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Place names in Ireland

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Place names in Ireland

The vast majority of placenames in Ireland are anglicisations of Irish language names; that is, adaptations of the Irish names to English phonology and spelling. However, some names come directly from the English language, and a handful come from Old Norse and Scots. 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 Irish 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 English or anglicised name is wholly different from the official Irish language name. An example is Dublin. Its name is derived from the Irish dubh linn (meaning "black pool"), but its official Irish name is Baile Átha Cliath (meaning "town of the hurdled ford").


  • Etymology 1
    • Names of Irish Gaelic origin 1.1
    • Names of Norse origin 1.2
    • Names of English origin 1.3
    • Names of Scots origin 1.4
    • Names of other origins 1.5
  • Republic of Ireland 2
  • Northern Ireland 3
  • Names of provinces 4
  • Names of counties 5
  • Names of streets and roads 6
  • See also 7
    • Geographical toponomy 7.1
    • Political toponomy 7.2
  • References 8
  • External links 9


Names of Irish Gaelic origin

For most of the "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, and harbours. As time went on, more places were named after man-made features, such as churches, castles, and bridges. Some of the most common elements found in Irish placenames are shown in the table below. The differences in spelling are often due to differences in pronunciation.

Anglicised spelling Irish English translation Example
agha, aghy, aghey, augha achadh field Aghalee, Aughagower
ard ard high/height Ardglass
ath áth ford Athlone
bally baile homestead/settlement Ballymena
bally, balla(gh), bella(gh) bealach pass/passage Ballyclare, Ballaghmore
bane, baun, bain bán white Strabane, Cregganbaun, Kinbain
beg beag small Carrickbeg
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
cashel caiseal stone ring-fort Cashel (Tipperary), Cashel (Galway)
cappa(gh) ceapach plot/tillage Cappamore, Cappagh
carn carn cairn Carnmoney
carrow, carry ceathrú quarter Carrowdore, Carryduff
carrig, carrick, craig carraig/creig rock/rocky outcrop Carrigaline, Carrickfergus, Craigarogan
cahir, caher cathair stone ring-fort Cahircon, Caherdaniel
clare cláir level land Cooraclare
clough, clogh cloch rock Cloughjordan, Clogheen
clon, clone, cloon cluain meadow Clonmel, Cloondara
coom cúm hollow Coomkeen
cor corr small round hill Corblonog
corry, curry coire corrie Rockcorry, Tubbercurry
croagh cruach stack Croaghgorm
cul, cool cúl back Coolmine, Cultra
cul, cool cuil nook/corner Coolock
derry doire grove/oak-grove Derry
dona(gh) domhnach church Donaghadee, Donabate
droghed, drohed, drohid droichead bridge Drogheda, Clondrohid
drum, drom druim/droim ridge Dromore, Drumshanbo
duff, duv dubh black Claddaghduff, Cloughduv
dun, doon dún stronghold/fort Dungannon, Doonbeg
ennis inis island Enniskillen
esk, eish eiscir esker Eskra
fin, finn 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
inish, innish, innis inis island Inniskeen, Inishmaan
kil, kill cill churchyard or graveyard Kildare
kil, kill coill woodland[1] Kilcogy
kin, ken cionn/ceann head Kinallen, Kenmare
knock cnoc hill Knockcloghrim
lea liath grey Killylea
letter leitir hillside Letterkenny
lis lios earthen ring-fort Liscannor
lough loch lake Loughgall
lurgan lorgain long ridge Lurgan
maum, maam mám mountain pass Maum, Maam Cross
magh, may, moy, moi(gh) maigh/machaire plain Magherafelt, Maynooth, Moycullen
mona, money móna/monaidh peatland/turf Cornamona, Ballymoney
mulla(gh) mullach summit Mullaghbawn
mullin muileann mill Mullingar
more mór big/great Tullamore
noe nua new Ballynoe
owen abhainn river Owenbeg
poll, poul poll hole Pollagh, Poulaphouca
port port stronghold/fort Portlaoise
port port landing place Portadown
rath, rah ráth earthen ring-fort Rathfarnham, Raheny
rea(gh), reva(gh) riabhach brindled/speckled Moneyreagh, Cloonsheerevagh
roe rua red Carraroe
ros, rosh, rus, rush ros wooded promontory Roscrea, Kilrush
sall, salla, sally sail(each) willow(s) Ballysally, Sallins
shan sean old Shandon
sheskin seiscenn marsh/quagmire Sheskin
ske, skey, skay, skea(gh) sceach hawthorn Skeheenarinky, Ballyskeagh
sragh, stra sragh floodplain Stranolar, Sragh
slieve sliabh mountain Slieve Donard
termon tearmann refuge/sanctuary Termonfeckin
tieve taobh hillside Tievebulliagh
tyr, tir tír territory Tyrone, Tirconnell
tober, tubber tobar water well Tobermore, Tubberclare
tra trá beach/strand Tramore
tuam, toom tuaim burial mound Tuam, Toomevara
tully, tulla(gh) tulach hillock/mound/heap Tullyhogue, Tullamore
orla, urlar urlar floor/flat land Stranolar, Urlar
vea(gh), vei(gh) bheith (of) birch Ballyveagh

