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Mayo Places, by Noillaig O'Muraile


by Nollaig O Muraile, School of Modern Languages, The Queen's University of Belfast.
Source : New Survey of Clare Island, Newsletter nş4, March 1998

  1. Sources: 1809, 1840 & 1910

  2. Organization of the Island

  3. About the names which survive down to the present day

  4. Observations of field work

Any work on the microtoponymy that is, the minor place-names, (or sub-townland names) of Clare Island must take as its starting-point the very valuable study carried out, as part of the Clare Island Survey, by that great pioneering scholar, Eoin Mac Neill, over eighty years ago. Published, as 'Place-names and Family Names', in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, 31.3, pp. 1-42, in 1913, it begins with a long (even long-winded) introduction on the political and economic history of the island, and on aspects of the early history of adjacent parts of west Mayo, before proceeding to the most important part of the work, a list of some 313 place-names. (In fact the total is slightly greater than that; about seven names are mentioned without having numbers assigned to them and one name is given twice, with different numbers attached!) Mac Neill gives the Irish form of each name together with an English translation, sometimes adding further remarks (on such things as the location or the origin of the name). He also adds a further fourteen names, of' 'islands and districts near Clare Island', beginning with Achill. The final five pages of the paper are devoted to a cursory, though interesting, account of the island's surnames.

Mac Neill's work, it must be acknowledged, was a pioneering contribution to the study of Irish minor placenames and, as is often the case in such ground-breaking works, it has a number of weaknesses. The lack of an index is a decided nuisance for the reader wishing to locate a particular name. It also has the appearance of having been compiled rather hastily. He names only a single informant, Padraic Mhac Thuathail (although he may well have had the assistance of others). Mhac Thuathail, who was actually born on Inishturk, appears to have been largely responsible for covering the names on the inaccessible western and northern coasts in the course of a single boat-trip around the island. Perhaps thanks to him, the list contains a larger collection of coastal names than of names collected inland: 175 of the former as compared with a little over 140 of' the latter. For all its shortcomings, Mac Neill's work is the fullest survey published to date of' the island's names, and it is particularly valuable because it was prepared at a time when 'the middle-aged and elderly folk in every part of the island could converse in Irish.

There are other sources prior to Mac Neill which contain valuable information on the island's place-names. The representation of the island c)n the great 'Map of the Maritime County of Mayo' surveyed between 1809 and 1816 by the young Scottish engineer, William Bald, has about 130 names, which is some forty more than appear on the first edition of the Ordnance Survey (1838). In the latter case, the names were collected by the OS field-staff (the famous 'sappers') and interpreted and sometimes emended by the great pioneering Irish scholar, John O'Donovan. A couple of the names which are on Bald's map but do not appear on the OS were added in later editions, the most notable of these being the single most notable feature on the island, the great hill of Cnoc M6r (Knockmore)! All but a handful of the names which Bald has but which the OS missed are to be found in Mac Neill's list. These are that 'handful': Lasfine, L[oughl, Nabeasta, Macketizie's Monument (no doubt the Signal Tower at the western end of the island), Oughanacollu Park and Selpnagower.


2. Organization of the Island

With an area of approximately 4,000 acres, Clare Island (in Irish Cliara) is about the size of a small west of Ireland parish. Only three of the seventy-odd civil parishes in Co. Mayo are smaller and five others are approximately the same size, while only one of those parishes has as small a number of townlands. Those ten townlands into which the island is divided are themselves of particular interest because of the way they were drastically reorganized - both in area and location - between the publication of the first Ordnance Survey map in 1838 and the appearance of the next edition in 191 3. This redrawing of boundaries was no doubt connected with the erection, about a century ago, of that most striking of island features, the Boundary Wall, which was built by the Congested Districts Board, at a cost of £ 1,600, to separate the commonage from arable land.


3. About the names who survive down to the present day...

The three collections I have mentioned (dating from around 1810, 1840 and 1910) could form the basis of an interesting comparative study. But there is a further collection to be added - the names which survive, however tenuously, down to the present day. During a four-day visit to the island in August 1996 1 was able to ascertain, at least in a general fashion, what proportion of the names previously collected were still extant. I was pleasantly surprised to find that almost exactly two-thirds of the names which occur in Bald, the OS or Mac Neill were still remembered to some degree. To those 220 names I was able to add some 270 others not previously recorded. This makes a total of about six hundred names either living or dead recorded from this comparatively small island over the last two centuries.

