Irish Cities in Gaelic

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!

Irish for Beginners free one-month course

Learn to introduce yourself in Ireland’s native language. Sent directly to your email inbox.

What you get for signing up:

“We don’t sell or spam your details.” – Eoin Ó Conchúir, Founder, Bitesize Irish Gaelic.

Comments

  1. Patrick Dunn says:

    Thanks for this post – I’ve been puzzling over this very topic for awhile, and was hoping for a lesson on it. Another good post, or lesson, could be on sound-a-likes in Irish (and/or look-a-likes), for those words that can get easily confused. As in cahair (city) and ceathair (four).

  2. I’m afraid Galway / “Cathair na Gaillimhe” does not translate as “City of the Foreigners”. It is a common error due to the similarity of the Irish language word “gal” meaning foreigner and Gaillimh.

    Dún Bhun na Gaillimhe (‘Fort at the Mouth of the Gaillimh’) was constructed in 1124, by the King of Connacht Tairrdelbach Ua Conchobair long before the arrival of the Normans in the west of Ireland in the 1230s. The word Gaillimh means “stony” as in “stony river”.

    Best Regards

    • Audrey Nickel says:

      Better a late reply than never! You are entirely correct, Eugene, and I will correct the entry for Galway. I was given misinformation myself, and I don’t want to perpetuate it!