Clare County Library
Clare Places and Placenames
Home | Search Library Catalogue | Foto: Clare Photo Collection | Maps | Search this Website | Copyright Notice

The Importance of Placenames - Risteard UaCróinín MA, MIAI, MAACO

I have been asked to make a short presentation this morning on the importance of placenames. I do not consider myself an expert on the subject but I have taken a serious interest in it over the past 25 years. My presentation is not intended to be of any great academic content, I will leave this to our other distinguished speakers over the weekend. However, through the use of local anecdotal material I will endeavour to whet some appetites for the subject.

The first question to ask, of course, is why so many of us have gathered here in this historic part of North Clare for this weekend. Does this subject deserve the interest and resources being given it throughout all parts of the island at present? Does it justify the energy and commitment it seems to require? What value is it, and how will such study and research benefit our lives and those of future generations?

In an era where the flavour of the month appears to be "globalisation" our planet is shrinking. We are now influenced by events taking place many thousands of miles away. Our thinking, ethics and traditional values are changing rapidly. We are embracing foreign peoples, cultures, morals and ethics. Perhaps we are being enriched by this new expansion of communication and experience, but there is also a fear that we are losing much of what makes us unique. This, of course, can be said of any community in any part of the world. We could ask ourselves if the lives of Australian Aboriginal or Innuit of Northern Canada have been enriched in any way by globalisation. Is the teenager living in Macroom happier or better off than his ancestor of three generations past? We may have more materials but at what expense?

Ireland has always had a very vibrant culture enriched by unique sports, music, dancing, language, customs, literature, folklore and religion. Many of these elements of what makes us Irish, are alive, well and even developing. Unfortunately, much is also dying, being overtaken by stronger, less demanding external influences. There will always be elements of our culture that cannot be rescued or have no place in modern society. This has always been the case, but it is our duty to at least provide a record for future generations to appreciate. This is our duty as custodians of our heritage.

The placenames of Ireland are the reservoirs, which contain a great wealth of information on our past. Where no written record remains of past civilisation or the day-to-day events of ordinary people, much remains to be unlocked from information contained in the names of townlands, streets, rivers, fields and monuments.

They are the repositories of great volumes of information on our past. In the vast majority of cases they do not refer to cataclysmic events or important political personalities. They were named by ordinary hardworking people to record the day to day events or work practices which were the backbone of our society through many millennia. Placenames give us a huge insight into our social history, a history which, for the most part, was not considered sufficiently important to be recorded by professional historians. They are never influenced by revisionism or propaganda as official histories often are. For this reason, they are of the greatest significance, value and integrity.

A question often asked is – How old are our placenames? It appears that most date from the early middle ages i.e. about one thousand years ago. Many may be twice as old. A study of mediaeval manuscripts referring to deeds, wills and land ownership shows us that most of these placenames exist today even if in a corrupted or anglicised form. Many townland names are lost due to the political amalgamation of names during the 17th and 19th centuries although very often these old townland names remain in the memories of the present day inhabitants. It is interesting to note that of the 230 or so tower houses built in Co. Clare during the 15th and 16th centuries, very few influenced the names of the townlands in which they were constructed. They are for the most part today, known by the ancient name of the townland in which they stand. One would think that such an event as the building of a castle or towerhouse would have been of sufficient importance to influence a change of name, but no. This to me is an indication, not only of the antiquity but also of the robust respect given these names among ancient communities.

Coiste Logainmneacha an Chláir
In 2001 The County Clare Placenames Committee was established. It is made up of members from Clare County Council, Ennis and Kilrush Town Councils and representatives of locally, interested community groups and societies in the county.

It was adopted as a statutory body by Clare County Council in 2002 and has two basic aims:

  • To promote and encourage the recording and archiving of local placenames in Co. Clare
  • To propose suitable, appropriate names for new housing and commercial developments throughout the county.

This conference has come about in no small way through the efforts of this committee, which holds meetings once a month to discuss the above issues.

As a condition of planning permission for any large development in the county, the naming of the development must be agreed with the committee. Gaelic names for developments are encouraged, where appropriate, and such names should be based on local history, archaeology, personalities, topography, mythology, local events etc. We believe that the use of “Catalogue names” is inappropriate in either Gaelic or English and that in order to preserve a sense of identity, names should bear a relationship to the immediate area.

Such names as “Cedar Downs” or “Gloucester Mews” will no longer be permitted unless the applicant can give good reasons why such names are connected with the surrounding area. We would also, in the future, encourage the exclusive use of Gaelic names for towns, villages and townlands where the difference between the original Gaelic and modern anglicised names is minimal e.g. Leaba Sióda, Lios Dún Bhearna, Cill Mhichíl etc. The argument against this is often put “How will visitors manage?” We would reply by saying that they will manage as they do in Spain, Germany or France.