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:

English Old Norse
Old Norse
Arklow Arkells-lág Arkell's low place an tInbhear Mór The Irish was historically anglicised as Invermore.
Carlingford Kerling-fjǫrðr old woman fjord Cairlinn
Dalkey Deilginis The name is a meld of deilg (Irish) + ey (Norse).
Dursey Þjórrs-ey bull island Baoi Bhéarra or Oileán Baoi
Fastnet Hvasstǫnn-ey sharp-tooth island Carraig Aonair
Haulbowline Ál-boling eel dwelling Inis Sionnach
Helvick rock-shelf bay Heilbhic The Irish is a Gaelicisation of the Old Norse.
Howth Hǫfuð head Binn Éadair
Lambay Lamb-ey lamb island Reachrainn
Leixlip Lax Hlaup salmon leap Léim an Bhradáin The Irish is a translation of the Old Norse.
The English is an Anglicisation of the Old Norse.
Saltee Salt-ey salt island Na Sailtí The Irish is a Gaelicisation of the Old Norse.
The English is an Anglicisation of the Old Norse.
Smerwick Smjǫr-vík butter bay Ard na Caithne
Strangford Strangr-fjǫrðr strict or narrow fjord Loch Cuan
Skerries Skeri skerries Na Sceirí The Irish is a Gaelicisation of the Old Norse.
The English is an Anglicisation of the Old Norse.
Waterford Veðra-fjǫrðr ram or wether fjord Port Láirge The English name is a folk etymology.
Wexford Veisa-fjǫrðr muddy fjord Loch Garman The Irish was historically anglicised as Loughgarman.[2]
Wicklow Víkinga-lág Vikings' low place 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 "conquest of Ireland", the English colonised parts of the country with settlers from Great Britain. This is known as the "Plantations of Ireland". After the 1601 Battle of Kinsale defeat in which the Gaelic aristocracy fled to continental Europe 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 made up mostly of Lowland Scots and some northern English. 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.

Some placenames that seem come from English are in fact anglicized Irish names modified by folk etymology. Examples include Longford (from Irish an Longphort, meaning "the dock"), Upperland (from Áth an Phoirt Leathain meaning "ford of the broad (river) bank")[4] and Forkhill (from Foirceal meaning "trough").[5]

Names of Scots origin

The Lowland Scots who settled during the Plantation of Ulster also contributed to place-names in the north of Ireland, particularly in the Ulster Scots areas. The Scots influence can be seen in places such as Burnside (stream), Calheme from 'Cauldhame' (coldhome), Corby Knowe (raven knoll) Glarryford from 'glaurie' (muddy), Gowks Hill (cuckoo) and Loanends (where the lanes end) in County Antrim, Crawtree (crow), Whaup Island (curlew) and Whinny Hill from 'whin' (gorse) in County Down and the frequent elements burn (stream), brae (incline), dyke (a stone or turf wall), gate (a way or path), knowe (knoll), moss (moorland), sheuch or sheugh (a trench or ditch) and vennel (narrow alley). Other Scots elements may be obscured due to their being rendered in Standard English orthography.

Names of other origins

Some places in Ireland bear names from beyond Gaelic, Norse or English.

One reason for this is because foreign names can be perceived as more fashionable than native ones. Particularly in middle-class areas, names of Italian origin have been used because of this perception and many roads (e.g. Vico Road and Sorrento Road in Dalkey) and housing estates have obtained their names in this way. More rarely, this has led to the naming of whole suburbs (e.g. Montenotte and Tivoli in Cork). Portobello, Dublin was named in celebration of the British victory at the 1739 Battle of Porto Bello.

