Clare County Library
Clare Places and Placenames
Home | Search Library Catalogue | Foto: Clare Photo Collection | Maps | Search this Website | Copyright Notice

Researching the placenames of Co. Clare: Methodology, Sources, and Restoration - Dr. Pádraig Ó Cearbhaill

The Placenames Branch and its Work

The Placenames Branch is part of the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. Prior to 2000, the office was attached to the Ordnance Survey of Ireland. The function of the Placenames Branch, in co-operation with An Coimisiún Logainmneacha, a Government appointed advisory body, is to research the placenames of Ireland in order to provide the correct Irish forms of those names for publication and official use.

I would firstly like to give an overview of the research we have undertaken to date on the toponymy of Co. Clare and I also wish to say a little about the official status of Irish placenames.

All of the post-towns within the county were researched initially and a provisional list of their Irish forms was published in 1960, circa ninety names in all, encompassing the towns, villages and other less important centres of population. Following a number of emendations, the official names of the post-towns of Ireland were published in Ainmneacha Gaeilge na mBailte Poist in 1969 and, in 1975, by order under the Place-Names (Irish Forms) Act of 1973, the Irish names of post-towns within the State were given legal status. The same names, as well as a number of the important landscape features, are also recorded in the Gazetteer of Ireland, which was published in 1989. The Place-Names (Irish Forms) Act has now been superseded by the Official Languages Act 2003.

In the course of the 1980s research on the toponomy of Co. Clare was initially directed towards the provision of Irish names for the Ordnance Survey’s 1:2500 series of large-scale metric maps. One of the large geographical areas that was resurveyed at that time included all of Co. Limerick as well as parts of the adjoining counties, including south-east Clare. The area of toponymic research gradually expanded with the result that by 1987, the authoritative Irish forms of over 1,100 townland names and about 50 parish names in Co. Clare had been established, .i.e. slightly over half the traditional administrative names of the county. Authoritative Irish names were thus provided for townlands, parishes, baronies and significant geographical features. The townland and parish names of the following areas have yet to be systematically examined, the baronies of Burren, Corcomroe, Ibrickan and Moyarta along the western seaboard, Inchiquin Barony to the East of the Burren and also the parishes of Clonrush, Inishcaltra and Kilbarron in the barony of Leitrim, which were restored to Co. Clare from Co. Galway under the Local Government (Ireland) Act of 1898. A start has been made on the remaining names, given that in 2003 all relevant information — that is available on the unresearched townlands and parishes in the hand-written Ordnance Survey parish namebooks of 1839 circa — was collected in electronic format. The original manuscripts are now kept in the National Archives. We have also recorded the local pronunciation of all such administrative names within the county, as discussed below in the final paragraph.

During the 1990s, the Placenames Branch provided some Irish names for the Ordnance Survey 1:50 000 series of maps, entitled the Discovery Series or Sraith Eolais. Unfortunately, it was the policy at the time to record traditional administrative names, such as townlands, in English only in non-Gaeltacht areas. In other words the most common type of name on these maps is not written in Irish outside of the Gaeltachtaí.

The Ordnance Survey Ireland Act, 2001, has been amended in the Official Languages Act, 2003, and there is now an obligation, ‘to depict placenames and ancient features in the national mapping and related records and databases in the Irish language or in the English and Irish languages’.

The Placenames Branch has also recommended the Irish forms of various other categories of names within Co. Clare, such as important river names in conjunction with a signage scheme undertaken by the Central Fisheries Board in 1995, all District Electoral Division names, names of important archaeological, historical and environmental sites and many other placenames that are requested on an ongoing basis for translation by Government Departments, State agencies, local authorities and the general public. We are also involved in a relatively new bilingual townland signage scheme applicable to designated CLAR (‘Ceantair Laga Árd-Riachtanais’) areas, encompassing parts of Co. Clare.

Although street-names are the responsibility of the relevant local authority, we have received requests for assistance and have provided Irish forms of the street names for various towns in Co. Clare, such as Kilkee, Kilrush and Ennis. The assistance of local historians is of benefit in helping to elucidate the origin of certain street-names. One example that springs to mind is Harmony Row in Ennis, the origin of which was explained to us by a local historian, Seán Spellissy—it took its name from an early nineteenth century town house, Harmony Hall.

The Placenames Branch is often consulted on the translation of new housing-estate names within the county. Names that are unconnected with the topography, history or landscape of the area can pose problems for the translator. For instance, we received a request from Ennis Urban District Council in 1997 to translate Abbeyville and Springfield Orchard, two new housing developments near Ennis. The would-be translator was left to ponder on the precise meaning of the French word ville in this context, or whether spring meant a well, a season or was it a surname? There is also the possibility that names such as these were taken from a different location.

We were able to establish that such was the case in regard to the private housing development Willsgrove near Ennis. Having requested further information on the origin of the name before attempting a translation, we were informed that the developer had chosen the name of a village called Willsgrove in Co. Roscommon. That particular name is a fairly modern coinage: in Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary (1837, Vol. I 118), Willsgrove, the property of W. R. Will Esq., is listed amongst the ‘principal seats’ in the parish of Ballintober, Co. Roscommon. The original Irish name of the Co. Roscommon Willsgrove, has no connection with the English name: it is Cluanach, meaning ‘a place of wet pastureland’. Therefore, in this instance, should one transfer both Irish and English names from their traditional location in Co. Roscommon to Co. Clare?

There is one further example of the transferral of a placename from one geographical location to another that I wish to mention. This concerns the village of Boston near the Galway border in north Clare. In the Ordnance Survey namebook of 1839 (parish of Kilkeedy), the name ‘Boston village’ is classified as a ‘fancy name’ or ‘nickname’ and it is described as consisting of ‘a few cabins situated on the property of the Marquis of Thomond’. Boston is in origin an English placename, the name of a town in Lincolnshire, which was subsequently re-used in North America. Its appearance in Co. Clare does not pre-date the eighteenth or early nineteenth century. The Irish name of the village on modern signposts is Móinín na gCloigeann. This is without historical foundation and arose, I assume, from confusion with the townland of Moneennagliggin North or Boston near Cratloe in South Clare. The latter was called Cragganaclugin (.i. Creagán an Chloiginn probably) in a document of 1659 and Móinín na gCloigeann in 1839 signifying ‘the little bog of the skulls’. It is obvious therefore that the Irish name of Boston near Cratloe has been erroneously transferred to North Clare.

<< Clare Places and Placenames: Researching the placenames of Co. Clare: Methodology, Sources, and Restoration