Featured themes

A selection of common themes in Irish placenames. These short, informative pieces are published on an ongoing basis.

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Paróiste San Nioclás/Saint Nicholas

Date: 27/11/2023

Saint Nicholas is nowadays undoubtedly the saint most commonly connected with December in Ireland, or in Irish Mí na Nollag "the month of Christmas". However, Saint Nicholas did not actually feature in the native calendar of saints, and it was only in placenames that post-date the Anglo-Norman invasion that he features. So in the case of the parish of Saint Nicholas just north of Castlebridge in Wexford we find that this parish name was transferred from 'St. Nicholas's Priory' in Exeter, a religious foundation granted carucates of land in this area by the Anglo-Norman David Roche. The name refers to the now-ruined church Temple-St Nicholas. However, the Irish structure of 'Temple-St Nicholas' \ Teampall San Nioclás, a version of the name recorded in 1618 implies regaelicisation after initial colonisation. Notably, the parish church of Carrick near Wexford Town was also dedicated to Saint Nicholas, and it is of interest to note that both churches would once have been within the sphere of influence of the Roche family (see logainm.ie: #2622; #2644). (Conchubhar Ó Crualaoich & Aindí Mac Giolla Chomhghaill)

Coill na Sián/Kilnashane “the wood of the fairy mounds”

Date: 20/11/2023

In contrast to the sióga/fairies of Clonnasheeoge/Cluain na Sióg "the pasture of the fairies"and Páirc na Sióg "the park of the fairies" in Wexford along with Ballynasheeoge/Baile na Sióg "the (town)land of the fairies" in Galway, which are rarely specifically mentioned in townland names, the related element sián (< síodhán) "(little) fairy mound" is actually quite common in townland names such as Kilnashane/Coill na Sián "the wood of the fairy mounds" in Laois (see logainm.ie: #27773). An Sián "the fairy mound" is the precursor to Shean in Waterford and Cork; Shean in Armagh an Fermanagh; Sheean in Kildare, Limerick, Westmeath, Roscommon and Carlow; Sheeaun in Clare and Galway; Sheehaun in Roscommon. It is also behind Sheeanmore/An Sián Mór "the big fairy mound"in Mayo and Sligo, a name which demonstrates that sián "(little) fairy mound" had lost its diminutive function. At the other end of the spectrum we have An Sián Beag "the little fairy mound", the forerunner to anglicised Shanbeg in Laois. On the other hand, Shean Beg/An Sián Beag "the fairy mound, little"and Shean More/An Sián Mór"the fairy mound, big", neighbouring townlandsin Waterford do not appear to refer to the size of different fairy mounds, but to subdivisions of what was originally a single townland called An Sián "the fairy mound". The anglicised name Golashane in Meath is very deceiving as it is actually made up of two separate names, Gabhla and An Sián "the fairy mound". Sián "fairy mound" is also found in many townland names such as Carrickateane/Carraig an tSiáin "the rock of the fairy mound" in Leitrim, in which sián occurs in the genitive case meaning "of the fairy mound". It is truly amazing that we can have so many townland names referring to the sián "fairy mound" and yet the native tradition of the sióga/fairies is now so poorly understood and perhaps even ridiculed in Ireland.

Cluain na Sióg/Clonnasheeoge "the pasture of the fairies"

Date: 13/11/2023

While the festival of Samhain/Halloween has probably been very much Americanised in recent years, the native Irish festival often involved one group now rarely mentioned in Halloween discourse---the sióga "fairies". In native tradition the síoga were reputedly particularly active during Samhain/Halloween, but they are only specifically mentioned in a small number of townland names. This includes Clonnasheeoge/Cluain na Sióg "the pasture of the fairies" (see logainm.ie: #52570) as well as Parknashoge/Páirc na Sióg "the park of the fairies" in County Wexford (see logainm.ie: #52864). It is notable that the sióga/fairies were also mentioned in another now-defunct townland name near Hollyfort in County Wexford, namely Raheneshioge/Ráithín na Sióg "the (little) ringfort of the fairies". It seems that there was once a particularly strong tradition surrounding the sióga/fairies in parts of County Wexford. Elsewhere, we have the townland name Ballynasheeoge/Baile na Sióg "the town(land) of the fairies" in Galway. We also have the English names Fairyhill in Clare, Fairyhall in Limerick and Fairy Island in Sligo, but the evidence is insufficient to determine whether these are English creations or translations from Irish.

