It doesn’t take long looking at a map to realize that Irish town and city names look…well…different. At first glance they appear to be English, but they don’t seem to make any sense. What’s with all the “Bally” this and “Kill” that?
Although some Irish towns do have English names, the vast majority aren’t English at all. Rather they have been Anglicized from a language much older than English: Irish Gaelic.
Ireland’s Native Language
Until the late 1800’s, Irish (the preferred English term for the language), or An Ghaeilge, was the majority language in Ireland…in fact, it has been the predominate language of the Irish people for most of recorded history.
Irish is still the first official language of the Republic of Ireland, and is still spoken as the daily language of as many as 85,000 people.
The English colonizers, however, had little interest in learning Irish (and, in fact, made a concerted effort to eradicate it during much of their time in Ireland). When they recorded placenames, they simply wrote them down as they sounded to their ears, using English phonics.
Where do these sounds come from?
When you see a town name such as Lisdoonvarna or Limavady or Tobermore or Ballydehob, it can be hard to imagine where the sounds that make up these names could possibly come from. A little knowledge of key Irish words, however, can go a long way toward helping you decipher them!
Some Irish name roots
Here are some of the more common elements of Irish place names, with their Irish Gaelic origins and their meanings:
Ard/Ar: Ard - High/height
Ath/Aha: Átha – Ford
Bally/Balli: Baile – Town or place (also sometimes from Béal – River mouth)
Bar/Barra: Barr – Top
Barna/Varna: Bearna - Gap
Beg/Begs: Beag - Small/Little
Bel: Béal - River mouth
Cahir: Cathair – City
Carrick: Carraig - Rock
Cashel: Caiseal – Stone fort
Cloon: Cluain - Meadow
Col: Coill - Wood/Forest
Derry/Dare: Doire - Oak grove or Dara - Of oak
Dun/Don/Down: Dún – Fort
Dub/Doo/Doov/Duv: Dubh - Black
Ennis: Inis – Island
Gall: Gall – Foreign/Foreigner
Glass/Glas: Glás – Green/Grey
Glen: Gleann – Valley
Gort: Gort - Field
Hinch: Inis - Island
Kill: Cill - Churchyard (Sometimes Coill – Forest/wood)
Knock: Cnoc – Hill
Linn/lin: Linn - Pool
Lis: Lios - Fairy fort
Lock/lough: Loch – Lake
Mar/Mara: Muir – Sea
May/Mah/Magh: Maigh – Plain
Mor/More: Mór - Big/Large/Great
Patrick: Pádraic – Patrick (particularly St. Patrick)
Port: Port – Harbor
Rath: Rath – Fort
Ros: Ros – Headland/Wood
Sleev: Sliabh – Mountain
Tir/Tyr: Tir – Land/Country
Tra: Trá - Beach/Strand
Tubber/Tober: Tobar – Well/fountain
Some Irish place names in Irish
Athlone: Baile Átha Luain (BALL-yeh AH LOO-in) – Place of Luan’s Ford
Armagh: Ard Mhacha (Ard WAKH-huh) – Macha’s Height (“Macha” is a character from Irish legend)
Ballydehob: Béal an Dá Chab (Bayl un dah khab): Mouth of Two River Fords
Ballymena: An Baile Meánach (un BALL-yeh MYAWN-ukh) – The Middle Town
Belfast: Béal Feirste (Bayl FERS-cheh) – Mouth of the Shoal
Carrickfergus: Carraig Fhearghais (KAR-ig AR-ggish)- The Rock of Fergus
Clonmel: Cluain Meala (KLOO-in MYAL-uh) – Honey Meadow
Derry: Doire Cholm Cille (DUR-eh KHUL-um KILL-yeh) – St. Columba’s Oak Grove
Dublin: Dubh Linn (Duv lin) – Black pool. (Note: The official Irish name for Dublin is Baile Átha Cliath (technically “BAL-eh uh KLEE-uh” but in practice shortened to something like “Blah KLEE-uh) — The Place of the Hurdle Ford. The English name of the city came from the black pool of the River Liffey, along which the original Viking settlement was located.)
Donegal: Dún na nGall (Doon nuhng-AL)- The Fort of the Foreigners
Downpatrick: Dún Phádraic (Doon FAH-rig) – Patrick’s Fort
Ennis: Inis (IN-ish) – Island
Galway: Gaillimh (GAL-iv) – Stony
Glendalough:Gleann Dá Loch(Glan dah lokh): Valley of Two Lakes
Kildare: Cill Dara (Kill DA-ruh) – Churchyard of the Oak
Limavady: Léim an Mhadaidh (Laym uh WAD-ee) – Dog’s Leap
Lisdoonvarna: Lios Dúin Bhearna (Liss DOO-in-VAR-nuh) – Fairy Fort of the Fort of the Gap (That’s a long one in either language!)
Mayo: Maigh Eo (Mwee Oh) Plain of the Yew Tree
Newry: An Iúraigh (uh-NOO-ree) – Grove of the Yew Trees
Omagh: An Ómaigh (uh NOH-mee) – The Virgin Plain
Roscommon: Ros Comáin (Ross KUM-on) – St. Coman’s Wood
Tralee: Trá Lí (Trah lee) – Beach/strand of the Lee (The Lee is a river in the southern part of Ireland)
Tyrone: Tír Eoghain (Cheer OH-in) – Eoghan’s Land (Eoghan was a son of Niall of the Nine Hostages).
Have a go at it yourself!
While this is by no means an exhaustive list, you can use it to puzzle out the basis of a lot of Irish placenames. Why not take a look at some of the names on this map and see if you can work some out on your own?
Did you find this helpful?
Did you know all this about Irish placenames before? Let us know your thoughts below!