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Researching the placenames of Co. Clare: Methodology, Sources, and Restoration - Dr. Pádraig Ó Cearbhaill

Clare Placenames in the Irish Language

I now wish to turn to some of the more traditional names of the county. Clare itself as the name of the county is no older than 1574, when (and I quote from Calendar of the Carew Manuscripts, 1601-3) ‘Thomond in the one county to be named the county of Clare... containeth whole Thomond’ (Brewer & Bullen, 1870, 471-2). It is of interest that Thomond was not chosen as the name of the county. This was due to the importance of the castle and town of Clare at the time: ‘This countie beareth the name of the Castle of Clare belonging to the Earle of Thomond’ we are informed in The Description of Ireland in 1598 (Hogan, 1878, 124). One can gauge an idea of its importance from references such as that found in Annála Ríoghachta Éireann or the Annals of the Four Masters in the year 1558 to Clonroad, Bunratty and ‘An Clár Mór’ as chief towns of the country [of Thomond]: ‘Cluain Ramhfoda, Bunraite agus An Clár Mór puirt oireachais na tíre’ (O'Donovan, 1856 V 1562).

There are early references to a ford called Áth Dá Charadh: for instance the boundaries of Corca Bhaiscinn are described in the The Book of Lecan manuscript as ‘ota Lem Chonculaind co lar Atha da Chara’. In the Book of Ballymote version of the same text this becomes ‘Clar Atha Dachara’, and in another manuscript (TCD H.3.17) we are informed that ‘Ath Deachara’ is the place where 'the River Fergus meets the sea' (see Ó Riain, Ó Murchadha, Murray, 2003, 126). Áth Dá Charadh means ‘the ford of two weirs’. From its description and location, the ford may well have been at the present bridge of Clarecastle where the tidal River Fergus divides into two streams. The short vowels o and a often interchange in Irish. Consequently, other examples of the same word for weir in the placenames of Co. Clare are Ceann Cora (or Coradh), the famous O’Brien stronghold at Killaloe, Gort na Cora in the Parish of Killadysert, meaning ‘the field of the weir’, Corravorrin on the north-eastern side of Ennis where a bridge spans the Fergus—the latter possibly means ‘the weir of Bairr(fh)ionn’—Cora Finne, meaning ‘white ford’, if finne is the petrified feminine, genitive, singular of the adjective fionn (i.e. ‘of the white ford’ originally), or 'ford of brightness', if finne is an abstract noun.

The earliest contemporary reference to Clare as a placename is a Latin entry recorded in the Annals of Inisfallen in the year 1314, ‘Donnchad Ó Briain took a great prey from the enemy beyond Clár’ (Mac Airt, 1951, 417; translated by the editor). The Augustinian abbey of SS. Peter and Paul is referred to as Mainistir an Chláir in the Caithréim, or 'triumph', of Toirdhealbhach which deals with the political and military turmoil in Thomond in the latter half of the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries and which was probably composed in the mid-fourteenth century. There are two possible explanations of Clár in this instance. One was recorded by Eugene Curry in the Ordnance Survey Letters of 1839, ‘The name of this Parish (Clareabbey) as well as the county, is popularly believed, and I think with good reason, from a board or plank, which was placed across the River Fergus at this place…before a bridge had been built there’ (O’Flanagan, 1928, II 44/113). The second meaning was given by John O’Donovan, another of the Irish scholars employed by the Ordnance Survey at the time, who translated Clár as ‘plain’ in his edition of the Annals of the Four Masters. This seems more plausible, given that the land is remarkably flat in this area. The latter meaning is common in placenames, such as Clár Chlainne Mhuiris / Claremorris in Co. Mayo for instance. The diminutive form, Cláirín / Claureen, is the name of a townland by the River Fergus on the north-western side of Ennis.

