The power of placenames

At a time when we are grappling with issues around sustainability, climate change and Brexit, our connection with places takes on new significance. Máiréad Ní Loingsigh explores how placenames can serve as anchors to our physical, social and cultural environments

12 Dec 2019

Placenames are difficult to avoid – we can’t go far without them. At the most fundamental level we use them to find our way in the world – they enable us to interpret maps, to follow road signs and to use public transport. Clearly they are important geographical identifiers, but they do a lot more than just identify locations – along with our personal names and surnames they not only connect us with our place of residence or home, but are a key component of our sense of place. When we explore the content of Irish placenames we encounter detailed descriptions of landscape and clues about archaeology, folklore and mythology. We frequently discover highly imaginative use of vocabulary, including metaphorical references to body parts to describe topographical features.

In our daily lives we regularly encounter placenames in the context of sport, as the names of many sports clubs contain placenames, for example Ringmahon Rangers (a Cork soccer club), or Listowel Emmets (a Kerry GAA club), and we often find that the mere mention of a particular placename can induce a strong emotional reaction, negative or positive, from a devoted club supporter. Sport, particularly rugby and soccer, has also made us familiar with the names of towns and cities in Europe and beyond. Placenames such as Manchester, Munich, Toulouse and Toulon trip off young tongues and are in many instances more familiar to young sports fans than the names of places closer to home.

When we explore the content of Irish placenames we encounter detailed descriptions of landscape and clues about archaeology, folklore and mythology.’

We come across placenames in the education and health systems where we find them imbedded in the names of schools and hospitals, sometimes in their official names and sometimes when the official name of the school or hospital is replaced colloquially by the name of the local town or village. In this way placenames can become synonymous with certain institutions, sometimes with very negative connotations, for example institutions such as Daingean (St. Conleth’s Reformatory School for Boys, Daingean, Co. Offaly) or Tuam (Bons Secours Mother and Baby Home, Tuam, Co. Galway). In County Kerry, the placename Killarney was synonymous in the past with the stigma of mental illness. Being ‘in Killarney’ was a clear reference to being a patient of St. Finan’s Hospital, the large, mid-nineteenth century psychiatric hospital that at one time housed more than a thousand patients and employed huge numbers of staff. Other towns and cities had their own ‘Killarney’ or their own ‘Daingean’ and these infamous placenames had social meaning for the community, which was far deeper than their linguistic meaning.

Delving into the linguistic meaning of Irish-language placenames is an enriching process. It teaches us about the landscape, describing the different types of hills and mountains in the words cnoc, sliabh, cruach and binn. Streams, rivers and lakes are pointed to in words such as sruth, sruthán, abha and glaise. Fields can be complicated – we have páirc, gort, garraí, inse and móinéar – all indicating seemingly subtle but undoubtedly important differences.

The importance of trees in the Irish landscape is clear from the number of references to trees in the placenames of Ireland. Names of individual species – dair (contained in the name Cill Dara/Kildare and Áth Dara/Adare), beith (in Gleann Beithe and Cill Bheithne), eo (Eochaill/Youghal), iúr (Tír an Iúir/Terenure) among numerous others. In addidtion we have words that describe woods of different types – doire, ros, garrán, gaortha, scairt and muine.

As well as the many elements in Irish placenames that refer to the physical landscape we find many words that point to human settlement, such as words for forts like dún, ráth, lios, cathair and caiseal. The impact of Christianity is recorded in the many references to ecclesiastical foundations including cill, domhnach, mainistir, teampall, eaglais and díseart.

Interpreting the linguistic meaning and background of Irish placenames is complex, not least because of the fact the most of Ireland’s placenames have come down to us in anglicised form rather than their original Irish-language form. These anglicised forms are essentially the phonetic representations of Irish-language placenames as they were heard and transcribed by staff of the Ordnance Survey of Ireland in the nineteenth century. Words like ‘corruption’ and ‘bastardisation’ have often been used in describing these forms of Irish placenames, but it is very important to recognise that were it not for the efforts of the British authorities to collect and map the placenames of Ireland during the course of the Ordnance Survey, we are unlikely to have such a valuable resource as the vast amount of placename material produced by the Survey. We were fortunate too that post-Independence governments saw fit to establish and sustain a Placenames Commission, and later the Placenames Branch, to research both the Irish-language and English-language forms of these placenames.

'Urban placenames are not used to sell food products. Clearly, images of congested, polluted urban spaces are not deemed attractive to consumers.'

Placenames can be powerful. They can rouse emotions such as pride or loneliness or they can remind us of disturbing events (Granard, Abbeylara and Goldenbridge come to mind). The mangled Irish-language forms of placenames which occasionally appear on Irish road signs can amuse or enrage Irish speakers. The English-language forms of placenames can make us laugh (Nobber, The Paps, Effin, Moll’s Gap). We seek to find the longest Irish placename or the shortest Irish placename or the rudest Irish placename. New members of An Garda Síochána are sometimes described as being ‘straight out of Templemore’, a reference to the location of the Garda Training College in County Tipperary. Placenames can demonstrate socio-economic division, particularly in towns and cities where certain addresses are associated with affluence and others are synonymous with social disadvantage.

A quick look around a supermarket might help to demonstrate the power of placenames to convey messages. The names of many food products contain placenames, particularly dairy products (Kerry, Charleville, Kilmeadan, Dubliner), and bottled water (Ballygowan, Tipperary, Evian). The general message here is that these are unspoilt, clean, rural places and that the products that bear their names are likely to benefit our health and general well-being. Urban placenames are not used to sell food products. Clearly, images of congested, polluted urban spaces are not deemed attractive to consumers.

Placenames, it seems, can stir our emotions and can contribute to our sense of landscape, place and community; they can also divide us by marking borders, both physical and social. As we grapple with issues around sustainability, climate change and Brexit, we may find ourselves reflecting on our sense of place and our placenames in order to anchor ourselves to our physical, social and cultural environments.

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