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The Structure of Place-names of Irish Origin

County Abbreviations

Ant. Antrim

Arm. Armagh

Der. Derry/Londonderry

Dn Down

Fer. Fermanagh

Tyr. Tyrone

The following types of place-names can be identified:

1. A single noun:

Sabhall ‘a barn’ (Saul, Dn)

Tuaim ‘a tumulus’ (Toome, Ant.)

There is no indefinite article in Irish, that is, there is no word for a, e.g. Sabhall means ‘barn’ or ‘a barn’.

English nouns generally have only two forms, singular and plural, and the plural is normally formed by adding s, e.g. wall, walls; road, roads. Occasionally a different ending is added (e.g. ox, oxen) and occasionally the word is changed internally (e.g. man, men); sometimes there is both addition and internal change (e.g. brother, brethren). Irish nouns have not only distinctive forms for the plural but also for the genitive singular and sometimes for the dative and vocative as well. These distinctive forms are made by addition, by internal change and sometimes by both. Five principal types of noun change are identified in Irish and nouns are therefore divided into five major groups known as declensions. Examples of change will be seen later.

2. Singular article + masculine noun:

An Clár ‘the plain’ (Clare, Arm.)

An Gleann ‘the valley’ (Glen, Der.)

The only article in Irish is the definite article, that is, the word corresponding to the in English.

The singular article an ‘the’ prefixes t to masculine nouns beginning with a vowel in certain cases. The nouns éadan ‘front, forehead’ and iúr ‘yew tree’, for example, appear in the place-names:

An tÉadan ‘the face (of a hill)’ (Eden, Ant.)

An tIúr ‘the yew tree’ (Newry, Dn)

3. Singular article + feminine noun:

An Chloch ‘the stone’ (Clough, Dn)

An Bhreacach ‘the speckled place’ (Brockagh, Der.)

The article an lenites the first consonant of a following feminine noun.

Lenition is indicated by putting h after the consonant (cloch ‘a stone’, an chloch ‘the stone’) and the sound of that consonant is modified, just as in English the sound of p, as in the word praise, is changed when h is added, as in the word phrase. Only b, c, d, f, g, m, p, s and t are lenited. The other consonants, and vowels, are not lenited.

The singular article an does not affect feminine nouns beginning with a vowel, e.g.

An Eaglais ‘the church’ (Eglish, Tyr.)

4. Masculine noun + adjective:

Domhnach Mór ‘great church’ (Donaghmore, Tyr.)

Lios Liath‘ grey fort’ (Lislea, Arm.)

In Irish the adjective normally follows the noun (but see §8).

5. Feminine noun + adjective:

Bearn Mhín ‘smooth gap’ (Barnmeen, Dn)

Doire Fhada ‘long oak-wood’ (Derryadd, Arm.)

The first consonant of the adjective is lenited after a feminine noun.

6. Singular article + masculine noun + adjective:

An Caisleán Riabhach ‘the grey castle’ (Castlereagh, Dn)

An Baile Meánach ‘the middle town’ (Ballymena, Ant.)

7. Singular article + feminine noun + adjective:

An Charraig Mhór ‘the large rock’ (Carrickmore, Tyr.)

An Chloch Fhionn ‘the white stone’ (Cloghfin, Tyr.)

Note that the first consonant of the feminine noun is lenited after the definite article as in §3 above and that the adjective is lenited after the feminine noun as in §5 above.

8. Adjective + noun:

Fionnshliabh ‘white mountain’ (Finlieve, Dn)

Seanchill ‘old church’ (Shankill, Ant.)

Sometimes an adjective precedes a noun. In such cases the two words are generally written as one and the second noun is usually lenited. In compounds, lenition sometimes does not occur when d, t or s is preceded by d, n, t, l or s.

9. Article + adjective + noun:

An Seanmhullach ‘the old summit’ (Castledawson, Der.)

An Ghlasdromainn ‘the green ridge’ (Glasdrumman, Dn)

Dromainn is a feminine noun and the initial consonant of the compound is lenited in accordance with §3 above.

10. Masculine noun + genitive singular of noun:

Srath Gabhláin ‘(the) river valley of (the) fork’ (Stragolan, Fer.)

Port Rois ‘(the) harbour of (the) headland’ (Portrush, Ant.)

These two examples contain the genitive singular forms of the nouns gabhlán and ros. Many nouns form the genitive singular by inserting i before the final consonant.

11. Feminine noun + genitive singular of noun:

Maigh Bhile ‘(the) plain of (the) sacred tree’ (Movilla, Dn)

Cill Shléibhe ‘(the) church of (the) mountain’ (Killevy, Arm.)

Note that in these examples the qualifying genitive is lenited after the feminine noun. However, the forms maigh and cill are also both old datives, and in the older language lenition followed any dative singular noun.

Two other types of genitive are illustrated here: many nouns which end in a vowel, like bile, do not change at all, whereas others, like sliabh, form their genitive by adding e (and sometimes an internal change is necessary).

12. Noun + an + genitive singular:

Léim an Mhadaidh ‘(the) leap of the dog’ (Limavady, Der.)

