Irish Place Names

Irish Place Names

The history and topography of a country are usually reflected in its place-names, as recorded in the languages of the people who have settled there, and this is certainly true of Ireland, both in the Republic and in Northern Ireland. Ireland's history begins with a rather misty, semi-legendary period dominated by the names of pagan and Christian chiefs, rulers and saints, and many of these appear in place-names throughout the land.

The country's later history involves first, the Anglo-Norman invasion begun by Richard de Clare ('Strongbow') in 1170 and second, the English and Scottish settlements ('Plantations') of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Here, the personal names are generally better documented, although local knowledge and research is often needed to determine, for example, who the Font of Fontstown was, or the Bennett of Bennettsbridge.

To judge by its place-names alone, whether they contain a personal name or not, Ireland is revealed as a land that contains (or contained, since many are now non-existent or in ruins) a wealth of churches, monasteries, abbeys and religious establishments on the one hand, and a formidable array of forts, castles, strongholds and defensive posts on the other. Place-names abound with words such as cill, mainistir, dun, caiseal, rath, and lios, denoting different types of religious and military settlements, and most such names have, in their other half, if not a personal name then a descriptive word or a topographical feature as a defining element.

Aughinish
County Clare, County Donegal
Irish: Each Inis
'horse island'
These places were probably named after favourite horse pastures. The Clare village is also known as Newquay.

Belfast
County Antrim
Irish: Béal Feirste
'(ford-) mouth of the sandbank'
The sandbank referred to is one which formed at the point where the little river Farset (taking its name from the Irish fearsad for sandbank) joined the River Lagan, a short distance from Queen's Bridge.

Giant's Causeway
County Antrim
Irish: Clochán an Aifir
The alternative Irish name for this famous landmark is Clochán na bhFórmorach, 'stepping stones of the Fomorians'. This refers to the legendary giant sea rovers whose causeway it was said to be. Another legend tells how Finn MacCool (Finn mac Cumaill) the great hero of Irish popular tradition, built a bridge across to Scotland from here to vanquish a Scottish rival.