Another source of place names is from Anglo-Norman. Considering the number of surnames of Norman origin in Ireland, these are surprisingly rare. Nevertheless, some examples do exist, such as the town of Buttevant (from the motto of the Barry family - Boutez en Avant) and the village of Brittas (from the Norman-French Bretesche, "boarding, planking"). Others exist in portmanteau with words of Irish or English origin, such as Castletownroche, which combines the English Castletown and the French Roche, meaning rock. Most widespread is the term Pallas (from Norman paleis, "boundary fence") which appears in over 20 place names, including the towns Pallasgreen and Pallaskenry.[6]

A further source of place names of other origin is places names after religious sites outside Ireland. Examples are Lourdes Road in Dublin and Pic du Jer Park in Cork.

The baronies of North Salt and South Salt are derived from Saltus Salmonis, a Latin calque of the town name of Leixlip (from Norse Lax Hlaup, "salmon leap").

Republic of Ireland

Welcome sign at Ballickmoyler, County Laois - the letter i is written dotless as it is in Gaelic script

In the Republic of Ireland, both Irish and English names have equal status and are displayed on roadsigns. However, in the Gaeltacht, the English/anglicized names have no official status and do not appear on roadsigns.

During and after the foundation of the Irish Free State in 1922, some English names were returned to their Irish form. In most cases, the Irish Gaelic name became the only official one (for example Kingstown became Dún Laoghaire in both languages). In other cases, the English name was changed for another (for example King's County became County Offaly, which comes from the Irish Uíbh Fhailí). Although most of the changes were accepted by the wider public, some did not catch on and were eventually undone. The Local Government Act 1946 allowed locals to petition for a name change.

The following places were officially renamed:

Pursuant to the Official Languages Act, 2003 and the advice of the Coimisiún Logainmneacha (Place-Names Commission), the 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 Newry - cathair means "stone ringfort" but has been adopted as an Irish term for "city"

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, Armagh Moyle, Magherafelt, Newry and Mourne and Cookstown council areas display bilingual names on some welcome signs (e.g. "OMAGH" An Ómaigh).

Irish-language street signs may be erected at the request of locals, provided there is enough support.[16][17]

Names of provinces

There are four provinces in Ireland, three of which derive their English name from a mixture of their ancient Irish provincial name with the Old Norse term for land/territory/place; staðr.[18][19]

  • Connacht, formerly anglicised as "Connaught", is derived from the Connachta dynasty, which means "the descendants of Conn". In modern Irish it is called Connachta or Cúige Chonnacht.
  • Munster, derived from Irish: Mumhan + Old Norse staðr, meaning "land of Mumha". In modern Irish it is called an Mhumhain or Cúige Mumhan.
  • Leinster, derived from Irish: Laighin + Old Norse staðr, meaning "land of the Laighin". In modern Irish it is called Laighin or Cúige Laighean.
  • Ulster, derived from Irish: Ulaidh + Old Norse staðr, meaning "land of the Ulaidh". In modern Irish it is called Ulaidh or Cúige Uladh.

In Irish the provinces are known as cúigí, the singular of which is cúige. The word cúige originally meant "a fifth", as in one-fifth part of Ireland. This is 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

In Irish, the counties are known as contaetha, the singular of which is contae. Irish versions of county names only have official status in the Republic of Ireland.

Most of the counties were named after a town in that county (commonly referred to as a county town); 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 named after their present or former county towns: Antrim, Armagh, Cavan, Clare, Cork, Donegal, Down, Dublin, Galway, Kildare, Kilkenny, Leitrim, Limerick, Longford, Louth, Mayo, Monaghan, Roscommon, Sligo, Tipperary, Waterford, Wexford, and Wicklow. The county of Londonderry is named after the city of the same name, though its county town was Coleraine until 1972 when counties were abolished as administrative units in Northern Ireland and replaced with unitary councils.

Some counties derive their names from ancient Irish túatha, kingdoms or people:

  • Fermanagh, which is derived from Fear Manach meaning "men of Manach".
  • Kerry, which is derived from Ciarraí, which is itself derived from Ciarraighe, meaning "people of Ciar".
  • Laois, which is derived from Loígis, the name of a túath.
  • Meath, which is derived from Mide, the name of a former province.
  • Offaly, which is derived from Uí Failghe, the name of a túath.
  • Tyrone, which is derived from Tír Eógain meaning "Eógan's land".
  • Westmeath, which was formerly part of Meath until 1543, is likewise derived from Mide.