By the same token, however, we would discourage the exclusive use of Gaelic names for such towns as Newmarket-on-Fergus or Sixmilebridge where it can be clearly shown that such names have been in existence since the early 17th century and have more historical value than the old names which generally referred to the townlands in which these villages were subsequently built. It is always important that policies for placenames are based on common sense, good judgement, local knowledge and pragmatism.

Under the new “Clár” programme, which is being implemented by the Clare County Development Board, there is an initiative to erect stone plaques in each townland within the “Clár” area, which will display the name of the townland in both English and Gaelic. Although just scratching the surface of placenames research and publication, we nevertheless consider this to be a very positive move which will not only encourage a sense of pride of place among local communities but will ensure the survival of such names for generations to come. We are assisting the County Development Board, in conjunction with Comhairle na Logainmneacha, in research into the translations and meanings of such names and we would encourage community groups in those areas which are not within the “Clár” programme to undertake similar projects. Funding has been sought from The Heritage Council for a number of such projects.

Of course I should not conclude my presentation without making reference to those dedicated people who over the past millenium have researched and recorded our placenames in Co. Clare. From Eoghan MacGrath in the mid 14th century, the MacCruitíns, and McBrodys of the 16th and 17th centuries, Tomás Ó Liónáin in the 18th century, O’Donovan, O’Curry, Westropp, MacNamara and Frost in the 19th centuries and Joyce and the numerous scholars and researchers during the 20th century, many of whom have not been in a position to publish their works. To these people we offer our deepest gratitude and encourage those who have such notes and records in their homes to make copies available to the “Placenames Archive” in the Local Studies Centre of Clare County Library, before these valuable resources are lost or destroyed.

Unfortunately very little of these names are recorded. They remain in the memories of local people, most of whom are now reaching advanced years. As each generation passes more and more of this information is lost. To use a modern phrase, placenames are a “non-renewable resource”. If they are not collected now, they will be lost forever. If we are serious about recording this invaluable resource we should leave no stone unturned to carry out this work immediately. Every interested individual, community group, relevant academic body and state agency should make it their priority over the next three years to complete this work.

If we wait for state aid and resources, it will be too late. Now is the time. Better to have this record made poorly than not at all. Standards, resources, criteria will no doubt come in time but by the time these are put in place it may be too late. I would respectfully urge each interested individual and group to start work immediately in their own area with the help of our schools and senior citizens. If resources are needed we should encourage local businesses to provide the sponsorship. But as we all know this is a labour-intensive undertaking with little financial input required to do it well. This is a work not always best done by professionals. It is a labour of love and love is the most important skill and resource required.

The following examples of placenames can reveal how they contain much valuable information relating to a wide range of subjects.

  1. Gleann Scoithín, Tralee, Co. Kerry. (Mythology)
    Refers to the burial mound of Scota, Egyptian Princess of the Celtic invaders who died in battle c. 300 BC.
  2. Via Columbano.
    Refers to the track walked by St. Columbanus who left Ireland to convert Northern Italy.
  3. Gastallagh, Castletown, Burren. (Linguistics)
    Refers to the soldiers’ hall at Castletown in the 16th Century. (Gas/Gasra: Soldiers; Tallach: Hall – Scots Gaelic / Archaic Irish)
  4. Moanlefagan, Móin Leath Phingine. (Economy).
    The turf bank of a halfpenny annual rent.
  5. Gort na Turnips, Erinagh, Fountain. (Linguistics)
    It appears that turnips or swedes were intoduced by the Williamites to feed the army. There is no Gaelic word for turnip.
  6. Gort Coirce, Gortcurka, Dysert. (Farming Practice)
    This land is now wet and rushy and no longer suitable for growing of corn. It may indicate a warmer, drier climate in the past.
  7. Garrán na Cille, Market St, Ennis. (Archaeology)
    “The Church Garden”. This placename is the only remnant of a past ecclesiastical site in Ennis.
  8. Bóthar na Lice, Station Road, Ennis. (Topography)
    “The Flagstone Road”. Refers to a medieval paved road into Ennis.
  9. Clochán na nGabhar, Barrack St, Ennis. (Urban Feature)
    “The stony ford of the goats”. This indicates the location of the eastern branch of the Fergus, which made Ennis (Inis: an island).
  10. Áit Tí Sláine: Attyslany, Boston. (Personality Association)
    Indicates the location of the mediaeval house of Sláine, which was a common female first name among the O’Briens.
  11. Corca Baiscinn, West Clare (Past Civilisation)
    Translated as “The Land of the Basques”, it refers to a possible Basque settlement, which may in time be verified by science. (D.N.A. etc).
  12. Killaspuglonane, Liscannor. (Linguistic Corruption)
    Without the translation (Cill Easpag Fhlannáin: The Church of Bishop Flannan) this name is nonsense and much past knowledge is lost.
<< Clare Places and Placenames