Irish Placenames

(Ceathru na hAille, Lios Gabhach agiis Gort a' Bhealaigh)

For anyone wishing to make a study of Irish place names, there is one book he or she would find indispensable, namely "The Origin and History of Irish Names and Places" written by P.W. Joyce LL.D., M.R.I.A. and published about one hundred and forty years ago. The copy I possess is a second edition printed in 1870 and has the advantage over the first edition, according to Joyce, in that it is enlarged and corrected. It deals with the place names of this country, their historical background, their original Gaelic forms and their subsequent rendering in English; a book of tremendous scholarship and research. The nomenclature of most European countries is made up of the languages of various races.
Here in Ireland however, there was little or no admixture of races until the introduction of a ruling English element about four hundred years ago. Our place names are almost purely Irish, allowing for a small percentage, which is of recent introduction and which are readily detectable as simply English. This great name system has begun thousands of years ago by the first wave of population which reached our shores, and continued down the centuries, until it included every feature of this land in its intricate web. These place names which came from the minds of our distant ancestors exist practically unchanged to this day. There were four different invasions of Ireland in pre-Christian times of which we have some knowledge, beginning about 500 B.C. and ending with the Goidels as late as 100 B.C. These were all Celtic; the first three groups spoke what we know now as a P-Celtic dialect; the last group, the Goidels, spoke a Q-Celtic dialect and in time became the ruling class here. There were invasions previous to 500 B.C. and an intensive study of our place names would certainly reveal pre-Celtic forms. However, the great majority of our place names are Irish words, most of them dating from those pre-Christian times.
The interpretation of a place name involves two processes. The first is to find the ancient orthography, and then to determine the meaning of this original form. Most of our local names are perfectly intelligible to those who understand the phonetic laws which have applied to them, though written now in their anglicised form. We have Dr. John O'Donovan to thank for this. While engaged in the Ordnance Survey work in the early nineteenth century, O'Donovan travelled most of Ireland charting the topography, as well as collecting and naming antiquities. His method generally was to get the oldest, most intelligent inhabitant to pronounce the name of the townland and then assist in interpreting it. His work is contained in the 'Field Name Books', several thousand parchment-covered volumes, deposited with the R.I.A.
Joyce made full use of the O'Donovan letters and Field Name Books in his own work.
O'Donovan faced the problem of providing a spelling in English which would capture the exact sound of the word when spoken in Gaelic. Not an easy task when one considers the use of elision, aspiration, and eclipses in the Gaelic which often demand a lot more letters to give the same sound in Irish as in English. Our ancestors were a pastoral and agricultural people and the place names reflect this.
Many place names describe different types of land divisions and types of soil, but the words used are no longer in common use in Gaelic. That richness of vocabulary is now lost to us and our Irish language of to-day is but an impoverished remnant of what it once was.
The great danger now is, that not knowing the correct meaning of place name, we might be tempted to substitute words we do know, and so cobble together a meaning to satisfy ourselves, instead of engaging in proper research. We can be certain of one thing; the present English spelling of a place name is phonetically accurate to capture the original and exact pronunciation of the name as spoken in Gaelic. Not knowing or not understanding the original Gaelic does not give carte blanche for substitutions or fanciful concoctions.

Ceathru na hAille: (Carnahalla)
This town land is known to us in English as Carnahalla. An older English version of more than a hundred years ago gives it as Carnahallia, the ending in -ia (pronounced -ya,) exactly captures the final syllable in 'hAille'. This name is very old and derives from the system of early Irish land divisions. In the year 1870 in Ireland there were 325 baronies, 2422 parishes and 62,000 town lands. But there had been other sub-divisions much earlier. One of these was Seisreach, meaning a plough land, which was a fixed amount of land. There were also fractions of this amount. So we have Leath (half), train (third), Ceathramhadh from Ceathair, meaning a quarter and Coigeadh, meaning a fifth. Written in English as Cooga, this is the name of numerous town lands in all provinces. There is one in our own parish, another in Upperchurch and three town lands in Mayo alone called Coogue. The word Aill means a cliff or steep incline, genitive case - na hAille. Ceathramhadh na hAille then means the quarter plough land of the cliff. You can see this ancient name engraved on limestone at John Joe Fahy's gate. He took it from the old roll books, used by Master William Ryan in Carnahallia School. The Gaelige has been standardised since, and it now reads as Ceathru na hAille.

Lios Gabhach: (Lisgaugh)
In pre-Christian Ireland, buildings of all the various kinds were round, including domestic dwellings, defensive fortifications and burial mounds. These buildings were known as, lios, dun, rath, cathair, brugh etc., names which still apply today. Some of the ancient manuscripts record the building of these forts. The word Lios was applied to a circular mound or entrenchment of earth thrown up as a fortification around the level space on which the houses were erected. There are 1400 town lands and villages throughout all parts of Ireland whose names begin with the word 'Lis', and this is but a small fraction of such 'liosanna' in this country. We have two in our own parish. The word 'Gabhach' means dangerous or perilous, the letters 'bh' are sounded as 'w'. The present English spelling of Liscaugh is phonetically perfect to render the Irish Gabhach. The place name Lisgaugh occurs several places in Munster. The original lios which gave Lisgaugh its name is still there to be seen, on land formerly owned by Nicholas Walsh R.I.P., but now owned by Kevin and Helen Roche. It is a fine example of an entrenched fortification, and encloses half an acre. There was another lios in Lisowen but sad to relate, I witnessed the destruction of it around 1958. The town land is still there of course, but the lios unfortunately is gone forever. It had a double ditch, with a stream running on top of it nearby, these indicated important tribal boundaries. Those names which include 'lios' 'dun' or 'rath' etc. pre-date Christianity and are among the most ancient place names we have. In our youth we tried to make sense of some of our local place names, not always with success.
Any words which baffled us then, we simply changed, or worse again, substituted simpler words we did know. A practice not to be recommended. Our place names are among our greatest treasures.

Gort A' Bhealaigh (Gortavalla)
This beautiful name means just what it says, The tilled field by the way'. 'Gort' means a tilled field, and is described by Joyce as a most prolific root word, there being more than 1200 town lands whose names include 'Gort' or 'Gurt'. The word 'Bealach' means a road or way, but a road of importance. In Gort a' Bhealaigh then, we have Gort, next the article, and finally the genitive case of 'Bealach' which is Bhealaigh, pronounced 'vally', 'bh' being pronounced as V. The English spelling Gortavalla expresses exactly the Gaelic words Gort a' Bhealaigh. Some years ago I came across a translation of this name as 'garden of honey'. For this to be true it would have to be written as Gortnamala in English, and in Gaelic as 'Gort na Meala'. The names of all town lands, in their present English spelling, phonetically convey the original Gaelic pronunciation. Any tampering with them is pernicious to say the least, and at worst, destructive of our heritage.
On the Castlegregory peninsula in county Kerry they have done a splendid and wonderful thing. They have erected a large stone at the border of every
townland, showing the name in Gaelic. A similar work has been done on the bridges in west Tipperary. The time has come for us in Dun Bleisce to do likewise and record for future generations, the place names handed down to us from a distant age. It would not be an impossible task, but it would be a fitting memorial to those people who first inhabited these places and gave them the names we now love.

Br. Dan Fitzgerald