Exploring the place names of Wicklow
Reporter David Medcalf spent a few pleasurable hours in the library in Baltinglass exploring the County of Wicklow in the company of a man who died 50 years ago - but whose work on place names retains its appeal
Dear editor, apologies for being a little behind schedule with the book reviews but at least some progress is being made. The work described here was completed in the 1970s, so now we are just four decades off the pace…
At the public library in Baltinglass, which is attached to the old courthouse in the middle of the town, I tracked down a book which pre-dates Google. Yet the pages of this hefty work represent the masterly output of an author who could be described as a one man search engine.
'The Place Names of County Wicklow' was written by Liam Price. His survey of every place in every parish in the Garden County is rated so important that the library holds two copies. However, they are so rare and valuable that both volumes are kept under lock and key, accessible to readers only on application to the ever helpful staff. For anyone who has an interest in the history and heritage of Wicklow, it is well worth asking for that key and spending a few hours studying the contents. Between humble covers is presented a wide ranging treasure trove of local lore, a kaleidoscope of cultural influences and land holding.
Liam George Price - to give him his full handle - was not the most obvious candidate for the job he took in such rigorous hand. He was born in February of 1891 and was educated at an English public school before graduating in classics from Trinity College in Dublin. He became a barrister by profession and was appointed a District Court judge on the foundation of the State.
In this role, he heard his first cases in Mullingar and Kilkenny but finally arrived at the age of 33 in Wicklow in 1924 - happily as it turned out for Wicklow. No doubt his attachment to the place where he served on the bench until 1960 was strengthened by the circumstances of his marriage. His bride was a lady called Doctor Dorothy Stopford and he proposed to her against the unbearably romantic backdrop of Luggalaw.
Away from his day job in justice, Price had an inexhaustible enthusiasm for history, for folklore and for placenames. He served as president of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, no less, and he was also a member of the Folklore Commission. His idea of an afternoon well spent was a prompt adjournment of his court followed by an interview with an old man whom he would interrogate about local places and traditions.
Everything which he learned in the course of these interviews and during visits to sites of historical interest was recorded in his notebooks. And he backed up his researches on the spot with visits to libraries, consulting sources ranging wildly from the rent rolls of large estates to articles in the provincial press.
Most Irish placenames are literally that - places named in Irish - though the original tongue may be concealed behind Anglicised spellings and mis-heard renderings. Liam Price, former public schoolboy, took the trouble to learn the country's vernacular language and, though never fluent, he had a good working knowledge to bring to his studies. This allowed him to make an educated guess as to the derivation of the names he so diligently compiled and elaborated upon.
His hobby attracted the attention of the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, which undertook to publish 'The Place Names of County Wicklow' in instalments. They stuck by their commitment and the author stuck to his task, though the process took more than two decades, with instalments issued at varying intervals over the period from 1945 to 1967. The suspicion must be that Price was racing against time to finish what he had started as he died around the time that the last part appeared. The immense detail devoted by the author to townlands around Glendalough in the 1940s is lavish contrasted with the terse entries he logged in the sixties for places around Arklow.
The library in Baltinglass has two copies of the entire series, the first a gathering together of the various instalments, all printed and bound together by A Thom and Company Limited in Dublin. The second copy is a more elegantly assembled later publication with a snazzy white dust jacket - but the first is the one which this reader instinctively picked up as more in tune with the author. The older volume bears a stamp testifying that it was acquired by the library in 1971 and that the re-binding exercise cost the taxpayer a sum of 14 shillings - about 89 cents.
The original notice to readers remains inside: 'Borrowers should remember that where a case of Infectious Disease occurs in their house, any Library books in their possession at the time should be immediately handed over to an officer of the Sanitary Authority to be disinfected or destroyed.' Imagine being wracked with scarlet fever, staggering from the sick bed in order turn in an overdue Agatha Christie to the health board lest the full might of the Public Health Acts as amended in 1907 be invoked.
To digest 'The Place Names of County Wicklow' from cover to cover in one go would be a demanding exercise. However, though the book lacks the narrative drive of a thriller, it offers a pool of knowledge which certainly repays dipping into, or maybe splashing about in, or even total immersion.
In the tradition of the best academic writing, it is riddled with footnotes and cross-references. Despite the blizzard of meticulously assembled learned citations, the findings of the great man are presented with common-sense indexes. These make it easy for the casual reader to find a way through the maze to the relevant page.
It would be a pity, however, to linger on just one page as there are diverting nuggets strewn throughout with careless abandon. He strays over the border into Carlow to air his conviction that Hacketstown should more properly be styled Nicholstown. And he sometimes contrives to write enthusiastically about almost nothing: 'Downings is a smell townland which contains no features of interest' - with apologies to anyone who resides in Downings.
Price suggests that Ballinafunshoge may be the site of the Battle of Glenmalure in 1580, that Lough Dan was named after a river goddess and that Glendalough should really be called Castlekevin. Of course Kevin - sometimes also spelled over the centuries at Kevyne, Keivin, Keyvin, Keyuin, Keyvyn or whatever you're having yourself - is not the only saint to rate a mention. Kiltegan honours Saint Tegan, of whom nothing is known.
According to the index, the writer identified six locations throughout the county as Saint Patrick's Well, despite the fact that the most holy of holy men probably never visited county, being more inclined towards Kildare. Patrick's Well was not the only example of a name worth repeating when they were handing out placenames.
Deerpark and Newtown also both feature half a dozen times, while Ballyknockan is on the county map in five different spots. If the index may be trusted, Brittas is not only the famous Bay but may also be applied to three other places. Others which crop up fourfold include Brideswell, Ballard, Bawnogue, Carrig, Drummin, Johnstown, Kilbride and Kilpatrick.
It turns out that it is not necessary to go to Dublin to find a Cabra, because Wicklow has a Cabra of its own. Could it be that one of the Wicklow Springfields (there are at least two, apparently) is the spiritual home of The Simpsons? The list of names not usually associated with the county also extends to Newry, Kanturk and Longford, not to mention Whitehall, Stratford and Woodstock.
Perhaps the quaintest of the lot is the cutely titled Pennycomequick Bridge.
A rummage through the 400-plus pages suggests that the longest name of all is the grandly christened Templenecalliaghduffe with all its convolutions, which weighs in at 21 letters, with Tobernachristhamaun two off the pace, followed by Rockamonyeenam with Carrigeenshinnagh and Crithanacauytheen also not far behind. But there are plenty of short names too - Barr, Brag, Coan, Kill and Kish, for examples.
Price traced Bray (more likely pronounced Bree in bygone times) back to the 13th century and maybe earlier, while Stratford was more precisely dated 1783. That was specifically when Strafford was built by Edward Stratford, second Earl of Aldbury. Nearby Blessington, we learn, was long ago referred to instead as Villa Cumin.
Liam Price threw all he had to hand into the mix, which tends to dilute all sense of perspective. He dismissed both Enniskerry and Arklow in a few scant lines but stretched his study of Baltinglass to three pages.
And he preferred Ovoca to Avoca!
Eccentric, sometimes obscure, often enlightening, a book of a thousand cul-de-sacs, 'The Place Names of County Wicklow' remains well worth a place on the reading list of anyone who loves Wicklow.