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

Land Measures; Surveys and Sources

Land Measures
Up until the mid-nineteenth century when the Ordnance Survey brought a degree of standardisation to rural spatial management by measuring each townland, and giving it a defined boundary and a name, there was very little uniformity in the methods of land subdivision and measurement. Instead a confusing plethora of spatial designations and standards of measurement were in use in different parts of the country[32]. In Clare there was a subdivision of the baile called a leath-bhaile signifying half, which gave us the townlands of Lavally, Lavally North and Lavally South etc. More common was the Ceathrú (quarter) which loosely amounted to 120 acres. It was sometimes called a seisreach, or ploughland, a term said to have derived from seisir, six, and each, a horse, and it was thus probably an approximation of the amount of land that six horses might be expected to turn up in a certain fixed period. Then there was the leath-cheathrú (i.e.half a quarter) amounting to sixty acres e.g. Lecarrow More and Lecarrow Beg etc., the ceathrú mór, big quarter, and the ceathrú mír, small quarter e.g. Carrowvere in Rath parish. Other subdivisions included the trian, the third part, from which derive the townlands named Treanmanagh [33] in Kilkeedy and Kilmurry-Ibrickane parishes; cúigiú, (cooga) a fifth part, detectable in the townlands of Cooga and Cooguquid; seiseadh, a sixth part (e.g. Sheshia, Sheshodonnell, Sheshymore, Shessiv etc.); and deichiú (a tenth part) which gives its name to the townland of Dehomade in Clondagad parish. The apparent anomaly of the ‘big’ and ‘small’ quarter, ploughland etc. can be explained by the fact that land was invariably reckoned for its economic potential rather than in absolute units of measurement. Specifically it was categorised as either ‘profitable’ or ‘unprofitable’, but since only the profitable acres were reckonable for rental and leasing purposes, the ‘quarters’ in the marginal mountainous districts were therefore generally larger than those in the more fertile lowlands[34]. This feature of the old agrarian economy was afterwards carried over into the ordnance survey townland network which emerged in the 1840s. A good example is the townland of Slieveanore situated in the Aughty mountains near the border with Galway. This single townland, the largest in the county, contains some 3168 statute acres, an area, for example, that exceeds that of the entire civil parish of Bunratty.

Surveys and Sources
It is uncertain when townlands were first named as distinct spatial entities but it is clear that by the medieval period they had acquired legal title as designated units for landholding purposes. Recognisable versions of modern townland names are encountered in the records from medieval times onwards. One of the most important Gaelic sources is Edmund Hogan’s Onomasticon Goedelicum which amounts to a huge collection of early place-names found in Gaelic and Latin sources[35]. More specific to Co.Clare is Seán Mac Craith’s epic narrative: Cathréim Thoirdealbhaigh (Triumphs of Turlough) a fourteenth century account of events in Thomond during the period 1276-1311. Apart from its undoubted historical value as a near-contemporary account of events in Clare during a time when no man ‘that could hold a sword scarce let it from his hand while he slept’, the Cathréim is a kind of Gazetteer of the county, full of toponymic material of great interest.

Of even greater toponymic value are the so-called O’Brien and MacNamara Rentals believed to date from the fourteenth century and published with a translation by James Hardiman in 1826[36]. Between them they provide a list of upwards of two hundred (200) denominations, the earliest and most extensive list we have of Co. Clare townlands before the seventeenth century surveys. Hardiman’s renderings into English of the Irish denominations are, however, in some instances, simply literal translations of the core elements of the particular place-names and consequently his list requires careful editing. It is necessary to draw attention to this matter here since Hardiman’s list was later published virtually unaltered by Frost in his History of Clare[37]. Extracts from the rentals for all except the western baronies will be found under the various Triocha Céts in Sean Ó hÓgáin’s Conntae An Chláir[38]. With the aid of Ó hÓgáin’s excellent glossary, and other sources such as the Book of Survey and Distribution and various O’Brien estate papers that have since become available, it is now possible to reconcile almost all of the denominations listed in the rentals with modern townland equivalents.

