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Of Gaelic Placenames and Enduring Inheritance - Frank Prendergast

One of the most heartening features in the study of Ireland’s 65,000 placenames is the increasing degree to which the most recent discoveries and scientific developments are re-inforcing the accuracy of our béaloideas or folklore.

The explosion in the discipline of genetics has been summarised by the relevant experts who tell us that the gene will be for twentyfirst century scientific knowledge what the micro-chip was to that of the twentieth. A relevant example is the recent study conducted by Mr. Dan Bradley, a lecturer in genetics at Trinity College, Dublin and Mr. Agnar Helgason, an Icelander studying at Oxford University, into the genetic make-up of the people of Iceland.

Their genetic analysis has shown that “a quarter of the men and half of the women among the founding population in Iceland in 800AD, were Gaelic in origin”, thereby confirming scientifically, the “whole body of lore in Iceland which involves their Irish ancestry”.

The team at T.C.D. have estimated that a common genetic marker was established in males in Ireland at least 6,200 years ago, long before the Celtic, Scots, English or Norman invasions. Their studies show that the Irish, with the Basques, are the last great repository for a group of genes that were common across Europe dating back to pre-neolithic times before the discovery of agriculture and the consequent dilution of populations. They have also concluded that “surnames are a real indication of ancient paternal origins” based on their study of Irish, Scots, English, Norman and Norse subjects. This follows from their analysis of the genetic make-up of the European population of 10,000 years ago. These ancient genetic markers are known as Haplogroups.

The dilution of the populations after the discovery of farming produced a HGL1 “gradient”. The maximum value on this gradient was found in Connacht (95.3%), Munster (94.6%), Ulster (81.1%) and Leinster (73.3%). The Basques have 89% while the figures fall to 50% in France, about 33% in Northern Italy and to just 1.8% in Turkey. This research presumably will have a resonance in placenames studies of that period and hopefully will at some stage deal with the pre-Celtic people who inhabited Ireland 7000 years ago, whose existence is being confirmed by archaeological finds on an increasingly regular basis. Amongst the best examples of these are the Keadue fields farming system in County Mayo and the finding five years ago by the “Discovery” team of archaeologists from the Office of Public Works of a boat 16 feet in length and a human skull, in the Shannon mudflats at Carrigadoarty, about 4 miles west of Limerick City. These have been carbon dated as being 6,800 years old, predating by thirty centuries the pyramids of Egypt.

The Irish language, as Minister for the Gaeltacht, Éamon Ó Cuív, reminds us, is the oldest written language in Europe still in vernacular use. As such, therefore, it has demonstrably been the vehicle for the preservation intact of all our ancient placenames. Monsignor Pádraig Ó Fiannachta, emeritus Professor of Irish Language Studies at Maynooth College, tells us that most of the words which have come down to us denote servile occupations for these earliest Irish settlers. Professor Donncha Ó Corrain of the N.U.I. Cork and a member of An Coimisiún Logainmneacha, informs us that these people - sometimes improperly referred to as the Cruthin - lived in areas the placenames of which contain a final element “RAÍ”, e.g. Ciarraí – the black haired people, Osraí – the people of the fawn or young deer, Beanntraí, Múscraí, Caonraí, Partraí etc. This “RAÍ” element indicates that they were the vassal people of the Celts, who were described by St. Adamhnán, the 6th Abbot of Íona as the “aitheachtuath” the subject people or the “seanchineál” – the ancient kindred.

Adamhnán was related to that Abbey’s founder, Saint Colmcille and the late Professor of Irish History at Carysfort College of Education, Séamus O’Neill, stated that when the Saint first went to Iona he had to bring with him from Derry one of these aitheachtuatha to translate his sermons from Irish into the language of the natives there. Presumably these primitive people here had some kind of personal naming system and also placenames in their everyday work on their land. An interesting example of this has been given by the Belfast attorney, Séamus De Napier, in his wonderful work on Gaelic influences on European places “Lorg na nGael”. In it he refers to the work of the Greek cartographer Ptolemy, who worked in the famous library at Alexandria in Egypt. Writing circa 150 A.D. he drew a map of Ireland based on information collected three hundred years earlier by another Greek traveller, Pythaeus of Massilia (Marseilles).

On this map he named several townlands such as Eblana (Dublin) and Regia for Limerick etc. He also named various tribes who lived here at that time and their patrimonies, viz, the Élí of Dúrlas Éile (Thurles) and of Éili Uí Fhógartaigh in County Tipperary; the Liatháiní (Lehanes) of Cork, the Fothairt of the Barony of Forth in County Wexford, the Corcu Cuirind of Sligo and the Auteini or Uaithni whose name survives in the Barony of ARRA and OWNEY in Tipperary and Owneybeg in County Limerick, near the site of the present-day celebrated Benedictine Abbey at Glenstal.

Now, if these people were identified with these places c.150 B.C. how long had they been resident there before becoming synonymous with their areas? Arguably it is not unreasonable to suppose that they must have been pre-Celtic people as the Celts had only arrived here around 350 years before that. Limerick County Council engineers and archaeologists have unearthed 5000-year-old artifacts in their recently-erected drainage and sewerage scheme at Castleconnell and have also discovered several prehistoric fulacht fias or cooking pits on the recently built road section of the N20 highway between Limerick City and Adare. So that these placenames of more than two thousand years ago are still in everyday usage in Ireland today.

