What’s in a name

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Wexford-Wexford Town Night View

What’s In A Name?

Place names in Ireland can be very distinctive, and nearly any stereotypical depiction of an Irish village in television or film can be counted on to start with the prefix “Bally-”. The names of settlements and natural features in Ireland’s Ancient East can provide a fascinating window into their history.

Nearly all of Ireland’s villages, towns and cities have two official names; one in Irish, and one in English. Generally (but not always), the English version is a corruption of the Irish name, like Cork (Corcaigh), Meath (An Mhí) or Drogheda (Droichead Átha). In some cases, however, like Dublin (Baile Átha Clíath), Waterford (Port Lairge) or Wexford (Loch Garman), it’s clear that the Irish and English names don’t exactly match up!

Irish names are a hodgepodge of native, Viking and English naming conventions, and some of the island’s natural features like rivers or mountains still have names which pre-date even the arrival of the Celts, with their origins lost in the mists of time. Among the clues to the east’s Viking heritage are the names of Wicklow (Víkingalág – The Viking’s Meadow), Waterford (Veðrafjǫrðr – the Fjord of the Rams), Wexford (Veisafjǫrðr – The Muddy Fjord), and plenty more.

The most common component of Irish place names, “bally,” comes directly from the Irish “baile” meaning town, homestead or home. Other common prefixes include “dun” from “dún” (fortress); rath (another type of fortress); “cill” or “kil” from both “cill” and “coill” meaning “graveyard” or “forest”; “agh” or “ath” or even just “a-” from “ath,” meaning “ford”; “agha” from “achadh” meaning “field” or “meadow”; “clon” from “cluain” meaning “meadow” and “carrick” from “carraig”, meaning “rock”.

Very often, Irish names are simply descriptive. Glendalough, the astonishingly beautiful valley in Wicklow which was once home to St Kevin, is Gleann An Dá Locha; the valley with two lakes. Counties Meath and Westmeath – An Mhí and An Íarmhí – are “the middle” and “the western bit of the middle”. Cork comes from “Corcaigh” – “a marsh” – and the gorgeous west Cork village of Baltimore comes from “Baile An Tí Mór” — the town with the big house.

Some of the best known Irish placenames bring together more than one language: The provinces of Leinster and Munster (Cúige Laighin and Cúige Mumhan, in Irish), for instance, are each a portmanteau of the name of an Irish tribe and the Old Norse word “staðr,” meaning “place” or “dwelling”. That word is still familiar in English words like “homestead” and in the German word for city: Stadt. Leinster, then, is “the homeland of the Laigin tribe” and Munster is “the homeland of the Muman tribe”.

BOX: The Irish word for province is “cúige,” which literally means “one fifth”. Today, there are only four provinces in Ireland: Munster, Leinster, Ulster and Connacht. However, in antiquity there were indeed five: the fifth was called Midhe, “the middle”, and its name remains today in the names of counties Meath and Westmeath!

Dublin, the capital, is a special case. Originally a Viking city, its Irish name is distinctly different from the English version: Baile Átha Cliath, the official name in Irish, means “the townland of the ford of hurdles” but Dublin comes from “Dubh Linn” – black pool – named for a pool on the River Poddle, a tributary of the Liffey. Baile Átha Cliath and Dubh Linn were originally two settlements, and after they merged the two names came to be used interchangeably until Dublin eventually became the English name and Baile Átha Cliath the Irish.