I would like to say a little more about the placename Thomond, which is derived from Tuadhmhumha, literally ‘North Munster’. I wish to draw your attention to its pronunciation in Modern Irish. In the poetry of Aindrias Mac Cruitín for instance, Tuamhain rhymes with uaigh, buad[h] (Ó Luaighnigh, 1935, 3) and equally in Cúirt an Mheon Oíche Tuamhain has been reduced to one syllable (Ó Murchú, 1982, 22 etc.). This is as a result of a regular phonetic change to the sounds of southern Irish dialects, whereby medial -bh-, -mh- when not followed by a long vowel was lost. Another such example is Muiriúch Cille, Tuaithe, or Murrooghkilly, -toohy in English, near Blackhead, which is a dialectal realisation of Murbhach meaning a level stretch of land by the sea-coast. A short vowel preceding the lost consonant is lengthened (or becomes a diphthong), as is illustrated by the following placenames: Toonagh or Tamhnach in the parish of Clooney, meaning ‘a grassy or arable patch of land’ and recorded in 1839 as Túnach in the Ordnance Survey parish namebook, and also Pollagoona or Poll an Ghamhna in North Eastern Clare, ‘the hole of the calf’.

The same phonetic change is, I believe, evident in the placename Clonroad, one of the important strongholds of the O’Briens, which was reputedly built in the early thirteenth century by Donnchadh Cairbreach Ó Briain according to Caithréim Thoirdhealbhaigh (= Cluain Rámfada O’Grady, 1929, 2). The same placename is recorded in the Annals of Inisfallen and in the Annals known as Mac Carthaigh’s Book under the year 1311, as Cluain Ramada and Cluain Ramfada respectively. In the accompanying translation of the text, the first example has been standardised by its editior as Cluain Rámfhata (Mac Airt, 1951, 407) the second example has been standardised as Cluain Rámhfhada (Ó hInnse, 1947, 109). As lenited f, (i.e. –fhada), is not pronounced in Irish, there would be no difference in pronunciation between Rámhada and Rámhfhada. Later evidence of the placename, such as that provided by various English documents, shows that the medial consonant -mh- of the second element was no longer pronounced by the latter half of the sixteenth century at the latest, e.g. Clonrawde in a list of castles compiled about 1580 (see Ó hÓgáin, 1938, 120).

It is generally assumed that Cluain Rámhfhada is the correct form of the name, and it is explained as ‘long rowing’ (Joyce, 1869, 442). If this interpretation is correct, *rámh-fhada must be regarded as a compound word with initial stress, in order to explain the later historic forms of the name, Cluain Ráda, Rúda, Ród(a) as discussed in the next paragraph. Another possible explanation is to assume that the noun rámhad is the underlying second element. This word has two meanings in Early Irish law texts, ‘a cleared area in front of a king’s fortress’, or ‘a road’ (Kelly, 1997, 543-4). It is probable that the same word occurs in the following obsolete placename found in the Books of Survey and Distribution for Co. Clare, Donroade (Simington, Mac Giolla Choille, 1967 526). This dún was located, seemingly, within the modern townland of Cregmoher (= Cahirnemohor in Books of Survey and Distribution), parish of Rath.

The placename under discussion is written Cluainramhadh (variation Cluainriumhadh) in an edition of the poems composed by the eighteenth century poet Seon Ó hUaithnín (Ó hAnluain, 1973, 58 & 80). The metrical assonance of the poem requires the sound ú in the syllable following Cluain. I have seen but one of the manuscripts in which the original poem was written, namely R.I.A. 24 B 11, and Cluanramhad is the spelling employed by its scribe, Brian Ó Luanaigh. I would suggest that Cluain Rúd(a) was the intended pronounciation. The two lines of poetry would thus read: ‘Is do réitigh mo chúis ar aonach an Turlaigh / Ar aonach Chluain *Rúda is an Chláir thíos’. This proposal is supported by a later Clare composition entitled Iománaithe Chill Choirne (‘the hurlers of Kilcorney’), published in Irisleabhar na Gaedhilge in 1904, in which the second word, (Cluain) Rúda, rhymes with the placename Cúige and with bhuaileamair. The realisation of Cluain Rámhada as Cluain Rúda can be compared with the pronunciation of various words recorded in the Irish of Co. Clare, such as rámhann ‘a spade’ which was pronounced rún and lámhach ‘to shoot’ pronounced lúch (Ua Súilleabháin 1994, 488). The aforementioned author has suggested that that the á vowel (long) developed to ó, which further progressed to ú in this environment. This is supported by an observation of Nils Holmer in his study of The Dialects of Co. Clare—the material for which he collected in 1946—regarding the pronunciation of the aforementioned verbal noun lámhach, which, he noted ‘is variously pronounced lúch, lóch, or lách (all with a nasal vowel) in the various parts of the county’ (Holmer, 1962, 10; see also O’Rahilly, 1942, 133). There is in fact evidence that (Cluain) Rámhada was also pronounced Ród(a). This ó sound occurs in a poem of uncertain authorship attributed in manuscripts to Seon Ó hUaithnín (‘Aguisín: Ag moladh Éamoinn Coimín’, Ó hAnluain 1973, 81): ‘Ó Inis Chluain Rámhada [pronounced *Róda] go teora Mhuirisín / Fhóidre, an firín sásta’. The local Irish form of the placename was recorded as Cluain Romhad in the Ordnance Survey namebook of 1839 (Drumcliff Parish).

