Reading Joseph O’Connor’s excellent Star of the Sea, I came across one of the characters mentioning that the Irish language had over forty words for seaweed. This led me to recall that I had read somewhere else that Irish had over sixty words for hill. As further exemplified by the cliché concerning Inuits and their many dozens of words for snow, languages and their lexicons that develop in a specific geographical area tend to reflect the characteristics of that area’s topography and climate. Here’s a list I compiled myself of components in Irish place names that describe damp or boggy land:
Caonach: swamp, moss, e.g. Caonach Beag (small swamp), Co. Mayo.
Corcagh (dative = corcaigh): swamp, e.g. Corcaigh.
Corrach/Curragh: swamp, marsh or morass, e.g. Currach Rua (red marsh), Co. Roscommmon.
Eanach: watery place, fen, marsh or swamp, e.g. Eanach Bile (marsh of the sacred tree), Co. Cork.
Easc: bog or channel in a bog, e.g. Easc a na gCeap (bog of the stumps), Co. Wicklow.
Laitheach: mud or mire, e.g. Laitheacd Dhubh (black mire), Co. Cavan.
Leithbhear: an old compound formed from leith meaning side and bior, water. Lifford, a townland in Ennis, Co. Clare is surrounded by two branches of the River Fergus.
Móin/Móna: bog, peat bog, e.g. Móin an Lín (bog of the flax), Co. Limerick.
Poll: hole, pool, bog-hole, e.g. Poll an Phúca (pool of the sprite), Co. Wicklow.
Seisceann: swamp, marsh, e.g. Seisceann Siúil (the walking bog), Co. Tyrone.
Turlach: winter floodland, fen, e.g. Turlach Mór (the big fen), Co. Galway.
Every feature of the landscape in Ireland has a name that in many cases goes back millennia — from rivers, mountains, promontories and lakes, to parcels of land that may be no more than scraps, standing stones, pathways and holy wells. The colour and richness of place names and other toponyms speaks of a culture with a deep bond, empathy and understanding of their environment. The study of place names in Gaelic culture was a much respected branch of knowledge. Dindsenchas, as it is called in Irish, took pride of place in many of the ancient historical documents written in Gaelic, and no scholarly work was complete without a grand exposition of origin of place names. Even today, Irish people celebrate the poetry and beauty of the place names pertaining to their locality, and the government sponsored site, Logainm is a useful and much consulted resource for the many that are still interested in Dindsenchas.
Many Gaelic place names are exquisitely descriptive. There is the celebrated Snámh Dá Éan, the anglicized version of which featured in the title of the Flann O’Brien novel At Swim-Two-Birds. There is the area of my town Inis (meaning island) called Cluain Rámhfhada and which means the field of the long rowing (ploughing) — good, fertile land, in other words. St Kevin’s famous monastery of Gleann Dá Loch, is located in a glen with two lakes. Some place names can give you an insight into the history or prehistory of an area. Any place with a lios, dún or cathair in its name boasted an Iron Age fort, e.g. Cathair Cheallaigh near Inis was Kelly’s fort in the long-distant past. The place called Áth Longfoirt on the River Shannon in Co. Clare, tells us that the Danes had one of their enclosed ports for their longboats there a thousand years ago. What about the area of west Clare called Corca Baiscinn — the land of the Basques? Could Basques have settled there at some stage? With these examples, the utility of dindsenchas can be shown: when no written history exists, place names can often gives us a hint as to who was doing what in a particular area perhaps thousands of years ago. On the road from Luimneach to Inis, you pass by a hill called Drom Ólainn (the hill of Ólann) and another area called Carraig Odhráin (the rock of Odhrán). It is remarkable that the names of two shadowy figures (possibly chieftains or kings) from the Celtic twilight are still remembered in spite of all the turmoil, linguistic and social, that has occurred over the last thousand years — the Viking invasion, that of the Normans, the English colonization of the country, the slow but relentless genocide they committed between Cromwell’s conquest and the Land War, the near death of the Irish language.
What is also remarkable is the survival in a huge number of place names of recollections of Ireland’s pre-Christian beliefs and mythology. These remnants stretch back to before the coming of St Patrick and his fellow holy men in the fifth century AD and have weathered the storms mentioned above as well as the slow co-option of pagan sites and practices by the Church. Many features of the landscape are named after the old gods (Celtic or even pre-Celtic). Ireland’s largest river, in its anglicized form, the Shannon, is called after Sionna, a Celtic goddess. There is a lake in east Co. Clare called Loch Gréine in honour of the ancient dark-sun (winter) goddess, Gráinne. Nearby in Co. Limerick is the hill Cnoc Áine that bears the name of her sister Áine, the summer sun goddess. Scattered around the country are sites that make reference to other gods (my favourite names recall the evil god, Crom — Maigh Chromtha in Co. Cork, for example) or figures from the great mythological cycles (the river Forghas in Co. Clare, or the many beds [usually portal or wedge tombs] of the eloped lovers Diarmuid and Gráinne — Leaba Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne). A whole mountain, Sliabn na mBan (the mountain of the women) derives its name from the episode where the mythological warrior, Fionn mac Cumhail, had so many women suitors that a race to the top of a mountain was organised, with the winner to become his bride.
Everywhere in the landscape there are references to the old Gaelic Otherworld. Fairies (aes sídhe) abound: Cill na Sí (the church of the fairy mound) in Co. Longford; Cnoc na Sí (the fairy mountain) in Co. Sligo. The Cailleach (a malevolent hag/weather goddess) was someone you didn’t want to cross paths with, although she’s immortalized in many place names: Ceann Caillí (hag’s head) on the Cliffs of Moher, Co. Clare; Sliabh na Caillí (hag’s mountain) in Co. Meath. The richest sources of references to the Otherworld or mythology in general are the names of megalithic monuments. An alignment in Co. Cork is called na Seisear, the six, implying that six men or six fairies were turned into rock by someone or something. A hill near an Tulach (the hill) in Co. Clare upon which sits an alignment is called Cnoc na Fear Bréaga (the hill of the false men). The legend surrounding these stones tells of a St. Mochulla, who at the time was building his church in an Tulach. He sent some of his followers into Inis to get some provisions for the settlement. On the way back with, among other things, a bull, the monks were set upon by thieves. The bull gave a loud roar, which was heard by St. Mochulla, who at a distance of at least a few miles, turned the thieves into the standing stones.
The name for Ireland herself goes back to the Chalcolithic Age. According to linguist Theo Vennemann, the Gaelic name for the island, Éire, comes from the Sanskrit word for copper, and was given to the island by prospectors from Atlantic Europe who mined copper in Co. Kerry. But there may be toponyms in use today that are older than those composed by Bronze Age proto-Celtic or Iron Age Celtic peoples. In a theory called the Old European Hydronym Theory, old pre-Indo-European place names, especially those for “basic” topographical features such as rivers and mountains, survived the coming of Indo-European-speaking peoples and became assimilated into their lexicons. Hence the number of rivers all over Europe called al, alm or sal or salm. Whether this “Old European” language was hunter-gatherer or first-farmer is up for debate. Another theory states that when Indo-European-speaking peoples such as the Celts moved into new territories like Irealnd (perhaps around 3,000 BC) they came across a Basque-like language and that some of the words from this language were retained. Thus, Dublin’s River Liffey is said to come from proto-Basque, and the names for many Irish rivers containing the Basque word for water, ura. And so the name for a river near my home town, An Dúire, may go back six or seven thousand years to when the first farmers arrived to Ireland! It’s only words? Ha!