Gleann na bhFuath/Glennawoo "the glen of the monsters"

Date: 06/11/2023

Our understanding of Samhain/Halloween has probably changed quite a lot over the years, and it is probably now much more concerned with features and monsters that have little to do with native Irish culture. However, monsters did indeed also feature in native tradition, and no townland name reflects this better than Glennawoo/Gleann na bhFuath "the glen of the monsters" near Lough Talt in the Ox Mountains of Sligo (see logainm.ie: #45661). One tradition about this placename is recounted in W. G. Wood-Martin's History of Sligo: Town and County iii:

The tradition is, that the valley in which the well is situated was the haunt of a monster in the shape of a great serpent that devoured or destroyed every human being or animal within reach, and hence the name of the Glenn. But a delivery arrived in the person of St. Athy or Araght [Athracht] ... bringing a blessed staff given to her by St. Patrick, with which she pursued and killed the monster on the spot where the well sprang up (p. 357; see here).

Goirtín na Samhna/Gurteennasowna “the (little) field of Halloween”

Date: 30/10/2023

With the month of November on us, Mí na Samhna "the month of Halloween" in Irish, it’s interesting to note the placename Gurteennasowna/Goirtín na Samhna "the (little) field of Halloween" in Cork (see logainm.ie: #9912). A note on this placename written by the toponymist John O’Donovan during the course of the Ordnance Survey in 1841 states ‘Some sports carried on here on Saman’s day [Halloween]’. Although O’Donovan was not actually in Cork during the survey, the note clearly reflects a tradition of sports and meetings at Samhain/Halloween. Similarly, in reference to Knocknasawna/Cnoc na Samhna "the hill of Halloween" in Leitrim, which O’Donovan had actually visited, he noted "hill of all-hollowtide -- meeting or sports here at the season".

Carraig Shamhna/Carrickhawna “(the) rock of Halloween”

Date: 23/10/2023

Moving toward the end of September we approach the Gaelic festival of Samhain "haloween" from which the Irish name for November is derived, Mí na Samhna "the month of haloween". Samhain is not particularly common in townland names, but one particularly interesting name is Carrickhawna/Carraig Shamhna "(the) rock of Halloween" in Sligo (see logainm.ie: #44706). A note in the Ordnance Survey Parish Name Book from 1838 concerning this location (a hill) observed that: "A little before November the old men (time out of mind) used to assemble here to settle their little affairs for the ensuing half year". This is reminiscent of the native Irish custom of holding assemblies on hillsides recounted in a late sixteenth or early seventeenth century Discourse on the mere Irish of Ireland (see: https://research.ucc.ie/celt/document/E600001-004) , the author of which was certainly not well-disposed to native Irish culture:

First for their consultacions those are onely done in their meetinges vpon some hill or other. And this hath beene soe much in vse amongst them, as euen at this daie all or most of the sheriffs of that kingdome in Imitacion thereof doe keepe their twoe (turne) courtes, and their County courts upon hilles and such open places, in the open feildes Theis meetinges and assemblies vpon hills doe often occasion manie euills and enormities for howsoeuer theis meetinges be pretended for some publique goodes, It is experienced that the opposite contrary doth commonly followe, for that the oportunitie of theis remote places doth possesse them with a conceite of Secrecy, to smother their designes the Better, soe as they may deliuer their mindes there with more libertie and freedome, and effect their purpose with less suspicion [than if] their metinges and assemblies had beene in townes, and thus all their conspiracies, coniuracions and treasons are vsually plotted, prepared and concluded for which cause, and for that theis assemblies are commonly vnlawful when they be not guided by supreme Authority. It is very necessary they should be straightly forbidden and seuerallie punished and the rather that they be but obseruacions of the meare Irishe (p.20)

