Translation name game puts us in our place
Published 22/11/2015 | 02:30
One of the things I love about Ireland is the proliferation of certain surnames in certain areas - for they evoke a real sense of distinct territories, all with their own particular tribes. Sadly, the shop windows below many such signs are boarded up these days. 'Cormac Centra', 'Seamus Spar' or 'Larry Lidl' make poor replacements.
Whatever about sorry substitutes, translating surnames that are part of a place name can be tricky. Take Thomastown, where I live. The English favours the first name of its founder, while the Irish sticks to his surname. It might be an idea to drop the troublesome title altogether and revive the old Irish name of 'Grennan'. Apart from its terrifically Tolkien tones, it could lure unsuspecting tourists, since it translates as 'Sunny Place'.
For what's in a name indeed, as a map of Ireland with literal English translations of Irish counties reminded me recently. Some were straightforward, like 'Middle' and 'West Middle' for Meath and West Meath respectively. Others paid homage to the presence of once powerful personalities, like 'Coman's Wood' for Roscommon and 'Eugene's Land' for Tyrone.
Galway's translation as 'Stoney' is surely no reflection on its citizens, given that the city has been voted the friendliest in the world. Though it's no surprise that Kerry - aka 'the kingdom' - is 'People of Ciar', after the pre-Gaelic tribe who once reigned there, conveniently adding to this county's claims of blue blood.
Clare is landed, no pun intended, with 'The Plain'. Carlow sounds crowded with 'Place of Herds'. Donegal cuts a dash with 'Fort of the Foreigners', while Wicklow could capitalise on film prospects with 'Meadow of the Vikings'.
And hold the Mayo - because 'Plain of Yew Trees' surely makes more of this western county than the current version, which sounds like something you spread in a sandwich.
Limerick could bristle over 'Bare Spot'. While 'Well of the Arra' adds a tincture of poetry to Tipperary. Speaking of which, it's ironic that Sligo, or 'Yeats' County', translates as 'Shelly Place'.
'Ram Fjord' makes Waterford sound a little woolly. At least it doesn't leave you wondering about wellies, like 'Fjord Of The Mud Flats' for Wexford.
There is something comically contrarian about the fact that our biggest county, which shares its current English name with a water-resistant substance, translates as 'Marsh'. Then again, Cork also possesses a unique set of properties that are not found in any other naturally existing material, as well as being rot, fire and termite resistant, impermeable to gas and liquid. All undoubtedly useful qualities for living in a country that itself arguably better fits the term, being frequently flooded and waterlogged.
Though best keep that to ourselves, and not give Ireland a bad name.