By and large, I found that coastal names (i.e., of rocks, cliffs, coves, etc.) are better preserved than those of inland features. There appear, however, to be quite a number of names of fields and gardens still in existence. This was a category largely ignored by Mac Neill, and, while several of these names are in English (Billy Bingham's Park, Sally Toole's Garden, Joyce's Garden, and the like), the majority have perfectly good Irish-language forms.

In the course of my field-trip I collected well over a thousand name-forms on tape from over a dozen informants in various parts of the island. When all these name-forms had been transcribed phonetically I found that this total represented just under 500 separate names. The reason for the apparent discrepancy (between 'over 1000' and 500) is that some well-known names occurred on numerous occasions from various informants, although many minor names were known only to a single individual or household.


4. Observations of field work

Pending a detailed analysis of the material I have collected (and I need to go back to check the details of' several names), the following observations may be made:

- For the student of the Irish language, the names provide a rich field of study. Given the disappearance of Irish as the predominant vernacular on the island several generations ago, the extent to which good Irish forms still survive is rather surprising. Granted, there is a degree of phonological simplification. For example, the common element variously written Uach, Uaich and Uaiche by Mac Neill (and meaning 'a cove') is generally rendered by the sound 'o', while Irish 'ch' at the beginning of a word is generally reduced to 'k' or 'h'; thus Uach Chapaill is rendered (using Irish spelling) 'O Thapal'. Another feature which was found in a number of instances was a kind of spoonerism or metathesis of sounds - as when Binn Bhric was pronounced (by two separate informants) Bruin Bhic. Also striking is the very limited amount of translation of place-names which seems to have occurred on the island, by comparison with many places on the mainland, both in Mayo and in other parts of north Connacht. The best-known example is probably Beetle Head for Ceann an tseimhdile. Others would be The Quarry for An Coiliar, The Cove for Uach Chorragciin. (And one wonders what the Irish original of Bachelor's Island might have been).

- On the basis of some preliminary study, I find a strong similarity between the names on the island and those on other Connacht islands, notably Achill and the Aran Islands. The same elements, and even whole names, which occur on Clare Island are also to be found on these other islands. This is a matter deserving of further research. The ideal would be a detailed, in-depth study of the island's toponymy such as has recently been done for a Ph.D. dissertation on the Cork island of Cleire (Cape Clear). This would take considerably longer than the limited time I have been able to spare from my other responsibilities, but the results - while probably inferior to those from Cleire, which is still strongly Irish-speaking - would no doubt be extremely valuable. Mention of Cleire reminds me of another desideratum: a comparative study of the names of the two islands. No plausible explanation for either has yet been advanced, but it strikes me as exceedingly likely that the names Cljire and Cliara are related, if not of identical origin - whatever that may be.

- While most of the names collected on the island are indisputably and recognisably Irish, and are amenable to explanation with a greater or lesser degree of difficulty, there are numerous names whose meaning is quite unclear. The following are just a few examples, taken more or less at random: Goirtfn (or Poirtin) Whinch (also Poll na Whitich, or is this a separate name?), Port Liath or Port Lithe or Poirtligh, Guaille Lich, Guailleach na Btin, Leitice M6r, Gort na halan, Currach an Bhuidin, etc. I have given them here in Irish spelling which approximates to what I think I heard. Each instance involves a problematical element which may or may not be elucidated by further research and study. There is always, of course, the likelihood that the element in question is the result of linguistic corruption and that, in the absence of written evidence (which is always rare anyway in the case of microtoponymy), we will simply never discover what the correct original form was.

- While in many instances my informants were able to correct the locations suggested by Mac Neill, we are still faced with considerable difficulties in establishing the precise location of quite a large proportion of the island's names (especially on the precipitous northern and western coasts and on the commonage). The existing maps are woefully inadequate for the purpose of pinpointing various features, especially fields and gardens. Perhaps detailed aerial photographs could be used to supplement the maps. As should be clear from the foregoing, a great deal of work remains to be done. Cuirimis chuige!



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