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

The Documentation and Evolution of Placenames

I have pointed out the importance of Irish-language sources in elucidating the origin and development of our placenames. It should be stressed however, that the vast majority of surviving administrative names were first recorded, or reconstructed, in Irish in conjunction with the above-mentioned series of Ordnance Survey maps, and earlier forms are generally transmitted in English or in Latin documentation. Co. Clare is more fortunate than many other counties by virtue of the fact that a variety of Irish sources, such as documents of a legal nature, have survived. Documents such as the abovementioned Ancient Irish Deeds and Writings (Hardiman, 1826) and the documents in Irish that form part of the Inchiquin archive (Mac Niocaill, 1970) are a valuable repository of topographical information.

A great deal of useful genealogical, historical and pseudo-historical material has been amassed from manuscripts and other sources by Seán Ó hÓgáin in Conntae an Chláir (1938). The material is, however, unattractively presented and, as Mícheál Ó Duígeannáin noted (1939, 229), there is a lack of critical judgement. One should also note that many of the recommended Irish forms and explanations of townland names in the appendix to James Frost's History and Topography of the County of Clare (1893, new. edit. 1978) are, at best, dubious and often incorrect.

In general the earliest recorded examples of extant Irish placenames do not pre-date the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They are found in surveys of land and ownership, such as The Books of Survey and Distribution, ‘The Down Survey’, the so-called Census of 1659, in inquisitions, fiants, patents and other State documents of the period, in ecclesiastical sources and in family papers. Such sources were generally written in Latin or English. The following account by Liam Price (1951, 93-4) reveals the potential of this material:

‘For the great majority of our existing place-names Irish sources are lacking. Consequently we have to use the English and Latin documents in order to make a full and methodical investigation of Irish place-names. It is an obvious disadvantage, but it is not as great as would appear at first sight. The documents were written at a time when most of the people who pronounced the name spoke Irish, even if the clerks who wrote them did not.

They wrote down the names as they heard them spoken, so that we get them written in a phonetic English spelling. Although, on account of the great difference between Irish and English, this is a very defective method of writing the sound of the Irish language, it does nevertheless, preserve for us better than might be thought the sounds of Irish names…’
The transcription of Irish names into English in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries often preserves quite clearly the original form of a name, which is now altered out of recognition.

Éamonn de hÓir (1972-3, 200), former head of the Placenames Branch, pointed out the deficiencies of such a process of transliteration or 'dictation'—to use the term favoured by J. H. Andrews (1992)—:

‘The accuracy with which the Irish name heard by the Englishman was recorded in writing by him was limited, in the first place, by his capacity for hearing and distinguishing unfamiliar sounds and, in the second place, by the capacity of the orthography he was using for indicating the sounds he heard. In the material we now have available to work on allowance must also be made for mis-transcription.’

I wish to give an example of one particular placename that amply illustrates the advantages and difficulties associated with the documentation of a particular name. The placename in question, Dysert or Dysert O’Dea, is well documented from the fourteenth century onwards. Earlier recorded examples of the name are preserved in the notes to various Irish martyrologies in which St. Tola (or Tóla) is commemorated on the 30th of March—for instance, ‘Tola o Disirt Tola i n-uachtar Dhail Cais’ in a note accompanying at least two manuscript versions of The martyrology of Óengus (Stokes, 1905, 102 & 1880, 66) and subsequently in The martyrology of Gorman (c. 1170), ‘Tola, epscop ó Disert Tola i n-Uachtar Dál cCais’ (Stokes, 1895, 64). In one manuscript version of his pedigree in the medieval genealogies of Irish saints, Tola Craidbech m. Dunchada is reputed to be ‘ho Disiurt Tola i nOes iar Fhorcus’ i.e. west of the River Fergus (Ó Riain, 1985, 35). The saint’s cult at Dysart, now in the barony of Delvin, Co. Westmeath is also noted in another manuscript version of Félire Óengusso, ‘o Disiurt Tóla i nDelbna móir Mide’ (Stokes, 1905, 102). The latter place is referred to as Dísert Tola in various Annals of the tenth and eleventh centuries, and subsequently as Desertally in the Down Survey (1655c), Dist. Tala and Diseart Tála in the Ordnance Survey namebook (p. Killulagh, 1837).

It is of interest that the same ecclesiastical settlement term, díseart, should be attached to the saint’s name in two disparate locations in which his cult is known to have existed. This word is a Latin borrowing, which is usually translated ‘hermitage’, ‘isolated place’ or ‘a place apart’. It has also survived, for instance, as qualifying element in the placename Killadysert / Cill an Dísirt by the Shannon Estuary, which was formerly called Díseart Muirthile and also in the name Dysert, without any qualification, near Killimer.

At least some Díseart sites are connected with the Céli Dé spiritual reform movement that flourished in the eight and ninth centuries (O Dwyer, 1981; Flanagan, 1984, 34-6). It is possible therefore that the two díseart sites to which the name Tola was attached were founded by ‘Tole, episcopus Cluana Iraird’ (Mac Airt & Mac Niocaill, 1983, 190), whose death is recorded between 733 and 738.

The saint’s traditional feast-day was still remembered in the parish of Dysert, Co. Clare, in the early nineteenth century according to Eugene Curry’s first-hand account which he wrote in the Ordnance Survey Letters: Co. Clare (1839):
‘The people all about here call it Cross-Bhánála, i.e. ‘Bánála’s Cross’, and believe that Bánála, who they think was a woman, was the patron Saint of this Parish, but it is easy to see how this mistake grew up with the corruption of the name... [<] Cros-Bhán-Thola, i.e., ‘the White Cross of Tola’, which subsequently was corrupted into one word thus, Cros Bhanola, which was further altered into Bánála, and supposed to express the foundress of the church....There is a holy well a little southeast of the Church called Tobar Bhánála, at which Stations and a Patron were held formerly on the 30th March, St. Tola’s day, but the Patron has been discontinued for many years. The 30th of March is still held holy by many persons in the Parish. (O’Flanagan, 1928, I 52 142-4).’

The historical evidence of the Clare placename shows that (An) Díseart was generally written without qualification, for example Disert (‘Papal Taxation’ 1302c) (Sweetman & Handcock, 1886, 300), ‘gusin nDisert...mar a raib isdad comnaide í Degaid’ (1350c) (O’Grady, 1929, 142), ‘parraisdi an Diseirt’ (1592) (Mac Niocaill, 1970, 50), ‘ón Dísert’ (1599) (O’Donovan, 1856, VI 2100), an Díseart (1750c) (O’Grady, 1926, 71).

I have discovered but one historical example of the surname Ó Deá (earlier Ó Deadhaidh, Deaghaidh), the traditional coarbs of the church, as placename qualifier, díseart uí dheághaidh, one of the names given in the parish namebook of 1839.

Many of the references in Latin ecclesiastical sources from the late fourteenth to the early sixteenth century point to *Díseart Maoile Tala as the contemporary realisation of the placename, such as Dissertmolacala (1394), Dissertnolacala, Dissertmolacala (1400), Dissercthmallathala (1426), Disertmaelatala, Disserth Mellathala (1432) Siseremaelletule, Disertmaellatala (1493), Dissermeyalltaloyd (1510). Those examples are taken from the published ‘annates’ levied on Papal appointments to the Diocese of Killaloe (Gleeson, 1943) and from the Calendar of Papal Letters (Bliss, Twemlow et al., 1893-1986). Allowance must be made for the possibility of copying. Maol, meaning ‘servant of’, ‘devoted to’, often precedes the names of saints in the formation of early Irish personal names. An example is preserved in the placename Lismulbreedy / Lios Mhaoilbhríde in the parish of Killone.

I have already pointed out in the case of cora, cara that a short o and short a vowel are interchangeable in Irish in certain environments. Another such example is Mollough townland near Kilrush which is recorded in Irish sources both as Magh Locha and Lacha, ‘the plain of the lake’. This variation may also account for Tola / Tala.

