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Placenames: A Witness to Evolution - Dr. Hugh Weir

Inseparable from history, placenames are a witness to evolution. In our own case, as with so many other nations, we can read each successive wave of conquerors, of planters, of settlers, or in more recent years, immigrant entrepreneurs, workers or refugees, in the names they have given, or have been responsible for, not only of towns and villages but, again more recently still, their houses and properties. Hence, near Ballyvaughan we have Ballyalaban (I use the commonly used anglicized spellings), the township of people of Albany, present-day Scotland, and Crocán na Spáinneach, probably "the little hill of the Spaniard", although the last word could be disputed as the "spud", for potatoes were sometimes called Spaniards in deference perhaps to the Spanish conquering of South America. We can also read how returning emigrant families have left their mark on the world such as in St. Columba's Road after the saint, or the J.F. Kennedy Memorial Park.

I suppose to get to an overall picture of how our placenames have come about, we could take an example from the early New Englanders in the United States - or plain common sense, for we have little if any Irish written records undertaken prior to the centuries following the birth of Christ, even in the Ogham alphabet. Settlers named useful features or landmarks and people associated with them.

We are lucky in that Julius Caesar and his contemporary Romans, who had invaded Great Britain fifty-five years before Jesus Christ, did have a name for Ireland, the still extant Latin "Hibernia". Some claim kinship of this name to the Latin hiber as in hibernated but I'm more inclined to link Hibernia with Iberia as in the Iberian or Spanish peninsular and the Iberian tribe of whom the legendary King Milesius or Miletus, the military one, produced a son Heber. It has only recently been genetically verified that the basic population of south west Clare's Corcabascin is, in fact, descended from the Basques, those excitable people who straddle the Spanish and French westernmost border. But we are talking here of pre-history.

In historical terms, we are blessed with the work and writings of geographers Marinus of Tyre and Philemon, and their successor Ptolemy, through whom we can map close on fifty places he names. It is incredible that the latter, Claudius Ptolemaeus, working from the remarkable Alexandrian library on the Mediterranean coast of Egypt around 150 A.D., was able to describe pretty accurately a large wild offshore island surrounded by stormy seas; this was probably a result of the records and reports of returning Phoenicician, Genoese and other sailors. . . . or is it so incredible? The Phoenicians, the Romans too, were remarkable in that they travelled the Mediterranean, Black, North and Irish seas, and the Atlantic. Only a few centuries later, they were conveying amphora containing wine for the Christian Eucharist and oil for anointing to Ireland from as far away as Turkey, as has been recently proved by modern dating methods. The first- century gold broighter boat found in Co. Derry's Lough Foyle, with its eight seats and oars on each side and its mast, indicated that they were capable of such trade. So what did those sailors record? Estuaries, rivers, and major townships. They also recorded various tribes such as the Velabri, Brigantes, Manapi and the Eblani just north of Dublin. But these were the big names.

Gradually, there is little doubt that settlement names evolved through their initial bases of topographical features, religious buildings and saints' personal names. Hence we have the early placenames like Ceann Cora "the head weir"; Gort (Inse Guaire) "the field on (King) Guaire's island"; Dáire Bhriain, (Derry Brian) "Brian's sacred oak" or Ballymoon, Baile Mudhain, "Modenstown". Such names as Inch, Inver, Meelick, Kilty or Owen, from Abhan, a river - co-incidentally similar to the Welsh and English Avons - in themselves surely date from pre-Saxon times. Most likely after the Celts had settled in Ireland, we have names not unlike those of Brittany, Wales, Cornwall and East Scotland, of the Picts, such as Lios-na-gcoininidhe, Lisnagoneeny, the fortalice of the little rabbit warren, or Fermanagh, the Manapian men - the fierce Manapii being that tribe of or with the Fir Bolg which, due to their stronghold at present day Cassels near Calais being surrounded by marsh, Julius Caesar was unable to conquer. Little doubt, they followed the rest of those from what is now Belgium who settled in North Wexford or South Wicklow two millennia ago. Then we have the influence of the Christian church. Early Christians may have incorporated such words as Tober as they adapted pagan wells for baptism, but they introduced new words from the Latin used within their circle. Caher (a seat) from cathedra, Cashel (from Castillium), Pallas (palatium) for instance, superceded Lios or Dún. But don't forget places further afield in other countries with similar nomenclature, such as Dunstable or Dunkirk. I am often struck by the similarity of even Northern French placenames with ours in Ireland; that is those in use pre the Norman invasions.

The bulk of the Irish landmass had such placenames as the aforementioned until the Normans arrived. Even so, in coastal areas, further new nomenclature was being introduced during the first millennium. Scandinavian adventurers established colonies along our coasts and so we have, and it has stuck, Wicklow, Smerwick (Viking or Wiking places) perhaps Limerwick, and Carlingford, Waterford, Wexford (settlements on inlets known at home as fiords. Parteen-a-lax near Limerick is interesting as, like many other sites, it possibly incorporates two language imputs, Pairteen (the little port) na Lax (of the salmon) or the salmon weir, language also still used in Scandinavia. Through these people we have also the less direct Ballymacauley (Baile mac Olaf), the village of King Olaf’s son.