Garrán an Cheoil/Garranachole “the grove of the music”

Date: 16/10/2023

With the world famous Wexford Festival Opera beginning in the final week of October, it pleasing to note that music also plays its part in Ireland's toponymy. In Cork we have anglicised Garranachole, which is from Garrán an Cheoil "the grove of the music" (see logainm.ie: #35072) while in Mayo we have Musicfield, which is translation from original Gort an Cheoil "the field of the music". The hill called Knockaceol in Limerick derives its name from Cnoc an Cheoil "the hill of the music", and in Cork we find the odd translation Mountmusic from Cnoc Amhráin "(the) hill of (the) song". Somewhat coincidently, on the island of Cruit/An Chruit "the harp" in Donegal we find Tobernanoran which is from Tobar na nAmhrán "the well of the songs". However, for two weeks at least at the end of October we can also understand Wexford to be Tobar na nAmhrán "the well of the songs".

Buaile na mBriogadán/Ballynabrigadane “the boley of the stubbles”

Date: 09/10/2023

As we continue towards the end of the harvest in October, or Deireadh Fómhair "(the end of harvest (time)" in Irish, it is notable that there are few townland names that refer to stubble fields. One possible example is* Ballynabrigadane*/Buaile na mBriogadán "the boley of the stubbles" in County Wexford (see logainm.ie: #52568). However, the final element, briogadán, may have been employed here in the secondary sense "the bits of straw lighted as a play thing, burning tipped sticks", possibly in reference to the 'Will o' the wisp', a natural phenomenon that usually occurs in bogs, swamps and marshes. It is interesting to note that 'peaty topsoil types' and also 'lacustrine' soils are recorded in this townland, which is consistent with the existence of marshes or bogs here prior to drainage.

Cnoc an Fhómhair/Knockanore Mountain “the hill of the harvest”

Date: 02/10/2023

The Irish for October is Deireadh Fómhair “(the) end of harvest (time)”, and it is therefore interesting to note that fómhar “harvest (time)” is not particularly common in Irish placenames, but it is found in the precursor to Knockanore Mountain, namely Cnoc an Fhómhair “the hill of the harvest”, the name of a hill in Kerry.

Ard an tSeagail/Ardataggle “the height of the rye”

Date: 25/09/2023

Although not as common as eorna “barley” in townland names seagal “rye” also occurs more frequently than cruithneacht “wheat” in such names. Ard an tSeagail “the height of the rye” is behind anglicised Ardataggle in Laois and Clare. The placename Knockataggle/Cnoc an tSeagail “the hill of the rye” also refers to elevated ground, but in general seagal “rye” does not appear to occur nearly as often as eorna “barley” in placenames referring to hills or hillocks. In fact, we also have Pollataggle in Galway and Poulataggle which are both from Poll an tSeagail “the hole or pool of the rye”. Low ground is also implied in the name Srahataggle/Sraith na tSeagail “the river-meadow, holm of the rye” in Mayo. A number of townland names with seagal “rye” also refer to the fields in which it was grown, such as Cappataggle/Ceapaigh an tSeagail “the tillage field of the rye” in Galway, and Gortataggle/Gort an tSeagail “the field of the rye” in Leitrim. Ryefield in Cork is a translation of Gort an tSeagail, but Ryefield in Cavan is a translation of Achadh an tSeagail “the field of the rye”. However, one of the oddest townland names containing seagal “rye” is doubtless Ballyguileataggle in Limerick which is evidently from Baile Gaill an tSeagail “the town of Gall an tSeagail (i.e. of the foreigner of the rye)”.

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