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The vast majority of placenames in Ireland are anglicisations of Irish language (Gaeilge) names. However, some names come directly from the English language, and a handful come from Old Norse. The study of placenames in Ireland unveils features of the country's history and geography, and the development of the Irish language. The name of Ireland itself comes from the Gaeilge name Éire, added to the Germanic word land. In mythology, Éire was an Irish goddess of the land and of sovereignty (see Ériu).

In some cases, the official name is wholly different from the official Gaeilge name. An example is Dublin. Its name is derived from the Gaeilge dubh linn (meaning "black pool"), but its official Gaeilge name is Baile Átha Cliath (meaning "town of the hurdled ford").




Names of Irish Gaelic origin

For most of the so-called "Gaelic period", there were very few towns or large settlements in Ireland. Hence, most places were named after noteworthy features of the landscape, such as hills, rocks, valleys, lakes, islands, harbours, etc. As time went on, more places were named after man-made features, such as churches, castles, bridges, etc. Some of the most common elements found in Irish place names are shown in the following table:

Anglicised spelling Irish English translation Example
agha, aghy, augha achadh field Aghalee, Aughagower
ard ard high/height Ardglass
ath áth ford Athlone
bally baile town Ballymena
bally, balla, ballagh bealach pass/passage Ballyclare, Ballaghmore
ban, bane, bain bán white Kinbain
beg beag small Owenbeg
bel, bell béal mouth/rivermouth Belfast
ben, bin binn/beann peak Benbaun, Binevenagh
boy buí yellow Bawnboy
brack breac mottled Mullaghbrack
bun bun river's bottom/foot/mouth Bundoran
cap, capp ceapach plot/tillage Cappagh
carn carn cairn Carnmoney
carrow, carry ceathrú quarter Carrowdore, Carryduff
carrig, carrick, craig carraig rock Carrigaline, Carrickfergus
clare cláir level land Cooraclare
clough, clogh cloch rock Clough, Clogh
clon, clone, cloon cluain meadow Clonmel, Cloondara
coom cúm hollow Coomkeen
cor corr small round hill Corblonog
corry, curry coire corrie Rockcorry, Tubbercurry
cul, cool cúl back Coolmine, Cultra
cul, cool cuil corner Coolock
derry doire grove/oak-grove Derry
dona, donagh domhnach church Donaghadee, Donabate
droghed, drohed, drohid droichead bridge Drogheda, Clondrohid
drom, drum droim ridge/hillock Dromore, Drumshanbo
duff dubh black Claddaghduff
dun dún stronghold/fort Dungannon
ennis inis island Enniskillen
esk, eish eiscir esker Eskra
fin fionn clear/white/fair Finglas
freagh, frack fraoch heather Letterfrack
garv garbh rough Garvaghey
glas, glass glas green Glasnevin
glen, glan gleann valley Glenties, Glanmire
gorm gorm blue Glengormley
gort gort field Gortnahoe
illan, illaun oileán island Illaunmaistir
innis, inish inis island Inniskeen, Inishmaan
kil, kill cill church Kildare
kil, kill coill woodland[1] Kilcogy
kin ceann/cionn head Kinallen
knock cnoc hill Knockcloghrim
lea liath grey Killylea
letter leitir hillside Letterkenny
lis lios ring fort Liscannor
lough loch lake Loughgall
lurgan lorgain long ridge Lurgan
maum mám mountain pass Maum
mag, magh maigh/machaire plain Magherafelt
may, moy maigh/machaire plain Maynooth, Moycullen
mona, money móna/monaidh peatland/turf Cornamona, Ballymoney
mulla, malla mullach peak/summit Mullaghbawn, Malahide
mullin muileann mill Mullingar
more mór big/great Tullamore
noe nua new Ballynoe
poll, poul poll hole Pollagh, Poulaphouca
port port stronghold/fort Portlaoise
port port landing place Portadown
rah, rath ráth ringfort Rathfarnham, Raheny
reagh, revagh riabhach brindled/speckled Moneyreagh, Cloonsheerevagh
roe rua(dh) red Carraroe
ros, rosh, rus, rush ros woodland Roscrea, Kilrush
shan sean old Shandon
sheskin seiscenn marsh/quagmire Sheskin
ske, skey, skay, skea sceach hawthorn Skeheenarinky, Ballyskeagh
slieve sliabh hill Slieve Donard
termon tearmann refuge/sanctuary Termonfeckin
tieve taobh hillside Tievebulliagh
tyr, tir tír territory Tyrone, Tirconnell
tober, tubber tóbar water well Tobermore, Tubberclare
tra trá beach/strand Tramore
tuam, toom tuaim burial mound Tuam, Toomevara
tully, tulla, tullagh tulach hillock Tullyhogue, Tullamore

Names of Norse origin

During the 800s and 900s, Vikings from Scandinavia raided monasteries along Ireland's coasts and waterways. The Vikings spoke the Old Norse language and are also called Norsemen. They set up small coastal camps called longphorts — these were used as bases for their raiding parties and as shelters during the winter. Eventually some longphorts grew into Norse settlements and trading ports. The biggest of these were Dublin (which became a Norse-Gaelic kingdom), Wexford, Waterford, Cork and Limerick. Over time, the Norsemen embraced Gaelic language and culture, becoming known as the Norse-Gaels (or Gall-Gaidhel in Irish).

Placenames derived from Old Norse:

Place Old Norse
Arklow Arkells-lág an tInbhear Mór The Irish was historically anglicised as Invermore.
Carlingford Kerling-fjorðr Cairlinn The name is a meld of cairlinn (Irish) + fjorðr (Norse).
Dalkey Dalk-øy Deilginis The name is a meld of deilg (Irish) + øy (Norse).
Fastnet Hvasstann-ait Carraig Aonair
Howth Hovuð Binn Éadair
Lambay Lamb-øy Reachrainn
Leixlip Lax Hlaup Léim an Bhradáin The Irish is a translation of the Old Norse, meaning "salmon leap".
Saltee Salt-øy Na Sailtí The Irish is a Gaelicisation of the Old Norse.
Strangford Strangr-fjorðr Loch Cuan
Skerries Skeri Na Sceirí The Irish is a Gaelicisation of the Old Norse.
Waterford Veðra-fjorðr Port Láirge The Norse name literally means "weather-fjord"; the English name is a folk etymology.
Wexford Veisa-fjorðr Loch Garman The Irish was historically anglicised as Loughgarman.[2]
Wicklow Víkingr-lág Cill Mhantáin The Irish was historically anglicised as Kilmantan.[3]

Names of English origin

After the Norman invasion of Ireland, which began in 1169, Anglo-Norman and English language placenames emerged in the areas under Anglo-Norman control. Most of these are within the bounds of "The Pale" — the area that stayed under direct English control for the longest, and where English language and culture held sway. It stretched along the east coast from Dundalk in the north to Dalkey in the south.

Between 1556 and 1641, during its "re-conquest of Ireland", the English colonised parts of the country with settlers from Britain. This is known as the "Plantations of Ireland". The northern province of Ulster was the most heavily colonised. Those who settled as part of the "Plantation of Ulster" were required to be English speaking. The result is that northeast Ulster also has a great number of English-derived placenames.

Such placenames often refer to buildings and other manmade features. They often include forms such as -town, -ton, -ville, -borough, -bury, bridge, mill, castle, abbey, church, etc. However, forms such as hill, mount, mont, wood, bay, brook etc are not uncommon.

Republic of Ireland

Welcome sign at Ballickmoyler

In the Republic of Ireland, both Irish and English names have equal status and are displayed on roadsigns, although postmarks are only in Irish.

After the foundation of the Irish Free State in 1922, some English names were reverted to their Irish equivalents. This included Kingstown in County Dublin, which was changed back to Dún Laoghaire (pronounced /dʌn ˈlɪəri/ by English speakers, and [duːn ˈɫeːrʲə] by Irish speakers) and Queenstown in County Cork, which was changed back to Cóbh ([koːv]). King's County and Queen's County were renamed County Offaly and County Laois respectively in 1921.

Pursuant to the Official Languages Act, 2003 and the advice of the Coimisiún Logainmneacha (Place-Names Commission), the statutory instrument 59 of 2005 Placenames (Centres of Population and Districts) Order 2005 was issued listing the equivalent in the Irish language of place-names specified in the Order with its English form. The Irish words then had the same meaning and same force and effect as the place-name. This order lists a little fewer than 2,000 place-names, many of which were changed from the Irish form used since independence, e.g. Bray went from Brí Chualann to Bré and Naas changed from Nás na Rí to An Nás.

Northern Ireland

Welcome sign at Rostrevor

In Northern Ireland, the new recognition of the status of the Irish language does not extend to bilingual roadsigns - it is down to individual district councils to decide to place them. Some towns in Fermanagh, Omagh, Moyle, Magherafelt, Newry and Mourne and Cookstown council areas display bilingual names on some welcome signs (eg. "OMAGH" An Ómaigh).

Names of provinces

The four provinces (cúigí - singular: cúige) are known as:

  • Connacht - Connacht(a) / Cúige Chonnacht - meaning "Conn's land"
  • Munster - An Mhumhain / Cúige Mumhan - meaning "Land of Mumha's men"
  • Leinster - Laighin / Cúige Laighean - meaning "Land of Broad Spears"
  • Ulster - Ulaidh / Cúige Uladh - meaning "Land of Ulaid's men"

The word cúige originally meant 'a fifth', as in one-fifth part of Ireland, because Meath, as seat of the High King of Ireland, was once a province in its own right, incorporating modern counties Meath, Westmeath and parts of surrounding counties. Meath was later absorbed into Leinster.

Names of counties

Most of the counties were named after a town in that county, usually an administrative centre. Some of these towns, such as Louth, have declined into small villages or have lost their county town status to other towns. Counties not named after towns include County Fermanagh, County Kerry and County Westmeath.

The 32 counties (contaetha - singular: contae) of Ireland are known as:

  • County Antrim - Aontroim / Co. Aontroma - meaning "Solitary Farm"
  • County Armagh - Ard Mhacha / Co. Ard Mhacha - meaning "Macha's Height"
  • County Carlow - Ceatharlach / Co. Cheatharlaigh - meaning "Abounding in cattle", not "four lakes" as some might assume
  • County Cavan - An Cabhán / Co. an Chabháin - meaning "The Hollow"
  • County Clare - An Clár / Co. an Chláir - meaning "Level Land"
  • County Cork - Corcaigh / Co. Chorcaí - meaning "Marsh"
  • County Donegal - Dún na nGall / Co. Dhún na nGall - meaning "Fort of the Foreigners" (Vikings) or Tír Chonaill / Co. Thír Chonaill - meaning "Conal's land"
  • County Down - An Dún / Co. an Dúin - meaning "The Fort"
  • County Dublin - Áth Cliath / Co. Átha Cliath - meaning "Town by the Hurdle ford"
  • County Fermanagh - Fear Manach / Co. Fhear Manach - meaning "Men (tribe) of Monach"
  • County Galway - Gaillimh / Co. na Gaillimhe - meaning "Rocky/Stony River"
  • County Kerry - Ciarraí / Co. Chiarraí - the descendants of (tribe) of Ciar
  • County Kildare - Cill Dara / Co. Chill Dara - meaning "Church by the Oak"
  • County Kilkenny - Cill Chainnigh / Co. Chill Chainnigh - meaning "Canice's Church"
  • County Laois - Laois / Co. Laoise - named after Lughaidh Laeighseach, a chieftain
  • County Leitrim - Liatroim / Co. Liatroma - meaning "Grey Ridge"
  • County Limerick - Luimneach / Co. Luimnigh - meaning "Bare Land"
  • County Londonderry - Doire / Co. Dhoire - meaning "Oak Wood"
  • County Longford - Longfort / Co. Longfoirt - meaning "Fortress"
  • County Louth - Lú / Co. Lú - originally Lughbhadh, which was named after the Celtic god Lugh. Does not mean "smallest".
  • County Mayo - Maigh Eo / Co. Mhaigh Eo - meaning "Plain of the Yews"
  • County Meath - An Mhí / Co. na Mí - meaning "Middle", because it was the middle province
  • County Monaghan - Muineachán / Co. Mhuineacháin - meaning "Place of Thickets"
  • County Offaly - Uíbh Fhailí / Co. Uíbh Fhailí - derived from "Ua Fáilghe" meaning "Descendants of Fáilghe"
  • County Roscommon - Ros Comáin / Co. Ros Comáin - meaning "Corman's wood"
  • County Sligo - Sligeach / Co. Shligigh - meaning "Shell-river"
  • County Tipperary - Tiobraid Árann / Co. Thiobraid Árann - meaning "House of the Well of Ara"
  • County Tyrone - Tír Eoghain / Co. Thír Eoghain - meaning "Eoghan's Land"
  • County Waterford - Port Láirge / Co. Phort Láirge - "Waterford" comes from the Viking "Vadre fjord"
  • County Westmeath - An Iarmhí / Co. na hIarmhí - the western part of the old Meath
  • County Wexford - Loch Garman / Co. Loch Garman - "Wexford" comes from the Viking "Hvitar fjordr" meaning "white fjord"[citation needed]. Loch Garman/Loch Gorman/Loch gCorman means Gorman's Lake
  • County Wicklow - Cill Mhantáin / Co. Chill Mhantáin - meaning "Mantan's Church" or "Church of the Toothless One"; "Wicklow" comes from the Old Norse "Víkingalág" meaning "Vikng's Meadow" or "Viking's Lake."

Names of cities

Names of towns/villages

Names of streets and areas

See also


  1. ^ Joyce calculates that at least 700 of the "kil(l)-" placenames, usually taken to mean "church", actually refer to woods that no longer exist. [1]
  2. ^ Lacy, Thomas. Sights and Scenes in Our Fatherland. Simpkin, Marshall & Co., 1863. Page 404.
  3. ^ Placenames Database of Ireland - Wicklow: Archival records

External links


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