I now wish to refer to Ennis, the county’s principal town. The earliest references are to the Franciscan Friary which was founded in 1247 according, for instance, to the Annals of the Four Masters (O'Donovan, 1856, III 326), ‘Mainistir Innse i dTuadhmhumhain’. Other possible foundation dates are discussed in Gwynn & Hadcock (1970, 249-50). The placename is usually referred to as Inis, without qualification, in Irish sources, and occasionally as Inis Cluana Rámhada with variations, such as Inis Chluain Róda above. The primary meaning of inis is an island, whether in the sea, such as Inis Caorach or Mutton Island in English, in a lake such as Inis Cealtra / Inishcaltra, or Inse Chrónáin / Inchicronan or in a river such as Inis Cathaigh / Scattery Island, Inis Tiobraid / Inishtubbrid and various other islands at the confluence of the Rivers Fergus and Shannon. A secondary meaning is that of ‘river meadow’ and this seems a more likely explanation in the present instance, referring to the low-lying land by the Fergus. Inis Díomáin / Ennistimon also conveys the latter meaning. Inse, the obsolete accusative and dative form of the word inis, (from Old Irish insi), often replaces inis; the aforementioned Inchicronan is an example of this, as much of the earlier evidence in Latin documentation represents Inis Crónáin, such as Inis Cronayn in a Latin text dated 1443 (Gleeson, 1943, 29). In contrast, the contemporary Irish form of 1839 is recorded as Ínse Chrónáin in the Ordnance Survey namebook (Inchicronan Parish).

I have discussed heretofore a number of placenames that illustrate how the pronunciation of placenames is liable to change over time, and that these changes are part of the historical development of the language. This has furthermore a direct bearing on the spelling of such placenames in Modern Irish.

The placename Lifford, north of Clonroad townland, serves to further illustrate this point. Some of the earlier forms of the name from Latin or English documents are as follows, ‘the two Liffers’ (1621), Leffers (1624), Lifford (1624c), Liffor (1659), Leaffard (1656), Lefferoughtra , i.e. ‘upper’, (1719). The final ‘s’ of the earliest forms is the plural marker in English. The contemporary Irish form of the name and an earlier reconstructed spelling were given by the placenames’ scholar John O’Donovan in the relevant parish namebook of 1839, ‘Leithbhear pronounced Leifear’. O’Donovan’s postulated early form is undoubtedly correct: Leithbhear is an old compound formed from leith meaning ‘side’ (similiar to the first element of Leighlin / Leithghlinn, ‘glen-side’, in Co. Carlow,) and bior, ‘water’. Lifford is, in fact, surrounded by two branches of the River Fergus. Note that medial -f- is already evident in the seventeenth century forms of the name. Similarly, the like-named Lifford in Co. Donegal is a further example of Leifear from earlier Leithbhear—it is recorded as Caislen Lifir in the Annals of Connacht in the year 1543 for instance.

According to the standard spelling of Modern Irish, the consonant groups -thmh- or -thbh- are reduced to -f-; hence the adjective rathmhar ‘prosperous’ is now spelt rafar for example. A comparison can be made with the consonant group -thdh-, which has also been reduced to a single devoiced consonant, -t- in this insance. By way of illustration, the two townlands named Leitrim /Liatroim in Co. Clare are indicative of an earlier compound Liath-dhroim. The reduction to -t- is already evident in the earliest examples of the names, Letryme in the year 1608 for instance, in Kilmihil Parish.

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