So, we have basically pre Celtic, P. Celtic, Q. Celtic and Scandinavian, with a later imput of Latin, making up our Irish hotch potch of early placenames. To the uninitiated, they are all similarly sourced. It is, I believe, important that we all understand these, and the other interpretations I am about to introduce and about which we will learn so much more during this conference, so that we can identify and more correctly use this important aspect of our tradition. I think it is great that our two organisations concerned with the historicity, tradition and use of Irish placenames have come together to give us a taste of what is, in fact, a most complex study. It is also encouraging that Clare County Council and such voluntary historians as Clare Archaeological and Historical Society members have worked so well together. It seems, too, that successive inputters to the placenames’ scene have also bonded so that it is often difficult to distinguish the variety of backgrounds from whence they have come.

It is amusing that one of the world's most ancient standing constructions, older that the Egyptian's pyramids, should be given a basically Norman twelfth century name, New Grange - "the new millers territory". New Castle, Aglish (so similar to the modern French word for a church, eglise), Abbey (from the Franciscans and other religious orders), Motte such as in Ballymote (from the "Christmas pudding-like" earthen defences the Normans hastily built before they could complete their stone fortifications) and Castletown Roche (after a family, probably Welsh, from a rocky fortress in Pembrokeshire) are Norman in origin, or rather Scandinavian. Like the Dublin Vikings or the Limerick Danes, the Normans or Norsemen had sailed south and set up colonies, one of which was in the North of France. So they were cousins, often with a similar nomenclature for the places they established, of the Irish Scandinavians. Norman settlements were also given new names by the earlier Irish, such as the people of Galway, or Gallstown in Co. Meath. Their early, basically French, language intermingled with the earlier Gaelic tongues for several hundred years.

Dangain in Co. Offaly, we may be reminded was, at one time, named for a Spanish king. As Philipstown in King's County it was called after Philipe Segundo, married to Queen Mary of England (Maryboro was named after her, now Port Laois). This area, of course is close by the O'Moore country which, like west Cork, was settled by Queen Elizabeth I. The next major imput of placenames was, (although under English domination from Henry II's time in 1169, Anglo-Saxon words slipped in) when these planters partly imposed their version of English on placenames such as court as in Bowen's Court, or Courtmacsherry, or Drake's Pool, Union Hall and Crosshaven. Incidentally, in East Clare and East Galway, the word "court" as in "Midnight Court" has a double meaning or identification. The Burkes, Norman de Burghs from the Burgh or borough of Caen in France, gave their name to many “Burke’s Courts”. Reputedly they were prolific in their production of illegitimate offspring and so, having courted some unsuspecting girl out of wedlock, would settle their offspring on a section of their property which now also bears the connotation "court", a residence of significance. Elizabeth's successor to the English throne was, of course, King James VI of Scotland who became England's James I. It was he who was responsible, in the seventeenth century, for the Plantation of Ulster. Another wave of new names was introduced, so we have Scotstown in Co. Monaghan, Craig Hall, Kirkstown, Aldergrove, Draperstown, Mount Hamilton and the added prefix for Derry of London, settled by London Guildsmen.

Come the 1640s and bang! Oliver Cromwell appears on the scene and so, although the northern planters built new villages and lineated new field and other scapes which they named mainly out of convenience, the Cromwellian plantation was of English military officers and men promised lands in return for, mainly, military service. Many were from humble backgrounds, so were delighted to be able to name their properties, big houses, estate villages or whatever, after themselves. So we have Willmount, Castle Otway or Ludlow Park. I suppose the question for us must be do we keep these names, and those given by the Normans, Elizabethans and others assimilated into modern Ireland, or do we encourage reversion to the more ancient placenames. I think that we must bear in mind that Gaelic nomenclature is a conglomerate in itself, and that we should recall that such names as the latter are equally a part of history. Charleville recently reverted from Rathluirc and Navan from An Uaimh, for instance.

Following the Cromwellians we had the Huguenots who gave us d'Olier Street in Dublin and Frenchurch Street in Cork. The Quakers gave us Quakerstown and the Palatines, some of whom settled around Adare, being mainly smallholders, gave us so many interesting field names. In East Clare, the German constructors of the Shannon Scheme in the 1920s, and all over Ireland, those who have come from America, England or wherever, have often left their mark, especially as owners of property. There are also the stray names such as Wellington Lodge after that great Co. Meath general in the English Service, Bunker's Hill commemorating the American Civil War battle, or New Birmingham - not after the Norman de Berminghams of Galway, but rather for those settled from the English coal-mining district to extract coal from the Irish mines near Urlingford.

As with the surnames of people, we in Ireland should find it comparably easy to differentiate the origins of placenames. They are indeed a witness of our evolution as a present-day state, and very much part of our history. God forbid, but I suppose also, such names as that given to a near-Limerick pub, Wuthering Heights, not from the book, but rather from the film, or Mallorca Drive because the person who named the property had just returned from a good holiday, should be considered; but they really are so superficial and unworthy of a wonderful and rich heritage, usually indicative of real features or real people who, even at different times, have settled within our shores.
These few words are merely a taste of what is ahead. They may not, indeed - like pretty well all placenames study - be one hundred percent accurate, but I hope they will set us all thinking, and help to inspire a perpetuation of our valuable tradition and heritage.

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