In earlier centuries, the lore of places was an essential part of the Ireland’s Traditional education and was called Dinnseanchas. History has been described as “the depth of the present” and this sense is nowhere clearer than in Ireland where we live surrounded and immersed in the layers of our history and prehistory. Where historical records fail, we can look to a placenames in their original Irish.
A play written by Brian Friel, an Irish playwright, explored the history of place names in Ireland and the psychological consequences of a loss of connection with the landscape. The Down Survey (so called because it was written down) was carried out by English surveyor William Petty in the years 1655-56, place names in English were determined through approximate sound of their original Irish names. Corcaigh became “Cork”, Ciarraí or Ciar Ríocht “the people of Ciar”, became “Kerry” and so on.
We can also look to the original Irish names to find clues to local archaeological and geographical features. The Irish word for river is abhainn for example, thus you can find many rivers in Ireland called “Owen”, this is but one example.
In 2005, the Irish minister for Gaeltacht regions decreed that all road signs in Gaeltactht would be in Irish language alone. Thus you may visit Daingean Uí Chúis “The Fort of the Husseys”, also known as “Dingle”.
Other names bear a curiously exotic sound. You may pass through “Muff” in Co. Donegal, which comes from the Irish for plain or level ground “Magh”. It can add a depth to your adventures in Ireland to bear in mind that every place name can tell a story, or at least has meaning. English place names, in Ireland, are approximate sounds but have little meaning.
On rare occasions, Irish placenames have origins in Scandanavian language (Waterford for example (Vadderfjord from the Vikings and Vax Hlaup, “Leixlip” in Co. Kildare). You can be surprised by what you learn.
Www.logainm.ie is a useful resource online, funded by the Irish Government, where you can view the original Irish name for any place in Ireland and learn something of its meaning. Place names are an important starting point when we wish to learn more about a place ‘s history and geography. Some names speak of Ireland’s kings, saints and heroes of long ago.