncertain, it may contain the element doire ‘oak grove’.

Irish meaning anglicisation
Anagaire (unknown) Annagary
An Bun Beag small river-mouth Bunbeg
An Charraig the rock Carrick
An Fál Carrach the rocky enclosure Falcarragh
Bun na Leaca foot of the flagstones Brinlack
Cill Charthaigh Carthach’s church Kilcar
Clochán Liath grey stepping stones Dunglow
Cnoc Fola bloody hill Bloody Foreland
Croithlí shaking bog Crolly
Doirí Beaga little oakwoods Derrybeg
Dún Lúiche Lugh’s fort Dunlewy
Gaoth Dobhair estuary of river Dobhar Gweedore
Gleann Cholm Cille valley of Colm Cille Glencolumbcille
Gort an Choirce field of oats Gortahork
Machaire Uí Robhartaigh plain of the Roberts Magheroarty
Mín an Chladaigh mountain pasture by the shore Meenaclady
Mín Lárach mountain pasture of the mare Meenlaragh
Oileán Toraigh island of tower-like rocks Tory Island
Rann na Feirste point of the sandbank Rannafast
Teileann dish, i.e. rounded bay Teelin

Mayo Gaeltacht

Map of Mayo Gaeltacht areas

The Mayo Gaeltacht is now confined to an area in the north-west and the south of the county. The north-western area consists of a part of Achill Island around Achill Sound and the south-east of the island. It also contains a region on the mainland just opposite Belmullet peninsula (from Irish Béal an Mhuiread). This region is known after the town of Ceathrú Thaidhg ‘Carrowteige’. The peninsula and the adjacent mainland is known in Irish as Iorras ‘Erris’ meaning ‘ridge’. The southern area consists of a strip of land on the western shore of Lake Corrib around the town of Tourmakeady, Irish Tuar Mhic Éadaigh ‘bleaching-green of the son of Éadach’.

Irish meaning anglicisation
Ceathrú Thaidhg Taidhg’s quarter Carrowteige
Gob an Choire Mouth of the pool Achill Sound
An Chloich Mhór Big stone Cloghmore

Galway Gaeltacht

Map of Galway Gaeltacht areas

The stretch of coastline west of Galway is a designated Gaeltacht and alongside Donegal has the largest number of native speakers, although the encroachment of English speakers, mainly from Galway, has diluted their numbers in recent years.

The label Conamara ‘sea(-side) of Conmac’, English Connemara, is used by native speakers of Irish to refer to their area, particularly to the large region with its centre around An Cheathrú Rua ‘Carraroe’ and Casla. The coastline immediately west of Galway city is Cois Fhairrge ‘by the sea’ and is linguistically a distinct sub-area within this Gaeltacht. The peninsula which contains Carna ‘mound of stones’ is termed Iorras Aithneach ‘the ridge of gorse (?)’.

The area around Kilkieran Bay which includes the island of Muighinis (to the west) and the large islands Leitir Móir ‘Lettermore’and Garmna ‘Gorumna’ along with many smaller islands is known as Ceantar na nOileán ‘district of the islands’.

The Irish-speaking area includes the Aran Islands (< Árainn ‘ridge, back’), Inis Mór ‘large island’, Inis Meáin ‘middle island’ and Inis Oírr ‘eastern island’. The latter two are entirely Irish-speaking while the first is largely so but the main town, Cill Rónáin ‘Ronan’s church’, English Kilronan, has many English speakers. Inis Mór is called Árainn by Irish speakers while na h-oileáin ‘the islands’ is used to refer to the two smaller islands Inis Meáin and Inis Oírr together. Some of the Irish names on the islands do not have English equivalents, e.g. Gort na gCapall ‘field of the horses’.

Irish meaning anglicisation
An Cheathrú Rua red quarter Carraroe
An Mám mountain pass Maam
An Spidéal hospital Spiddle
Carna mound of stones Carna
Casla stream, sea-inlet Casla
Cill Chiaráin Kieran’s church Kilkieran
Corr na Móna round hill of the bog Cornamona
Indreabhán small estuary Inveran
Inis Meáin middle island Inishmaan
Inis Treabhair secure, strong island Inishtravin
Leitir Árd high hillside Letterard
Leitir Móir big hillside Lettermore
Muighinis island of the plain Mweenish
Ros an Mhíl headland of sea animal Rossaveel
Ros Muc headland of pigs Rosmuck

Kerry Gaeltacht

Map of Kerry Gaeltacht areas

In some instances an Irish designation is used which is quite different from that in English. This can be seen in the Kerry Gaeltacht which is located on the Dingle Peninsula, named in English after its main town, Dingle, Irish An Daingean ‘fort’ (this also has a longer form Daingean Uí Cúise ‘fort of O’Cush’, without the article an ‘the’). But in Irish the peninsula is referred to as Corca Dhuibhne ‘people of Divney’, a label used by Irish speakers, not least because Irish is not generally spoken in the town of Dingle. Ventry is an anglicisation of Fionn Trá ‘bright strand’ but the Irish term Ceann Trá ‘head of the strand’ is the term used for the village and Fionn Trá refers to the strand itself. Baile na nGall is commonly called Ballydavid in English.

Irish meaning anglicisation
An Fheothanach windy place Feohanagh
Baile an Chnocáin townland of stepping stones over river Ballinknockane
Baile an Fheirtéaraigh Feirtéar’s townland Ballyferriter
Baile an Reannaigh Reannach’s townland Ballyranny
Baile Breac speckled townland Ballybrack
Baile na nGall townland of foreigners Ballydavid
Baile Riabhach streaked, striped townland Ballymorereagh
Ceann Trá head of strand Ventry
Dún Chaoin fort of Quin Dunquin
Dún Séanna six forts ? Doonsheane
Na Ráithíneacha the small forts Raheen
Baile an Sceilge the townland of the crag Ballinskelligs

Cork Gaeltacht

Map of Cork Gaeltacht areas

The main Irish-speaking area in Cork is the locality known as Muskerry, Irish Múscraí ‘place of the descendents of Carbery Musc (Irish Cairbre Músc)’ which contains the villages of Ballyvourney, Ballymakeera (Irish Baile Mhic Íre ‘the townland of the sons of Íre’) and Coolea (Irish Cúl Aodha ‘the sheltered place of Hugh’), to the west of Macroom with the village of Balingeary somewhat to the south of these.

Clear Island off the southern coast of Co. Cork is officially an Irish-speaking district but there are hardly any native speakers left among the few hundred inhabitants of the island.

Irish meaning anglicisation
Baile Bhúirne townload of the stony place Ballyvourney
Béal Átha an Ghaorthaidh mouth of the ford of the wooded valley Ballingeary
Oileán Chléire the island of clergy (?) Cape Clear

Waterford Gaeltacht

Map of Waterford Gaeltacht

The Gaeltacht on the Ring peninsula in West Waterford is the remainder of a larger Irish-speaking area known as Na Déise ‘the districts’ which covered much of North Waterford up to the late 19th century.

Irish meaning anglicisation
An Rinn point Ring
Heilbhic rock-shelf bay Helvick
An Sean Phobal the old parish Old Parish

Meath Gaeltacht

Map of Meath Gaeltacht

The Irish-speaking community at Rathcairn consists of a number of families transported there from the Galway Gaeltacht in the early years of the Irish Free State (in the 1930s).

Irish meaning anglicisation
Rathcairn Fort of the mound of stones Rathcarran


The following is one of the many volumes on placenames in northern Ireland which have appeared in recent years: