Dindsenchas | Ireland’s Lore of Places
Updated: Jul 27
Dublin – Baile atha Cliath
Following on from Monday’s post, there is an ancient Irish text called the Dindsendchas, meaning ‘lore of places’, which contains over 176 poems, some of them dating back as far as the eleventh century, concerning how various locations in Ireland got their names.
Some of these tales are quite fanciful, and clearly not true, but many of them derive from much earlier texts, which in turn describe long mnemonic poems and prose obviously devised to be recited from memory, as in the ancient bardic oral tradition.
In ancient times, there were very few large towns or settlements, so places were often named after distinctive features in the landscape, such as hills, lakes, islands, valleys, rivers, rocks, and so on.
Later on, as populations and their habitats grew, places came to be named after man-made features, for example churches, castles, bridges.
Most place names in Ireland are of Gaelic origin, but some derive from old Norse, English and Scottish languages.
Dublin is an interesting example; although settled by Vikings, the city’s name comes from the Irish dubh linn, meaning ‘black pool’, yet the official Irish name is Baile atha Cliath, meaning ‘town by the hurdled ford’… confused yet?
Most Irish place names have been anglicised, or adapted to suit English phonology. Some interesting examples of this are:
Ardee, Louth, ard in Irish means ‘high’
Athlone, Westmeath, áth in Irish means ‘ford’.
Ballyconnell, Cavan, bally from baile in Irish, means ‘home’ or ‘homestead’.
Carrickmacross, Monaghan, carrig in irish means ‘rock’ or ‘rocky outcrop’.
Finglas, Dublin, fin in irish from fionn meaning clear/ light/ white.
Kildare, of same county, kil from cill in Irish meaning church/ churchyard.
I live near a small town in Cavan called Virginia… sorry to all the Irish people reading this, but you can’t get more English than that! In Irish, however, the name gets much more interesting; Achad an Iúir, meaning ‘field of the yew’. I wonder if Iúir could have been mistaken for lir or ler, the old word for sea; seeing as the town is situated right on the shores of the vast Lough Ramor, it could quite easily have been thought of as a field of water, or an inland sea.
The Vikings came to Ireland in the C9th, plundering and pillaging at first, but then settling and adapting to Irish life. Their language soon filtered down into the naming of places, and we can see evidence of this in some of our towns, for example Arklow comes from the Old Norse Arkells-Lag, meaning ‘Arkell’s (name of a person) low place’; in Irish, the place name is an tInbhear Mór, anglicised to Invermore. Skerries, in Irish na Sceirí, comes form Skeri in old Norse, and Wexford, meaning ‘muddy ford’, comes from the old Norse Veisa Fjoror, but in Irish is called Loch Garman.
Later, English place names began to be used, Sometimes they were just Anglicizations of existing names, sometimes they were completely new, and were often pre-fixed or suffixed with words such as abbey, town/ ton, bridge, castle, church, and so on.
The names for Ireland’s provinces have interesting stories; Leinster, Munster and Ulster are all combinations of the old Irish names with the Old Norse staor, meaning ‘land of’;
Leinster, from Laighin and staor.
Munster, from Mumhain and staor.
Ulster, from Ulaidh and staor.
Connacht comes from Connachta, which was the name of the large tribe which ruled that province.
Incidentally, the word for ‘province’ in Irish is cuige, which means ‘one fifth’… why are they named ‘one fifth’ when there are only 4 provinces? Because in ancient times there was actually a fifth province, that of Mide, which formed the centre, or ‘naval’ of all Ireland, and it was from Tara at it’s heart from where the High King ruled.