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Diciphering Irish Placenames

Roadsigns by Irish Typepad

Roadsigns by Irish Typepad

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:

  1. Baile – A town, place or field
  2. Baile na – Town, place or field of (very similar)
  3. 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”
 

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What Others Say

  1. Pingback: Irish Place Names

  2. Margaret T Feb 4, 2009 at 7:53 pm

    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

    • Katherine Feb 4, 2009 at 8:04 pm

      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!

  3. moy Mar 17, 2010 at 11:36 am

    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.

    • Katherine Mar 17, 2010 at 1:59 pm

      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.

  4. Kent Bankhead Oct 14, 2010 at 12:02 am

    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

  5. Linda MacKenzie Oct 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

    • Katherine Nov 11, 2010 at 9:32 pm

      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.

  6. dearbhail Dec 4, 2010 at 5:50 pm

    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.

    • admin Dec 10, 2010 at 8:50 am

      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.

  7. Shane Apr 27, 2011 at 3:25 pm

    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

  8. Michael Donovan Jun 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 

    • Katherine Jan 23, 2013 at 7:50 pm

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

      • Michael Donovan Aug 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.
         

  9. Teresa Aug 29, 2012 at 1:35 pm

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

    • Katherine Feb 10, 2013 at 11:17 am

      Cnoc na bhFiach (Hill of the ravens)

  10. Lurose Williams Dec 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…

  11. Marcia Feb 7, 2013 at 2:05 am

    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. 

    • Katherine Feb 10, 2013 at 11:11 am

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

  12. Tom Mar 19, 2013 at 7:21 pm

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

  13. Catherine Aug 10, 2013 at 5:30 am

    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.

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