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More strands, approaches to strands, and once-famous battles
Beltra/Béal Trá “mouth, approach of (to) the strand”
(see logainm.ie #134412)

Date: 22/07/2024

This week’s theme continues on the subject of trá “strand, beach” in townland names. Last week we concentrated on those townland names in na trá “of the strand, beach” in which we also find the article an (feminine genitive na) as in Baile na Trá “town(land) of (at) the strand”. However, trá is also found without the article in many other townland names such as Kiltra/Cill Trá “church of (at) the strand” in County Wexford (logainm.ie #53776); Baltray/Baile Trá “town(land) of the strand” in Louth (logainm.ie #34085) and Ballycultra/Baile Chúl Trá “town(land) of (at) the back of the strand” in County Down (logainm.ie #66055; see also placenamesni.org Ballycultra). Fionntrá “white-strand” is the forerunner to Ventry in County Kerry (logainm.ie #1393750) as well as Fintragh in Donegal (logainm.ie #14587). The former is probably the better known of the two, familiar to many of those who would have stayed in the area during a visit to the Kerry Gaeltacht. Interestingly, exactly the same strand referred to in this Fionntrá also gave the village of Ceann Trá “head of (the) strand” its Irish name—— even though in English it took the name of the strand itself, Ventry. This is not the only example of such anomalous renaming in English: take for example the name of the nearby townland Ballydavid, the site of the old Coastguard station which was subsequently transferred to the village of Baile na nGall (#1165468) situated over two miles to the south. However, as these places lie within the Gaeltacht, in these particular cases the inconsistency was corrected under section 33(2) of the Official Languages Act 2003, as the Irish versions are now the sole official names.
It is particularly interesting to note that Fionntrá in Kerry was also the site of a major battle from the Fenian Cycle of tales in early Irish literature, which is referred to as Cath Fionntrá “the battle of Ventry”. In may be simply coincidence but Cath Fionntrá then brings us all the way to another likewise-named (but now-defunct) Fionntrá in Sligo which was also the site of many major battles. The background to that name begins at Beltra/Béal Trá “mouth, approach of/to the strand”, which is situated on the main N59 road some 10km west of Ballysadare in Sligo. Passing through Beltra one could be forgiven for wondering if the people who named it Béal Trá were quite all there, as no such natural feature is to be found in the vicinity. However, Béal Trá did once lie at the end of a once-famous strand called Trá Eothaile, a fact obscured by the building of a dyke across much of Ballysadare Bay in the later 19th century. Prior to the construction of the dyke, the bay contained two major tidal fords, one of which went from Streamstown in the east to Beltra in the west, and was called Fearsaid na Fionntrá “the tidal ford of/at the white strand”. It was doubtless the longest tidal ford in Sligo and possibly Connaught, and the strand here, An Fhionntrá “the white strand”, more commonly called Trá Eothaile, is associated with an unusually high number of historical battles, skirmishes and hostings. Indeed, the fame of Fearsaid na Fionntrá at Trá Eothaile was so great in Gaelic Ireland that it spread from real life into native Irish literature—it features frequently in mythological sagas such as Cath Mhaigh Tuireadh “the battle of Moyturra” and also the Fenian Cycle, as well as in the Triads and genealogies. Its renown also led to the probable literary creation of further aliases such as Ros Airgid “silver promontory” and Trá na Mná Mairbhe “the strand of the dead women”. Such use of real placenames and the invention of aliases as literary constructs in order to produce even more tales was a common feature in native Irish culture of which creative toponymy was a core constituent. (For more details on events at Béal Trá and Trá Eothaile see C. Ó Crualaoich in Sligo Field Club Journal, Vol. 8).
We also have two townlands called Beltra/Béal Trá in County Mayo, the first of which faces out onto Killala Bay (logainm.ie #34575), but the second of which is actually inland (logainm.ie #35804), the trá “strand” in question probably being the shore of Beltra Lough (logainm.ie #114036). However, neither of these shared the fame that once belonged to the area around Beltra/Béal Trá in Sligo, even though the latter no longer lies next to any strand.

(Conchubhar Ó Crualaoich & Aindí Mac Giolla Chomhghaill)

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