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Naming the Land: Reflections on Co.Clare Place-Names by Michael Mac Mahon

Early Place-names

Attachment to place, to one’s environment, to the very earth itself would seem to be the dynamic for the age-old practice of naming the land. By giving it a name we consecrate the clod of common earth, transform it into a place and endow it with a culture and a geography. As one writer has observed, we make places of spaces by giving them a name[2]. But whatever lies at the root of this very humanising act of naming, it is clear that ever since the dawn of history people have given names to the places they occupied, even if the occupation was only temporary. Indeed, so compelling and enduring has been the human impulse to name places - and people for that matter - that it is now accepted that the absence of place-names can usually be taken as indicative of the absence of human occupation[3] .

Signpost

Although the record of human settlement in this country is known to stretch back some eight or nine thousand years, the footprints left on the toponymy for much of that period have almost entirely faded so that today only a handful of our place-names are thought to have survived from pre-Celtic times. Included in the small number which is said to be of non-Celtic origin are coastal islands whose Irish forms end in either -ra or -re as Rechra (Rathlin), Cliara (Cape Cleare Island) and islands called Ára (Aran Islands, Arranmore etc.[4]) At this point however it seems of interest to mention that the name of our county’s most striking physical feature, and the one that separates us from all of our Munster neighbours, namely the river Shannon (Old Ir. Sinann), has resisted all attempts to define its origin. And in fact the old name for Munster itself i.e. Muma (genitive Mumen) is equally obscure though the suffix -ster like that in Leinster and Ulster derives from the Scandanavian stadr, a place[5]. One of the early names for the territory that later became Thomond, and, later still, Co. Clare, was In Déis Tuaisceart after the Déisi of Munster, whose name still has strong resonances in Co.Waterford and who are thought to be almost certainly a pre-Celtic people[6]. But the practice whereby new migrations of people adopt the native names for prominent geographical features while at the same time making their own onomastic contribution to the landscape, should cause no surprise since it is in line with the experience of other countries. In the English-speaking United States and Australia, for example, the names of many well-known places are not English at all but aboriginal designations from pre-colonial times. In Ireland, too, though Viking and Norman colonists have had some impact on the toponymy – Scattery, for instance, is an old Norse rendering of the Irish Inis Cathaigh - the vast majority of place-names are simply anglicisations of Irish forms.

 

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