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Saintfield, County Down


Ir. Tamhnach Naomh ‘field of saints’


16km NW of Downpatrick

bar: Castlereagh Upper

Saintfield is a translation of an Irish name recorded in 1663 as Taunaghnieve (Sub. Roll Down 287).  This appears to reflect Ir. Tamhnach Naomh ‘field of saints’.  This is very close to Tamhnaigh Naomh, the Irish form of the town's name recommended in Gasaitéar na hÉireann ( 163), tamhnaigh simply being an oblique form of tamhnach.  The 1605 form Tawnaghnym (Inq. Ult. Down §2 Jac. I) may well reflect the same interpretationWhile often referring to the church and parish (1615, 1623, 1681, 1692) it clearly was a townland name as well: Ballitawanaghnewen 1605, Balle-Taunaghwin 1623. The general opinion in the 1830s was that it meant ‘holy field’.  However, while Saintfield has come to be a parish, its early ecclesiastical history eludes us at present (the first church here being built around 1633 (Rankin, F. 1996: 154)) and there is no known dedication to, or association with, a specific saint.  As the second element Naomh appears to be genitive plural, it appears to require at least two saints.  It has been suggested tentatively that S. Brids / S. Brides on five 17th c maps covering Co. Down (Maps Down, Mac Aodha 71) might represent Saintfield, but there is no local evidence for a church dedicated to Bríd (St Brigit).  In fact, the earliest map to refer to this name is that of SE Ulster (c.1580) which has St Bryd in a location for which Kay Muhr considers the townland and village of Ballygowan a better fit (Muhr 2005: 21).

In any case, Tamhnach Naomh ‘field of saints’ is clearly a re-interpretation of an earlier name recorded in 1605 as Ballitawanaghnewen (CPR Jas I 73a) and Ballytawnenewin (Inq. Ult. Down §2 Jac. I), and in 1615 as Tavenaghnewin (Terrrier) and Tavenaghnuin (Terrier (Reeves))There are no plural forms in n for nóib (the OIr. form of naomh) recorded  in DIL.  It is also telling that the English translation Saintfield does not appear until the 18th century, e.g. Harris Hist. 6, 71.  Rather, these early historical forms appear to represent Ir. Tamhnach Naoine 'field of hunger/famine'.  Naoine is defined as 'famine, want' by Dinneen, with several variants including núna.  This latter form appears in DIL where it is explained as 'famine' and compared with Welsh newyn, which has the same meaning.   As there is no final vowel in these forms, we may be dealing with an otherwise unrecorded masculine variant: (?) naon.  Allusions to hunger are not unknown elsewhere in Ulster place-names.   There are two instances of Hungry House and one of Hungry Hall in Co. Antrim.  There appears to be a similar reference in Hungersmother, Co. Donegal, discussed by Patrick McKay in a recent article in Ainm 10 (McKay 2009: 18). These may be ironic references to the mediocre quality of the land.  It does not seem to be necessary for the land to be particularly poor or mountainous to acquire such a name.  Hungry Hall in the parish of Antrim is in the valley close to the town.  The phenomenon is not limited to Ireland.  Examples from England include Hungerford, Berkshire, Hungarton, Leicestershire and Hungry Law, Northumberland (Camb. Dict. English PN).

The 1623 form Taunaghwyn and three other similar forms of the same date (Ham. Copy Inq.) show the loss of a syllable, probably by haplology.  In view of the thoroughly disparaging nature of such names, it is not so surprising that the Ordnance Survey Name Book informant Luke Killen appears to have had an equally negative understanding of Tawny Neevha as ‘field of poison’, even though this seems to indicate a pronunciation based on Ir. naomhtha 'holy'.  An 18th-century alternative was Tullaghaneeve (1712, 1726), given by Harris in 1744 as the Irish name for Saintfield, although tulach means ‘hill’ not ‘field’. 


KM, 2009; revised PT, 2013; McKay, P. (2007): A Dictionary of Ulster Place-Names, p. 127;

Additional Information

T., 1851 Census; see also the townland of Saintfield Parks.

Historical name form

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Castlereagh Upper
Parish in 1851
Saintfield Parks
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