Farm Ireland

Thursday 26 April 2018

Opinion: Placenames are whispers from an ancient heritage

A sign on the Tralee/Dingle road
A sign on the Tralee/Dingle road
Jim O'Brien

Jim O'Brien

I am fascinated by placenames. Driving around the country visiting farming properties, a favourite pastime of mine is to attempt to make sense of the myriad of placenames I encounter by translating them back into the original Irish.

While many of the names are Norman, English, Norse and Scottish in origin, the vast majority come from the Irish.

As a hobby it is inexhaustible, just like counting sheep to help you sleep you will never run out of imaginary sheep, likewise it would take a long time to run out of placenames to explore and decipher in Ireland.

For instance, while large ordnance survey maps might include up to 20 or 30 minor placenames in every townland, a deeper survey in Co Mayo found 800 in a particular townland.

Peeling back placenames to reveal what lies behind them is a pursuit that can be tinged with sadness and a sense of loss. Gerard Curtin, a local historian from West Limerick, captures this most poignantly in the introduction to his lovely publication entitled Every Field Had a Name, and sub-titled, 'The Place Names of West Limerick'.

Describing his task he says the research undertaken, "has only been able to catch the dying whispers of the once-rich oral tradition of the minor placenames of west Limerick. If such a study was undertaken fifty or seventy years ago many more placenames would have been recorded. Alas, one can only deal with the here and now."

This sense of loss is a symptom of the loss of Irish as a widely spoken language.

There is no doubt this loss has led to a profound disconnect; the places where we live and move and have our being have names that make little sense either in the language we now speak or in the language that crafted them, that gave them their significance and meaning, a language that is now rarely used.

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In many ways the British did us somewhat of a favour when, in the course of their mapping of the country in the 19th century, rather than translate the placenames directly into English they chose to anglicise the names phonetically.

Their efforts have inadvertently left us with a living dictionary, a vocabulary lesson at every crossroads and at every ditch.

For instance, they could have decided that Droim an Easpaig in Cavan should become Bishopsridge, but they chose to leave the name as it was and spell it in phonetic English so we have Dromanespic. Anyone asking what the name means will learn the Irish word for ridge is 'droim' and for bishop is 'easpag'.

If ever there is to be a revival of Irish as a widely spoken language, the placenames will offer a ready scaffolding to support it. But will there ever be such a revival?

This is another subject that rattles around in my head as I drive the high and the low roads of the country. Most certainly there is enough Irish around to provide for a strong starting point.

Recently a pair of my family members returned from a spell at Irish college. For the first few days after their return the household drifted comfortably between the Irish and English but a combination of laziness and shyness meant we eventually drifted back to English.

The revival or survival of the Irish language is a subject for another day but I just wanted to make an observation in the context of the current topic.

To return to placenames, and more specifically to field names, I think there is an important piece of heritage protection to be done in this whole area - and farmers are key to it.

On most of our farms every field has a name, some go back centuries and others are relatively recent. The more contemporary names often refer to a past owner of the field but some of the older names refer to the nature or the topography of the field or to some original purpose or a historical event.

They all contain a richness. I believe we should try and capture all these names and the places to which they belong.

In 1939 the folklore commission asked primary schoolchildren from all over the country to gather stories, pisogues, customs and traditions from their parents and grandparents in order to capture from older people as much of the folklore customs and traditions of the country as possible before it faded from living memory.

It's time to do the same with our field names. It needs concerted effort on behalf of the heritage and language authorities, in collaboration with the farming organisations, to systematically gather the field names of the country for posterity. It could also act as another piece of scaffolding should there ever be a serious attempt to rebuild Irish as a living, widely spoken language.

We should listen to Gerard Curtin when he talks about catching the 'dying whispers of a once rich oral tradition'.

How our placenames were Anglicised

Anglicising Irish placenames took place between 1800 and 1830 when, after the Act of Union the British Government sought to establish total control over the island of Ireland.

It began by measuring the country. This task was undertaken by the Ordnance Survey, which began its work in the 1820s. In order to put together a cohesive piece of work the Ordnance Survey sought to establish the spelling in English of all of the rural placenames on the island. In most cases they simply listened to the sound of the name and spelled it accordingly in English.

This was the job of the Topographical Section of the Ordnance Survey. In fairness to those working on the process, before fixing on an English name for a place they took great care to research local traditions and customs and took into account any documentary references from early histories.

However, a lot of the richness and tradition incorporated in the Irish placenames was lost. The local landlord also had a strong say in the final version of some placenames.

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