The earliest comprehensive survey of Clare was made on the direction of Henry Strafford, the Lord Deputy, for the purpose of a projected plantation of Connacht and adjoining regions in 1637-38. Twenty years later the Strafford Survey became the basis for the Down Survey of Co. Clare. Begun in 1656, the Down Survey, under the direction of Dr. William Petty, provided the Commonwealth government with a detailed account of the ownership of land in every parish and barony of the county. The Clare Down Survey maps therefore represent an extrapolation from two surveys, the one for the purpose of the Strafford Plantation and the other for that by the Commonwealth[39]. On the basis of the surveys official records of landed proprietors and their estates were constructed as a preliminary to the imposition of an acreable rent called a Quit Rent. Known as the Books of Survey & Distribution, these records preserve the names of the smallest territorial divisions and are indispensable to anyone dealing with place-names.

Petty’s County Map 1685
Petty’s County Map 1685

Another useful seventeenth-century source for Clare place-names is Bishop Worth’s Account Book, or survey of the lands owned by the Protestant diocese of Killaloe in the 1660s[40]. The Account Book contains the names and other particulars of various portions of land scattered throughout the diocese, which anciently were the termon lands of the old native monastic houses, but were sequestered by the Protestant Church following the Reformation.

Apart from those listed above there are numerous other sources that can assist us in determining the location and extent of places mentioned in various historical records. The ‘Indenture for Thomond’, a taxation agreement between the crown and the chieftains of Clare in 1585 as part of the over all plan for the “Composition” of Connacht is a virtual micro-toponymy of the county[41]. The “fiant”, or warrant to chancery, authorising the issue of letters patent by Queen Elizabeth under the agreement, lists all the old tribal territories, or Triocha Céts, of Clare, each divided into named quarters consisting of 120 acres. Additional material pertaining to place-names will be found in the other surviving fiant calendars now housed in the National Archives. Other sources for Co.Clare place-names which deserve mention are the various maps and rentals pertaining to the estates of the earls of Thomond, barons Inchiquin, Burtons, Studderts, Macnamaras, Fitzgeralds and other landed families. Grand Jury and Tithe Applotment Records are other valuable sources of place-name information.

Ordnance Survey
As we have already seen, standardisation of place-names and units of land measurement had to wait for the setting up of the Ordnance Survey in 1824. The primary purpose of the survey was to facilitate a general valuation of the country as a preliminary to reforming the methods of collecting the Grand Jury assessments. As the survey and valuation were to be based on the English statute acre, the old archaic land measures e.g. ‘quarters’, ‘cartrons’, ‘coogas’ etc. were discarded and thereafter it was the ‘townland’, its area marked down in acres, roods and perches, that dominated on the maps. Amongst those employed at various times by the Survey to assist with the difficult task of standardising the Irish place-names were two of the great scholars of their time – John O’Donovan and Eugene O’Curry. Working from old spellings and sometimes a variety of local pronunciations they attempted to establish a consistency in the spelling of the anglicised versions of the same Irish place-name, while at the same time endeavouring to preserve as far as possible the integrity of its meaning as it was understood by the local people. O’Donovan’s work in particular on the place-names of Ireland, both for the Survey (for which he compiled a list of over 140,000 place-names) and later as professor of Celtic Studies at the Queen’s College, Belfast, remains unequalled to this day, and he has justly been described as ‘the most remarkable individual ever to work in the field of Irish toponymy[42].’ Among the many highlights in his distinguished career is his masterly edition of the Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland, his footnotes to the text replete with identifications of place-names throughout the length and breath of the country. After O’Donovan, probably the most important figure in the field of Irish onomastics was the Limerick native, P.W. Joyce, whose three-volume study of The origin and history of Irish names of places, published between 1869-1913, still maintains its place as the standard reference work on the subject.


Topographical and Settlement Features;
Land Measures


A Vanishing Heritage