From Vikings to mispronunciations, how Irish places were named


While nature and the Irish language have influenced our place names, we can also thank the Vikings, the Brits and even mispronunciations for providing names in our towns, villages and townlands. Cathy Scuffil, historian in residence with Dublin City Council, and linguist and folklorist Robbie Sinnott joined the Today With Claire Byrne show on RTÉ Radio 1 to discuss it. (This piece includes excerpts from the conversation that have been edited for length and clarity – you can hear the discussion in its entirety above).

One of the most common words associated with Irish place names is ‘Bally’. “It’s definitely an Irish word,” Sinnott says, “maybe coming from baile, the center of a place, but it’s definitely a farm. Any place that begins with the name Bally hasn’t been named before the 12th century, so it just coincided with when the Normans were coming to town, so to speak.

“You have the likes of Ballymoney in Antrim, Ballybay in Monaghan. Ballybunion in Kerry, Ballygar in Galway. Ballymore is very common, Ballygar being a smaller Bally and Ballymore being a bigger one.”

Some of the capital’s names date back to the arrival of 100,000 Huguenots from France to Ireland in the 1600s. “We have great examples in Dublin of how Dubliners don’t speak French very well,” says Scuffil . “Everyone who comes to Ireland leaves something of themselves behind, and the Huguenots, who spoke French, were no different.

“In Dublin we have this wonderful way, Bone to marrow pathway, and it conjures up all sorts of images of butcher shops and meat production and the like. But it has absolutely nothing to do with that and everything to do with the Huguenots. Marrowbone Lane should be Marylebone Lane, but Marylebone in Dublin just became Marrowbone and it’s still Marrowbone today.”

It’s not the only place in Dublin that owes its name to the fact that Dubliners don’t speak French. “There is an alley in the Tenters called cow parlor and it has nothing to do with milking parlors or cows, but everything to do with that French again.” said Scuffil. “It’s the French word cutter or hemmers, a trade within the weaving industry. Coupeur became Cow-parlor and we still have a cowhouse today.”

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De Mooney Goes Wild from RTÉ Radio 1, Breanndán Ó Beaglaoich on place names inspired by Irish wildlife

Sinnott explains that three of Ireland’s four provinces are named after our Norse invaders from many moons ago. “Mumhan is Irish for Munster, but the Norse changed it to moons terr, the land of Moon. Laighean is Irish for Leinster, so they changed to Lionster and Leinster, the land of the lion. Uladh is Irish for Ulster, so they changed it to Ulaster, which is the land of Ulas.Wherever there is “ford”, there are Norse names, which means from the northern coast.

Adds Scuffil, “The Norse word for an island is IEY or AY, so we have Lambay, AY, which means Isle of the Lamb. We have Dalkey, EY, which means Isle of Tarney. My favorite is Ireland’s Eye, the one at wide of Howth, and Howth comes from the Norse word for a promontory.These words that the Norse left behind, so we use them every day and we don’t realize we do.

Then there are the British names. “Every time you say Portobello, we commemorate the great battle of panama“, says Scuffil. “It was led by Admiral Vernon and we have Vernon Street in Portobello. We have lots of roads like Trafalgar Road, Northumberland Road and Prince of Wales Terrace which all celebrate great events in British history. Of course, we were part of British history then, and they are still reflected in our place names today.”

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From RTÉ Radio 1’s Today with Claire Byrne, Cathy Scuffil and Robbie Sinnott on the role of the Irish language in place names

The Easter Rising also naturally played a role in the naming of places and locations. Scuffil indicates how each of the Ballymun Towers in Dublin was named after the signatories of the proclamation, but there are also less obvious examples. “There’s a little estate near Rialto and there are a number of roads in that area called Culberts Fort, Clarks Terrace and Mallin Avenue, which commemorates everyone involved in the rise of Mallin, of course, being Michael Mallin.

“If we move just across from James Hospital, for example, there’s a beautiful estate tucked away in the hospital complex, and it’s called Ceannt Fort after Eamonn Ceannt. Every road in this area is named after a volunteer who lost his life in the South Dublin Union, like James was at the time during the 1916 uprising, so it’s definitely worth digging and to discover these.”

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