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

Topographical and Settlement Features; Land Measures

Topographical and Settlement Features
In Ireland the townland is the most basic territorial division and the linchpin of all spatial and administrative organisation. It is also to a large extent the geographical substratum on which the social and cultural landscapes of community and neighbourhood subsist. Discounting some unnamed islands of various sizes around the coast and along the Shannon and Fergus rivers and their estuaries, Co. Clare accounts for approximately 2,228 townlands out of the total of 62,605 for the country as a whole[25]. When we attempt to unravel the etymology of the townland names a large number will be seen to be topographical in origin, their core elements reflecting natural features on the landscape.

T. Jones Hughes, who did an in-depth study of the townland in Irish geography has remarked on the repetitive nature of the Irish placename elements[26]. The range of items, both toponymic and cultural, referred to in the names was very limited. For instance, he found that one third of the total number of townland names in Ireland contained elements which refer either to major types of land units or to prominent topographical features. This exclusiveness, he suggested, was probably a reflection of the insular and peripheral character of the country cut off as it was from external influences over a long period in its early history.

This exclusiveness can be seen in the case of Clare, too, for no more than a dozen elements make up fifty per cent of all the townland names in the county. Among the most frequently encountered topographical elements (allowing for some variations in form) are the following:

Knock, -hill from cnoch, a hill.
Cluain, Cloon-, Clon- Cluain, a riverside meadow.
Coill, (Kill), Cool-, Derry, Coill a wood. Doire frequently though not exclusively means an oak wood.
Drim, Drum, Drom, from druim, a ridge.
Inis, Inish-, Illaun-, from Inis/oileán, a waterside location, an island.
Gort, Garry- from garraí a garden or meadow.
Moy, Maghera from máigh and machaire, a plain.
Cappa, Cappagh from ceapach, a plot of land laid down for tillage.
Tulla, Tullagh, Tully- from tulach, an elevated place, a small hill
Poll, Poul- from poll, a hole, depression, pool or low-lying place
Glen-, Glan- , from gleann, a glen.
Carrick, Carrig, from carraig, a rock

As well as doire (oak), other trees, too, are represented in place-names such as Creevagh (craobh, a branch), Drinagh (draighean, blackthorn), Gleninsheen (i.e. gleann fuinshin, glen of the ash trees), Druimsillagh (saileach, willow, osier), Clooncullin (cuileann, holly), Gortaveha (beith, birch).

Other place-names are indicative of the settlement, ritual and agrarian patterns and practices of early and medieval Ireland e.g.

Bally-, Ballyna-, from baile, a settlement, or homestead.
Kill, Killy, Kyle from cill, a church.
Caher, from cathair, a stone fort.
Lios, Liss from Lios, an earthen fort.
Doon, Dún-, Down-, Don-, from dún, a stronghold, a fortress
Rath, a circular (earthen) fort.
Boul-, Boula-, Boley, from buaile, an outlying summer pasture or milking place.

One category of names which is thought to be of ancient origin consists of terms that are based on bodily features such as béal (mouth), ceann (head), lorga (shin), más, tóin (buttock, backside) e.g. Béal Átha, Ceann Tuirc i.e. ‘ boar’s head’ (Kinturk in Kilmaley parish), An Lorga (Lurraga in Killilagh parish), Más (Mausnarylaan in Tomfinlough parish), Tóin (e.g. Tonlegee, from the Ir. Tóin-le-gaoith, in Rath parish]. This last is of particular interest if only for the numerical frequency with which it occurs throughout the country as a whole. It should be noted that the name is often indicitive of the former presence of a mill, as the term was used in times past to distinguish the windmill i.e. muileann tóin-le-gaoith from the muileann-tóin-le talamh, or horizontol mill[27].

Of all the prefixes the ubiquitous Bally heads the list appearing in upwards of 260 townlands, or 11 per cent of all the townland names in Co. Clare. This figure accords well with that of 10 per cent for the country as a whole[28].“Baile” commonly denotes a town or village, but since towns, at least as the word is now understood, were unknown in Ireland, it is probably best interpreted as an extended family settlement, or homestead cluster. (Incidentally the corresponding English name element town e.g. Johnstown, Bagnalstown etc. appears as a suffix in 31% of the total of English townland names in Ireland. Its distribution is predominantly in the eastern half of the country, most notably in the areas of greatest Anglo-Norman colonisation and settlement[29].) Next in density comes Kill, (church) a name element that is widely and evenly distributed throughout the country at large[30]. In Clare cill is closely followed by Knock with Cluain and Derry not far behind. Caher and Liss are fairly evenly divided, occurring in upwards of sixty townlands respectively, but curiously Rath, which has more or less the same meaning, is way down the list being found only in about twenty three instances. It occurrs with much more frequency in the eastern parts of the country where it is sometimes compounded with a personal name e.g. Rathmichael, Rathcormac, Rathgilbert etc.[31]


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