Irish Placenames

These are guides on this site to help you figure out the meaning of a host of Irish place names. They’ll get you at least close to working out what many places mean, though it’s not in any sense a complete list.

Lists of Irish Place Names Online

There are many lists of Irish place names and their meanings online. The vast majority are taken verbatim from an 1870 book, Irish Local Names Explained, which is long out of print and free to view or download online. Hilariously, some sites demand that you sign up or even pay to have a look at the list they copied from this FREE, out of copyright book.

It is tremendous book  and a very important one, so if you want your very own copy follow the link to Google Books above and have at it – you can download it as a PDF from there. But I have several problems with the lists generated from it:

  • They, like the book, only deal with place names of Irish or Gaelic origin, pretty much ignoring those places whose names are Anglo-Norman or Norse or English.
  • Since 1880 a fair bit has happened. Ireland gained its freedom. We had a Place Names Commission. More historical research went on. By reproducing it rather than using it as a reference text, lists based on this book are by definition out of date.
  • Errors and omissions in the book have become their own ‘truths’, propagated over hundreds of sites and repeated many thousands of times.
  • MOST OF ALL: There is no attempt to break down the names and explain what they mean in a way that will let people see a name on a sign somewhere and be able to have a stab at deducing its meaning. That is what our pages aim to do.

Figuring out the real name

Quite often the names of places in Ireland have been only roughly translated from the Irish language and don’t at first seem to have much to tell us. If you can’t figure at least some of it out, look to the Irish version, which will always be more accurate even if harder for an non-Irish speaker to figure out.

Irish sign posts as you enter a town or village will have both versions of the name displayed.

Places with two names

There are occasions when you’ll find the English name of a place is completely unrelated to the Irish one. This mostly arises when an area was renamed by a landlord, who gave it an English name or, more commonly, named it after himself.

Although this renaming may have happened hundreds of years ago, the old Irish name persisted in the locality and the Irish version on the signpost will be the older name.

Prefix & Suffix

Most Irish place names are made up of two parts: a prefix (at the start) and a suffix (ending the name). Many start and end parts of Irish place names recur frequently in different names and knowing that allows you to make an educated guess at what any new name you encounter means.

For that reason we have organised these names by their beginning parts the various guides.

However a quick look at the origins of some common place name endings will help too.

Who ruled the place?

Very often the end of a place name is the name of either a saint or a chieftain, or at least someone who owned or ruled the locality. Since names have changed down the centuries and many people’s names were themselves descriptive, it isn’t always possible to know who the person was or to decide whether the name is actually referencing a person.

What was it like?

A suffix that describes the area is common, so if the place is high (-ard),  big (-more) , small (-beg) , in the middle (-lar) or has any other distinguishing feature, it might make its way into the name.

What grew there?

Often the crop or vegetation in an area contributes to its name. So -free at the end of a name can mean heather (fraoigh) and – airne means sloe berries.

Colours

If it’s a very fertile area, the name might end in -glas or green, if it’s dark and forbidding, it may end in -dubh or black. Though care is needed, because black can also mean sad or tragic, glas can mean bright or new.

Sometimes it’s a real puzzle!

While most names can be figured out, sometime the exact meaning requires without having an authority on the subject beside you can require a bit (or even a lot) of guesswork.

A good example of this is places that start with Kil- or Kill-, which are very common in Ireland. This prefix can either come from ‘coill’ meaning wood, or ‘chill’ meaning church, and there is really no way from the English name of deciding which is which. Often the suffix isn’t much good either – if it’s a name, was it a person’s wood or his church?

So, you just have to figure it out as best you can. These are the kind of puzzles that make deciphering Irish names so much fun!

 

 

 

 

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21 Comments

  1. Very interested to read the information on place names.  Can you help with the name    KNOCKERTOTAN   .

    Knock  seems to mean “hill”…which fits.      Any idea about the rest of it?          Its pronounced more like “Knocker-tot-yan”

    thanks

    Margaret T

    • Yes, Knock (or in Irish Cnoc) means hill.

      I’d guess that the Irish is Cnoc an dóiteáin, which would be close enough to the same pronounciation (I’d spell it phonetically as dote-yawn?). If so it means Hill of the Fire. I am certainly not sure about that, but it seems likely enough.

