Diciphering Irish Placenames
Quite often the names of places in Ireland have been only roughly translated from the Irish language, or the English name may be completely unrelated to the Irish one.
Main Image by Felix O
However most Irish sign posts as you enter a town or village will have both versions of the name displayed. The exception is in Irish speaking areas of the country, where only the Irish names appear.
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.
A look at some of the place names you are likely to encounter while touring Ireland will make sense of this.
Names beginning with Abbey-
Abbey (Mainistir) means Monastery or Abbey and indicates that the place you are in grew up around a monastic settlement.
- Abbeyfeale Mainistir na Féile
The Feale (Féile) is the name of a river, so this means “Abbey of the River Feale”.
- Abbeyshrule Mainistir Shruthla
Sruthla is an Irish word for ‘stream’, so the name means “Abbey of the stream”.
Names beginning with Ard-
Ard simply means ‘high’, so when you encounter a place with Ard at the start of the name you are probably standing on a hill!
- Ardagh Ardach
-ach means field, so “High Field”.
- Ardfert Ard Fhearta
The word Fearta means a burial place, often used in reference to a site of pre-christian burials, so the name means “High Burial Place”
Once you read on a bit you will find it easy to figure out names beginning or ending in -ard. For example Ardglás means ‘Green hill’, Clonard means ‘High pasture’. You can probably guess what -glas and Clon- mean from that.
Names beginning with Bally- or Ballina-
You’ll find these everywhere, and they can be the cause of much confusion because the Bally- or Ballina- can have one of three different origins:
- Baile – A town, place or field
- Baile na – Town, place or field of (very similar)
- Beal – Mouth, as of a river
While these are fairly distinct in Irish, by the time they’ve been translated into English things can get a little mixed up. It often requires local or historical knowledge to sort out the correct meaning. Obviously if there is no town or river mouth it helps narrow it down to a field or place, but even then a town could have built up later.
- Ballybunion Baile an Bhuinneanáigh
Bhuinneanáigh refers to Bunnion, a family name. So this is “The town (or place) of the Bunnions”
- Ballinahinch Baile na hInse
-inch or hInse means Island or River meadow, and the Irish prefix is Baile, not beal, so the name means “Town of the river meadow”
- Ballinasloe Béal Átha Sluaighe
Átha Sluaighe means, literally, ‘ford of the crowd’, so “Ford mouth of the crowds” There is indeed a river here to be forded and a famous and ancient annual fair take place here, which still draws huge crowds and presumably gave rise to the name.
Names beginning with Bun-
Bun means ‘foot or end’ often referring to the mouth of a river, though it may just mean beside a river. The location of the place is an obvious clue to the meaning.
- Bunratty Bun Raite
Raite or Ratty is the name of a river, but Bunratty is not at its mouth so we can take this to mean “Beside the Ratty”.
- Bunmahon Bun Machan
Again Machan or Mahon is the name of a river, which flows into the sea at this Waterford village, so in this case the name means “at the end of the Mahon”