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

Tribal Territories

In Ireland right down to medieval times it was common for the various population groups to impress their names on the territories they occupied. That much of the early toponymy of Clare evolved in this fashion can be inferred from the names of the ancient tribal districts, for example the Corcú Baiscinn in west Clare, the Corcamruadh and the Dál Cais in the northern and eastern parts of the county respectively. But within these large tribal lordships there existed another rich toponymy which reflected the territories of the subaltern family groupings: Uí Cormaic, Uí Flannchadha, Uí Bloid, Uí Caisín, Uí Bracain, Cinel Dunghaile, Cinel Baoith, etc.

The locations of many of these old Gaelic territories with the names of their ruling families will be found in the so-called topographical poem of Giolla Na Naomh Ó hUidhrín who died in 1420[7]. The poem represents the completion of a work called Treallam Timpeall Fódhla (“Let us go around Ireland”) begun by one Seán Ó Dubhagáin, chief poet of O’Kelly of Uí Máine, which deals with the principal tribes in Meath, Ulster and Connaught. Ó hUidhrín’s contribution runs to 792 lines and is entitled Tuille feasa ar Erin Oigh (“Additional information on sacred Erin”). It completes the list of the Gaelic lordships of later medieval Ireland begun by Ó Dubhagáin by providing those for the remaining two provinces of Leinster and Munster, together with the names of the ruling families. The ancient political divisions of Thomond are extensively covered ‘from Callan eastwards to the Shannon’; and though written in a lavish adjectival style it contains much useful topographical information as well as valuable signposts to many of the tribal territories mentioned in other records. A translation of just two verses are quoted here in order to give the reader some impression of the poet’s style:

We give first place without violence
To the high upper cantred [8]
To O’Deadhaigh [O’Dea] the land is due
At Tealach[9] of the plains of brown nuts

Cinel Baoith of no small land
The fine tribe of Brentír [10]
O’ Maoilmheadha[11] of the fair land
His the woods of the delightful Eidhneach.

It seems of interest to point out that when a diocesan economy was established within the lordships in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries many of the old place-names were given a new lease of life. In several instances they were applied to the newly-formed deaneries and parishes and thus survived in their original forms right down to post-medieval times. In a papal document of 1441, for example, the parish of Kilnamona appears as ‘Kyllnomonad commonly called of Kenalbuyth’ (Cineal Baoith) while that of Kilkeedy (Tubber) frequently occurs in the papal registers as ‘the rectory of the parish church of Kyllichayd, alias in the rural fee of Offlancaid’ [Uí Flannchadha][12]. The etymologies of these names as well as those of the ecclesiastical deaneries of ‘Omulled’, ‘Ogassin’ ‘Thradry’ and ‘Corkavaskin’ are resonant with tribal nuances so that in many instances we can readily identify the families that enjoyed hereditary ties with the ancient churches and other ecclesiastical benefices. Once again Ó hUidhrín signposts the territory and gives ‘a local habitation and a name’ to the Uí Caisín dynasts:

Royal dynast of fine incursions
Is Mac Conmara of Magh-Aidhair,
The territories of wealth are his country;
Is over the cantred of Uí gCaisín[13].


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