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

A Vanishing Heritage

It should be mentioned that below the level of the townland there exists a rich but rapidly diminishing vein of field names many of them of ancient origin. This once vast heritage of microtoponymy is now yielding to widespread afforestation and farm restructuring, and particularly to new modules of agricultural management which no longer demand from farmers the same intimate contact with the land that was required from their forebears up to a generation ago. An important collection of these minor place-names in Irish was undertaken in the Loop Head peninsula and in Scattery by the Place-Names section of the Ordnance Survey in the 1960s. It was compiled by Breandán Ó Ciobháin with the assistance of the surviving native Irish speakers, among them the well-known Annraoi de Blacam, the last of the native speakers in Corca Baiscinn who was then in his eighties[43]. Mention must be made too of the great number of minor place-names painstakingly recorded by Tim Robinson in the general area of the Burren and included in his detailed map of the uplands of north-west Clare[44].

Another threat to our place-names today is the use of inappropriate names for new developments. In the selection of names for the new housing estates and business parks that are now springing up apace in town and villages we have in too many instances broken faith with Ballyrush and Gortin, to paraphrase Patrick Kavanagh’s well-known line. Indeed, according to Professor Donncha Ó Corráin the Normans and Cromwellian Planters were far more careful about preserving the names of the Gaelic past than many of the developers and officials today. Citing the naming of a housing estate in the suburbs of Cork as Tiffany Downs after Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffanys, as grossly inappropriate for several reasons Ó Corráin goes on:

“Developers of the rawest housing estates, even when they crowd their sites and leave behind a concrete and clay landscape devoid of any flora of any kind, have a peculiar liking for names that refer to trees and shrubs – Ailesbury Oaks, Whitebeam Avenue, Pine Avenue, Beech Court, The Elms[45].”

Nor was the Curch entirely free from blame. Instead of preserving the old historical names for parishes the leaders of the Catholic church, for instance, were, he noticed, turning their backs on the traditional Irish saints and naming saints of the universal church as patrons of the parish churches. Making a plea for the transmission of our inheritance of place-names he went on to say that the Irish landscape was the most minutely named landscape he knew. We had an enormous number of names inherited from a varied and interesting past and these were as much part of our inheritance and identity as the field monuments of our countryside or the manuscript treasures of our museums and libraries, as much a cultural artefact of permanent value as the Book of Kells or the Ardagh Chalice[46].


Land Measures; Surveys and Sources