Some counties derive their names from geographic descriptions

In 1994, County Dublin was abolished as an administrative unit and replaced with three new administrative counties:

  • Dún Laoghaire–Rathdown, which is named after the town of Dún Laoghaire (meaning "Laoghaire's stronghold"); and the former barony of Rathdown (Ráth an Dúin in Irish, meaning "ringfort of the stronghold").
  • Fingal, which is derived from the Irish Fine Gall, meaning "foreign tribe", referring to the Norse who invaded and settled the area.
  • South Dublin, which is named after Dublin.

Names of streets and roads

Many streets and roads in Ireland derive their name from that of the townland, settlement or parish it goes through or heads towards, many of which are of Irish origin. Other streets and roads derive their names from local buildings, manufacturies or people etc.

In Irish, a street is sráid, a road is bóthar (meaning "cow path"), a lane is lána, and an avenue is ascaill. A linear village is called a sráidbhaile ("[one]-street settlement")—this has been anglicised as Stradbally, which is the name of a number of villages on the island. Whilst Irish forms only have official status in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland district councils are allowed to erect bilingual roadsigns.

Origins of some streets and roads in Belfast, Northern Ireland[20]

  • Antrim Road, takes its name from the settlement it leads to, Antrim town.
  • Ballymurphy Road, derives its name from the townland of Ballymurphy, which itself is derived from the Irish: Baile O Muircháin, meaning "homestead of O'Murphy".[21]
  • Crumlin Road takes its name from the settlement the road leads to, Crumlin.
  • Donegall Square and Donegall Pass, both named after Lord Donegall, who opened six wide avenues also known as passes.
  • Falls Road was originally called the Pound, however it derives its present name from an older Irish name Tuath-na-bhfal, meaning "district of the falls" or "hedges".
  • Hercules Street, is named after Sir Hercules Langford.
  • Mountpottinger and Pottinger's Lane both derive from the famous Pottinger family.
  • Mustard Street is named after a mustard works.
  • Old Forge and New Forge both derive their names from forges for smelting iron.
  • Shankill Road derives its name from Irish: Seanchille meaning "old church", which is also the name of the local parish.

Origins of some streets and roads in Dublin, Republic of Ireland[22]

  • O'Connell Street, formerly known as Sackville Street, it was renamed after Daniel O'Connell. Its Irish name is Sráid Uí Chonaill.
  • Grafton Street, developed by the Dawson family, it is named after the Earls of Grafton who owned land in the area. Its Irish name is Sráid Grafton.
  • Pearse Street, originally called Moss Lane, then Great Brunswick Street, it was renamed after Padraig Pearse. Its Irish name is Sráid an Phiarsaigh
  • St. James's Street takes its name from a Holy Well in the vicinity, dedicated to St James.

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. [2]
  2. ^ Lacy, Thomas. Sights and Scenes in Our Fatherland. Simpkin, Marshall & Co., 1863. Page 404.
  3. ^ Placenames Database of Ireland - Wicklow: Archival records
  4. ^ Toner, Gregory: Place-Names of Northern Ireland. Queen's University of Belfast, 1996, ISBN 0-85389-613-5
  5. ^ Newry & Mourne Council Area, Northern Ireland Place-name Project
  6. ^ "Pallas"
  7. ^ "Place Name Confusion – Donegal or Tirconaill", The Irish Times, 24 April 1924.
  8. ^ "Back to 'Donegal'", The Irish Times, 22 November 1927.
  9. ^
  10. ^ Placenames Database of Ireland (see archival records)
  11. ^ S.I. No. 156/1993 - Local Government (Change of Name of Urban District) Order, 1993. Irish Statute Book.
  12. ^
  13. ^ An Uaimh - its Origin. Navan Historical Society.
  14. ^ "S.I. No. 200/1971:Local Government (Change of Name of Urban District) Order, 1971". 
  15. ^
  16. ^
  17. ^
  18. ^ Sister Fidelma's World
  19. ^ by Stephen Gwynn, 1906The Fair Hills of Ireland
  20. ^ Origin of Belfast Street Names
  21. ^ Ulster Place Names - West Belfast
  22. ^ Irish Place and Street Names

External links

  • Placenames Database of Ireland, Placenames Branch, Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht
  •, Northern Ireland Place-name Project
  • Placenames in the North of Ireland, Geography in Action, website for the Northern Ireland Geography Curriculum
  • The Origin and History of Irish Names of Places Vol.1 (1912 ed.) Vol.2 (1922 ed.) Vol.3 (1922 ed.) by P.W. Joyce, on the Internet Archive:
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