Eugene Curry, as previously cited, conjectured that the local Irish pronunciation of St. Tola’s Well and St. Tola’s Cross in the early nineteenth century, .i. ‘Tobar Bhánála’, and ‘Cros Bhánála’, preserved a form of the saint’s name preceded by the adjective bán, referring to the whiteness of the cross. A similar explanation underlies the ‘corrected’ Irish form in the Ordnance Survey namebook (Parish of Dysert) of that period, ‘Cloch Mhánála recte Cros Bhán Tóla’. The word ‘cloch’ may have referred to the pedestal of the cross which, we know from the Ordnance Survey Letters, had become detached from the cross itself. The name of the cross is still remembered nowadays by some of the older inhabitants and pronounced (approximately) as ‘krokmonaula’ or ‘krokvonaula’—the primary stress is on the penultimate syllable.

There are two further nineteenth century references to the cross and the saint’s name worth considering. The earlier reference is taken from The Statistical Survey of 1808:
‘Near the church and round tower of Dysert O’Dea, a very curious one [cross] lies on the ground; it represents (it is said) St. Monalagh...’ (Dutton, 1808, 352). Ó Murchadha (2000, 226, n.4) also provides a reference to ‘St. Monalagh’ to whom: ‘the Catholic parish church [of Dysert] erected in 1856…is dedicated, apparently following local tradition, but there is no saint of that name to be found in the Irish calendars’. There is, it seems, a persistent local tradition, dateable to the early nineteenth century of a saint called Monalagh, Mánála or Bánála. The initial Bán- may be a hypercorrected form resulting from lenited m- > lenited b-.

At this point, I wish to refer to an unusual example of the placename, dated 1594, which is found in The Inchiquin Manuscripts, i.e Diserte Mandala (Ainsworth, 1961, 288). Although this could easily be discounted as a scribal error for the proposed fourteenth / fifteenth century form of the name, Maol Tala, it could equally reflect the historic linguistic process of dissimilation, by which one of two adjacent syllables containing the same sound, such as l in this instance, ‘dissimilates’ to a homorganic consonant such as n, .i. *Maoltala > *Maontala, Maondala (?). Another example of dissimilation—in a different environment—is provided by the placename Lisronagh in Co. Tipperary which was recorded as Lios Ruanach in 1580, but which comes from earlier Lios Ruadhrach (= Lisrodrach 1260). I can only conjecture at present, without further research, that the saint’s name may have further evolved to the nineteenth century forms of the name as set out previously.

The names of minor features, field names and microtoponomy in general are also of great interest. A colleague of mine, Máire Ní Sheighin, who is engaged in digitising material from the Ordnance Survey Namebooks, drew my attention to the following ringfort name, which serves to illustrate the multifarious richness of microtoponomy. It is recorded in the Parish Namebook of Clooney, barony of Corcomroe, Lios Fear Beag na gComán, and translated as ‘fort of the little hurlers, i.e. of the fairies’. The descriptive remarks accompanying the name simply state that it was ‘a fort celebrated for fairies’. One can only speculate on the folklore that must have been attached to this place formerly!

In conclusion, I wish to refer to another source, which is of vital importance to the elucidation and reconstruction of placenames in Irish, .i.e. orally transmitted material. There are almost two hundred placenames in the texts recorded by Nils Holmer from native Irish speakers in 1946 and subsequently published in The Dialects of Co. Clare (1962, 1965). Many more placenames, relevant to Co. Clare, are found in the archives of the Folklore Department—about one hundred such names occur in the folklore collection Leabhar Stiofáin Uí Ealaoire, which was undertaken by Séamus Ó Duilearga between 1930 and 1943 (Ó Duilearga & Ó hÓgáin, 1981). The Placenames Office recorded material specifically from Irish speakers in various parts of Co. Clare in 1965 and in 1966. The toponymic material collected by Breandán Ó Cíobháin in the vicinity of Loop Head was subsequently published in the journal Dinnseanchas (vols. 3 & 4, 1968-71). I have recorded the traditional, local pronunciation of placenames from native English speakers throughout the county, and in 1985 I collected a limited amount of material from Irish speakers in the Doolin and Gleninagh areas.

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