      Don’t know what kind of fire – it could be it was a location where ceremonial fires were once lit, or refer to something as banal as a stubble fire!

  2. can you help me with clones ? Its in monaghan and i have found this out :

    Clon or cloon

    A Gaelic word meaning a dry place. This name is much more common in Connaught than elsewhere in Ireland. This is because Connaught in wetter, so a dry and well-drained site was more valuable and well regarded. For example, Clonmel (county Tipperary), Clonmacnois (county Offaly), Clonfert (county Galway).

    Thank you (:

    The town’s name in Irish, Cluain Eois, means ‘Eos’s meadow’. However, it is also said that the ancient name was Cluan Innis, “the Island of Retreat,” it having formerly been nearly surrounded by water. more recently it was called Cloanish or Clounish.

    • Cluain, anglisiced as Clon- pretty much invariably refers to a meadow or pasture. Given that by definition this would be a well drained piece of land, I suppose it could be interpreted as meaning a dry place. Occasionally the Clon is from Clann, meaning family, as in Clonmahon (Clann Mathún) in Meath, which means ‘the place of the Mahon family’.

      I would not really think that the Island of Retreat version is likely, for several reasons:

      1. It’s a little whimsical and Irish names are really not often given to whimsy, they are practical and generally refer to a person or a geographical or architectural feature.

      2. Places named as Islands tend to have retained the -inis- or -ennis- in their names.

      3. The Irish for retreat is cúlaigh (verb) or cúl (noun), the latter also meaning a secluded place, neither of which would filter down as Clon. Eg Cultra (Cúl Tra) in Co Down means ‘secluded beach’

      4. Cluan Innis (or Cluain Innis) would be the Island Meadow – so we are back with geography. Even if the ‘retreat’ was assumed there, we’ed have Cúl Innis ‘the secluded island’ which would likely have ended up as Culinnis or Colinish or something like that, not Clones.

      It isn’t really the case that there are more Clon- or meadow names in the West, they really are very widely distributed and found in pretty much all counties. Monaghan, where there is plenty of wet and stony ground, would have valued good pasture land, just as they did in Offaly and Tipperary, neither of which are in Connaught – good pasture land was (and is) valued everywhere and not just in Ireland!

      Some other examples include Clone (Cluain, Meadow) in Wexford, Clonea (Cluain Fhia, Deer Meadow) in Waterford, Clonegall (Cluain na nGall, Meadow of the foreigners) in Carlow, Clonsilla (Cluain Saileach, Meadow of the willows) in Dublin, Clonoe (Cluain Eo, Meadow of the Yew) in Tyrone.

      You’ll find many instances in various counties of simple descriptive names for meadows: Clonmore (Cluain Mhór, the Big meadow), Clonbeg (Cluain Bheag, the Small Meadow), Clonard (Cluain Ard, the High Meadow) etc.

  3. I was wondering if there is a Gaelic version of “Bankhead”.  My paternal grandfather always claimed that Bankheads originated in Ireland–not Scotland (I have found the Bankheads in Counties Antrim and Donegal; sources usually state the Bankheads came from the Ayrshire, Scotland area).
    Since I have not found much on the Bankheads in Ireland, I was wondering if the Bankhead name had been Anglicized from Gaelic.
    Any information you might have would be greatly appreciated.
    Sincerely,
    Kent Bankhead

  4. Linda MacKenzie | October 31, 2010 at 8:40 pm

    I have 6 birth records that says:
    Sullivan, Timothy and Griffin, Bridget married and gave birth to 8 children in Castlecove, Lower Liss, Sneem, Kenmare, County Kerry, Ireland. Have records of 6 births between 1866 and 1880 (James, Julia, John L., Michael, Timothy, Mary, Patrick James, Bridget) The family immigrated to NY then Omaha in 1884-85. Would like to find parents and siblings of Tim born about 1840.
     I tried to find Timothy in the Griffiths Valuation of 1852 but he could be any where from 4 to 15. does it lisst children? What is the age range or is it only head of household?