The Norman Influence on Thomond’s Placenames
A thousand years later Prince John and his Norman Chief Justiciar or solicitor Myler Fitzhenry drove the Vikings out of Limerick City where they had lived for three centuries. They then divided their lands into 40 seisreachs (ploughlands), each with its own castle, and conferred these on the people of Limerick. Twenty-four of these seisreachs were based South of the Shannon and sixteen to the North. Of these sixteen, eight were in County Clare and were as follows: Cnoc an Lisín (Knockalisheen, Baile Uí Chanáin (Ballycannon), Ceapach an Tighe Mhóír (Cappantymore), Gleann na gCros – inexcusably anglicised as Glenagross by Limerick Corporation in one of their housing estates, Fadhbach (Fybo) to the North of Clonconnane, an Chreatshalach Mhaol, an Chreatshalach Chaol and an Chreatshalach Mhór – all relating to Cratloe and an Cuibhreann Buí.

In an inquisition by Limerick Corporation, four centuries later (1615) into its territories, they used these very same seisreach placenames which can be easily identified by reference to the Civil Survey (1654). They were described by the officials conducting the Inquisition as “having been held by Richard de Clare of Bunratty from the Kings of England as tenants of the Mayor and Corporation of Limerick”. They were all part of the ancient territory of Aos Cluana before the present system of county and barony names were established by the Norman barons and counts.

The O’Brien Legacy
Another Clare placename is that of Athlunkard, where the county meets Limerick City across the river Shannon, linked by the Athlunkard Bridge. The “ath” element in the name comes from the ancient title for the nearby ford – Áth Coille – the ford of the woods. In pre-historic times it was one of the three great fords in Ireland with Ath Luain (Athlone) and Ath Cliath (Dublin). The recent finding by the same “Discovery” team of a Viking harbour 500 yards downstream on the Clare bank of the river facing St. Thomas’s Island, gives us the clue to the “lunkard” element of the local placename. It derives from “longphort”, the Irish term for a fort or enclosure which originated with the arrival of the Vikings from the method they used to harbour their fleet. This find has been outlined in a descriptive article in “Archaeology Ireland” as being an exact replica of other Viking harbours in Ireland and England. The O’Brien dynasty who built the first bridge there, and also that at Killaloe in 1071 A.D., changed its original name in 1301 from Ath Coille to Ath Longphuirt – Athlunkard, a further example of scientific confirmation of our béaloideas or folklore.

The Abbey Fishermen’s Trove of Placenames
Placenames specialists in the Thomond region have a particular cause for gratitude to Limerick’s oldest guild – that of the fishermen of St. Francis Abbey. The members lived in the fourteenth century in the shadow of the Franciscan Abbey on the banks of the Gabhlóg (Abbey) river in the city’s oldest parish, St Mary’s. Their significance for us at this seminar is the deposit of placenames they preserved on both the Clare and Limerick Banks of the Shannon River from Coonagh to Clonlara. Some of these beautiful mellifluous names are so old as to defy the best efforts at translation by academics and scholars of An Coimisiún Logainmneacha – The Irish Placenames Commission.

Their ancient names for those parts of the river bank at either side of the Shannon Bridge were Leantaun and Tanainnaluinge. This was the area known as Lansdowne which was given to Sir William Petty in part payment for his conduct of the Civil Survey (1654). When it became fashionable for Limerick’s merchant classes to begin building their homes there in the eighteenth century, they named the streets in the area after Petty’s family who had adopted the title of Lord Lansdowne, and Claremaurice Avenue after his in-laws, the Fitzmaurices of Kerry. Shelbourne Road/Avenue/Gardens were all named for another titled member of the family – William Petty’s daughter, Baroness Shelbourne.

The priceless placenames of the Abbey Fishermen were forgotten there, but their other beautiful designations have survived up river, viz, Ard na Croise, Parteen, Drominane, Coalahass, Shangour etc. To their eternal credit the local builders, members of the Construction Industry Federation, are increasingly using these ancient names for their new housing estates in co-operation with the local authorities, in accordance with government policy that all new roads, estates, etc should reflect the local history, heritage or tradition of the area. This imaginative stipulation should enhance and preserve for future generations our ancient priceless placenames heritage.
Our inexpressible gratitude is due to all those individuals and organisations whose dedication down the years to this aspect of our culture has made this possible. Gura fada buan iad.

De Napier, Séamus. ‘Lorg na nGael.’ Coiscéim.
Lysaght, William. ‘The Abbey Fishermen.’
Mac Spealáin, ‘Gearóid. Stair Aos Trí Muíghe.’ Oifig an tSoláthair.
Mac Spealáin, ‘Gearóid. Uí Cairbre Aodhbha.’ Oifig an tSoláthair.
Ó Maolfabhail, Art (Eag.). ‘The Placenames of Ireland in the Third Millennium.’ An Coimisiún Logainmneacha.
‘An t-Eolaí,’ Earrach 2002. An Gúm.
‘The Irish Times’. 2nd October 2000. 28th October 2000.

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