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

Place Lore

Early Irish literature contains a large corpus of material called dindshenchas, a name given to a genre of writing consisting of poems and tales relating to place-names and their meanings. Many of the place-names encountered in these early writings are heavily laminated with legend, which often imbues them with an allure that heightens their significance. This coating of toponymic lore and legend can stimulate the imagination to responses beyond the merely visual so that ordinary places are transformed into evocative imagined landscapes that are often at odds with the geographical realities. Loop Head (Léim Chúchullain) on the bleak peninsular tip of west Clare, for example, has acquired a nimbus from association with the famed leap of Cúchullain from the mainland in the teeth of the Atlantic breakers to the little island that stands a short distance off-shore[14]. In the same way Slievenaglasha in the Burren uplands takes a romantic aura from the legend of Lon Mac Líofa, swordmaker to the Fianna, and his fertile cow Glas Gaibhneach[15]. Remarkable green patches on the limestone pavement are still pointed out as ‘leaba na Glaise’, the beds where the cow was wont to lie down; while a short distance away the stone fort called Mohernacartan (Mothar na Ceartan, (i.e. “the enclosure of the smithy”)) pinpoints Lon’s celebrated workshop. Again, just a couple of miles to the east of this place the townland of Ballaghaglash (Bealach na Glaise) signposts the route taken by the rapacious Ulsterman who allegedly stole this magical bovine[16]. The places called Seefin, Caherussheen, and Tirmicbran in the same district commemorate Finn Mac Cumhail, his son Oisín and his famous hound Bran, and stake out for us the ancient heroic world of the Fianna. Slieve Oideadh an Rí (the Hill of the King’s Travail) with its forlorn cairn at Glenagross on the slopes of the Cratloe Hills will forever be associated with the hapless high king Crimthann Mac Fidach who was poisoned by his resentful sister Mong Finn, the fair-haired one[17]. Beneath the waters of Liscannor Bay lies the illusive city of Kilstipheen (Cill Stíopháin, St. Stephen’s church), which, in the dim and distant past, according to legend, was overwhelmed by a ghostly tsunami. Indeed, by a process of association all these names have become almost as real in our consciousness as the landscape features they designate. All of this affirms the truth of John Montague’s claim that ‘the least Irish place name can net a world with its associations’[18]. The same sentiment is expressed though much more explicitly by Professor Tomás Mac Canna:

“there can be little doubt that the Irish landscape and the dindshenchas, the ‘history of places’, which was its collective reflex in tribal myth and history, served together as an effective mnemonic and treasury of a great part of native tradition.”[19]

According to Seamus Heaney it is this marriage between the legendary and the local, between the geographical country and the evocative landscape of the imagination that constitutes the sense of place in its richest possible manifestations:

“We have to retrieve the underlay of Gaelic legend in order to read the full meaning of the name and to flesh out the topographical record with its human accretions…Tory Island, Knocknarea, Slieve Patrick, all of them steeped in associations from the older culture, will not stir us beyond a visual pleasure unless that culture means something to us, unless the features of the landscape are a mode of communion with a something other than themselves.”[20]

From all this we can see that place-names are essential tools if we wish to decode the landscape and to understand fully what we see rather than merely seeing what we know. Truly, it has been said, that to know the townlands of Ireland is to know the country by heart[21]. The names provide us with what Heaney has termed not merely a sense but a sensing of place, a ‘felt knowledge’ that enhances and gives meaning and added value to the physical world around us. This can be further illustrated by the following example. Near the margin of Lake Inchiquin and beside the road from Corofin to Kilfenora there is a well-known landmark locally called “The Blessed Tree”. At that place a lofty and spreading tree overhangs a holy well dedicated to St. Inawee (Iníon Baoith), after whom the church and parish of Killinaboy are named. The townland in question is named Annville, a name that, at first glance, seems quintessentially English, one that might evoke images of a manorial landscape with deerpark, gate-lodge and ‘big house’. But, in fact, the name has no such connotations: it is simply a corrupt rendering of the Gaelic eanach an bhile, which translates literally as “the marsh of the sacred tree”. The anglicised version of the name - which regrettably is now the official name of the townland - reveals nothing of the religious underlay that inheres in this ancient place of worship so replete with resonances of our Celtic past. In contrast the Gaelic form of the name affirms the well and tree for what they are: residuals of an ancient Druidic cult that slipped through the filter of Christian censorship and transmuted into the half-pagan, half-Christian ritual that is still observed - though now rather tenuously - at the site to this day. Examples such as this validate the observation made by one commentator that it is on the place-names of Ireland that the dust of history lies heaviest[22].

Mention of sacred wells and their associated ritual reminds us of the many ways that religion has left its stamp on the face of the countryside. In the words of one historian, ‘the church domesticated the landscape with its holy wells, holy mountains, holy islands, saints’ roads and the thousands of place-names commemorating the saints and their churches’[23]. In Co. Clare, as elsewhere in Ireland, a very great number of our place-names are evocative of the centrality of the Christian Church in Irish society. Aglish (Ir. Eaglais, a church), Toberbreeda (i.e. Bridget’s Well”), Knocksaggart (“Priests’ Hill”), Knockinamana (Cnoch Na Manach i.e. “Monks’ Hill”), Kilmacreehy (“St. Mac Creiche’s church”), Kilaspuglonane (“Church of bishop Flannan”), Killinaboy (“St. Iníon Buí’s church”), Killeany (“St. Enda’s church”), Glencolumbkille (“St. Colmkille’s Glen”), Templemaley (“St. Maley’s Church”), Dysert, from the Latin desertum, a hermitage), Bishop’s Quarter (i.e the tithe of the quarter of land was mensal to the bishop), Islandavanna (i.e. “Oileán Na Manach, Monks’ Island”), are just a few of the very many place-names that are shot through with intimations of our Christian heritage. And as with other elements of the cultural landscape many of these sacred places have their own potpourri of toponymic legends. Knocknafearbreaga (lit. ‘hill of the false men’) at Carrahan in Clooney parish takes its name and legend from a stone alignment, which is said to represent seven men, the petrified victims of St. Mochulla’s curse after they had robbed his servant. Is there a Clareman or woman who has not heard of the ancient Bóthar Na Mias (“The Road of the Dishes”), and the illusory banquet that miraculously appeared before the anchorite, St. Colman, and his companion as they fasted in a remote cave at Kinaille on Slieve Carran?[24] It matters not that the road exists only in folklore and the imagination, it will always remain a powerful symbol in our consciousness of the eremitic nature and asceticism of the early Irish Church.

 

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