    Is Lissyclearig Lower , Co Kerry short for Liss Lower or Lower Liss?
    Thank you Linda
    macbla1999@hotmail.com

    • Liss simply means ‘fort’ and there are many, many places in Ireland that have Lis or Liss in their name. I would think Lissyclearig is an entirely different place. Griffith valuation would not list children. Its purpose, as it’s name suggests, was to put value on land and property. It would only list names of landowners and their tenents, not of the tenent’s family.

  5. Hiya,

    Need help with the meaning of the placenames Charleville,Broadford and freemount. I have their Irish places names but want to know what they mean. They are Rath Luirc, Beal an Atha and Cillin an Chronain.

    Thanks.

    • Rath Luirc is ‘Lurc’s Fort’ – it is also sometimes simply called An Rath, which means ‘the fort’. Interesting name, because while the town is now officially called Rath Luirc, and that is what is on signs and maps, I have never heard anyone call it that and the English name Charleville is the one always used.

      Beal an Atha, is the ‘mouth of the ford’. Very close to the Irish for Dublin – Baile Átha Cliath, which means ‘the mouth of the ford of the sticks’.

      Cillin an Chronain has two possibilities. Cillin can mean ‘little church’ so it may be ‘Cronan’s little church’ – and there is an Irish saint called Cronan. However there would not usually be an ‘an’ in the name in that case. ‘An’ means ‘of the’ – and ‘Little church of the Cronan’ does not really make sense, you’d expect just Cillin Chronain.

      There is another, sadder, meaning for ‘cillin’. Right up to the 1960’s children who died at birth or before being baptised were not allowed by the Catholic church to be buried in the main graveyard, but were buried instead in unconsecrated ground. ‘Cillin’ was the word for a graveyard where unbaptised children were buried.

      If this is the meaning here, I am not really sure what the ‘an Chronain’ part means.

  6. Muckanaghederdauhaulia is a townland of just over 470 acres and located about 10km north of Rossaveel.
    It’s shown on the historic 6″ OSI map – http://maps.osi.ie/publicviewer/#V1,495361,732186,6,7

  7. Michael Donovan | June 22, 2012 at 6:40 pm

    Trying to find a church by the medieval name of Clanwanwyr or Clanwanir. Any ideas on the origin of this name would be greatly appreciated
    Regards Michael 

    • @Michael Clanwanwyr is definitely Welsh, not Irish, so start there!

    • Michael Donovan | August 4, 2013 at 2:43 pm

      Thanks Katherine
      The Irish name for the area is Clonedhadondobhair so Clanwanwyr may be a corruption of the name imposed by the Welsh Normans who populated the area. Saint Gynner (Gunner) is an Irish Saint who was worshiped in the area where the Normans originated from so they may have used that title for the church and parish for that location. Could you help with a translation of the Irish name, I’d be very grateful.
       

  8. Hi ,
     
    I am looking for the irish name of the place ‘Knocknaveagh’ .  It is in co Mayo.
     
    Many thanks Teresa.

  9. Lurose Williams | December 12, 2012 at 11:38 pm

    I would like to know more of the surname::  Bankhead….I thought they lived in Bankheed Scotland up until the movement of the Ulster Plantation.  Then moving to Ireland….thence on to America…

    My greatgrandfather was born in 1813 in Scotland…..I would appreciate help….

    thanks….Lurose…

  10. I would like to find the Gaelic spelling of these cities: Limerick, Killarney, and Tipperary. I have found some, but these have not shown up anywhere that I’ve been looking. Thanks, if you can help. 

    • Limerick: Luimneach (means ‘Bare Land’)
      Killarney: Cill Airne (Church of the Sloes)
      Tipperary: Tiobraid Árann (Well of the Arra)

  11. Trying to get the meaning of Shanahona, a small town in Killurin Parish in Co. Wexford. Thanks so much!
    Tom

  12. I would suspect it’s related to the Irish surname Shanahon, a variant of Shanahan, meaning from nearby the River Shannon. However, since the River is not in Wexford, it may be named after a founding person.

  13. michael walsh | January 8, 2014 at 3:11 am

    I`d be interested to know the meanings of these townlands please. Kilnagnady, Knockalibade, Lonart, Gortcam, Camalt and Tinnybeg.

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    [...] on, and consult our Guide to Deciphering Irish Place Names >> Related ArticlesOdd & Unusual Irish Place Names Some of these names sound strange, sometimes [...]

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