Baile an tSéipéil ‘(the) town of the chapel’ (Chapeltown, Dn)

The noun an madadh ‘the dog’ has a genitive an mhadaidh ‘of the dog’. Note that, as well as the end of the noun changing as in §10 above, the genitive is lenited after an.

Instead of leniting s the article an prefixes t to it: an sac ‘the sack’, an tsaic ‘of the sack’; an séipéal ‘the chapel’, an tséipéil ‘of the chapel’.

13. Noun + na + genitive singular:

Muileann na Cloiche ‘(the) mill of the stone/the stone mill’ (Clogh Mills, Ant.)

Cúl na Baice ‘(the) corner/angle of the river bend’ (Cullybacky, Ant.)

The genitive singular feminine article is na. It does not lenite the following noun: an chloch ‘the stone’, na cloiche ‘of the stone’.

It prefixes h, however, to words beginning with a vowel e.g.

Baile na hInse ‘(the) town of the water-meadow’ (Ballynahinch, Dn)

The genitive in all these examples is formed by adding e to the nominative singular and making a slight internal adjustment.

14. Plural noun:

Botha ‘huts’ (Boho, Fer.)

The plural form of a substantial group of nouns in Irish is formed by adding a. In the examples in §15 below an internal adjustment has also to be made.

15. Na + plural noun:

Na Creaga ‘the rocks’ (Craigs, Ant.)

Na Cealla ‘the churches’ (Kells, Ant.)

Na is also the plural article. Creaga and cealla are the plural forms of the nouns creig ‘rock’ and cill ‘church’.

16. Noun + genitive plural:

Droim Bearach ‘(the) ridge of (the) heifers’ (Dromara, Dn)

Port Muc ‘(the) harbour of (the) pigs’ (Portmuck, Ant.)

As in the case of bearach ‘a heifer’ and muc ‘a pig’ the genitive plural form is the same as the nominative singular.

17. Noun + na + genitive plural:

Lios na gCearrbhach ‘(the) fort/enclosure of the gamblers’ (Lisburn, Ant.)

Lios na nDaróg ‘(the) fort/enclosure of the little oaks’ (Lisnarick, Fer.)

After na the first letter of the following genitive plural is eclipsed. Eclipsis involves adding to the beginning of a word a consonant which obliterates the sound of the original consonant, e.g. ‘a cow’, pronounced like English ‘bow’; (na) mbó ‘(of the) cows’, pronounced like ‘mow.’

The following are the changes which take place:

Written letterIs eclipsed by
bm
cg
dn
fbh
gn
pb
td
voweln

The other consonants are not eclipsed, e.g.

Áth na Long ‘(the) ford of the ships’ (Annalong, Dn)

18. Noun + genitive of personal name:

Dún Muirígh ‘Muiríoch’s fort’ (Dunmurry, Ant.)

Boith Mhéabha ‘Maeve’s hut’ (Bovevagh, Der.)

In the older language the genitive of a personal name was not lenited after a masculine noun but it was after a feminine noun. In the above examples dún is masculine and boith is feminine. In current Irish, lenition of the personal name is also usual after a masculine noun and this is reflected in many place-names in areas where Irish survived until quite recently, e.g.

Teampall Phádraig ‘St Patrick’s church’ (Templepatrick, Ant.)

19. Noun + genitive singular of Ó surname:

Baile Uí Dhonnaíle ‘Donnelly’s townland’ (Castlecaulfield, Tyr.)

Coill Uí Chiaragáin ‘Kerrigan’s wood’ (Killykergan, Der.)

Surnames in Ó, e.g. Ó Dochartaigh ‘(O’) Doherty’, Ó Flannagáin ‘Flanagan’, etc. form their genitive by changing Ó to and leniting the second element: Uí Dhochartaigh, Uí Fhlannagáin.

20. Noun + genitive singular of Mac surname:

Lios Mhic Dhuibhleacháin ‘Mac Duibhleacháin’s fort/enclosure’ (Lisnagelvin, Der.)

Baile Mhic Gabhann ‘Mac Gabhann’s town’ (angl. McGowan, Smith, etc.) (Ballygowan, Dn)

Surnames in Mac, e.g. Mac Dónaill ‘MacDonald, McDonnell’, Mac Muiris ‘Morrison, Fitzmaurice’, etc. form their genitive by changing Mac to Mhic and leniting the second element (except those beginning with C or G).

21. Noun + genitive plural of Ó surname:

Doire Ó gConaíle ‘the oak-wood of the Ó Conaíle family (angl. Connelly)’ (Derrygonnelly, Fer.)

In the genitive plural of Ó surnames the second element is eclipsed.

22. Neuter noun + genitive or adjective:

Sliabh gCuillinn ‘mountain of (the) steep slope’ (Slieve Gullion, Arm.)

Maigh gCaisil ‘plain of the stone ring-fort’ (Moygashel, Tyr.)

The neuter gender no longer exists in Irish but traces of it are found in place-names. The initials of nouns and adjectives were eclipsed after neuter nouns.