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Kilkeel, County Down


Ir. Cill Chaoil perhaps 'Caol's church' or ‘church of the narrow place’


Town is on Co. Down coast, 13km ESE of Rostrevor

bar: Mourne

It seems certain, in view of its ecclesiastical connections, that the first element of Kilkeel is Irish cill (anglicized kil-) ‘a church’ and it is interesting that in the historical spellings it is sometimes supplanted by the Scots equivalent, kirk (Kirkeil etc, 1692)).  Almost all the historical forms indicate that the second element is derived from Irish caol and this seems plausible enough.  However, it is difficult to translate this caol as it is possible to interpret it as an adjective, a common noun or a proper noun.  The first possibility Cill Chaol ‘narrow church’ seems to have been rejected by almost all who have concerned themselves with the meaning of the name. There are a number of reasons for this, not least the fact that the name has been recorded from Irish speakers in Omeath as Cill a’ chaoil and Cillidh Chaoil.  Furthermore, the Irish form Cill an Chaoil appears in a composition by the South-East Ulster poet Art Mac Bionaid c. 1840 and is also recorded in the OSNB where it is translated ‘church of the strait’. 

There is no trace of the definite article in the historical spellings of Kilkeel from 1369 up to the beginning of the 19th century and it is possible that Cill an Chaoil superseded an earlier Cill Chaoil, identical in meaning but without the article. The Irish word caol can mean a narrow stretch of water but as there is no such feature in the area a plausible suggestion is that as the medieval church of Kilkeel (see ASCD 304) is situated in a comparatively narrow area of ground at the confluence of the Aughrim and Kilkeel Rivers (J 3014), Cill Chaoil should be interpreted as ‘church of the narrow place’. A further possibility is that the second element is a personal name; note Cobhthach Caol, a saint who is associated with other churches in Co. Down, particularly Drumbo ( Ó Riain, Dict. Irish Saints,177). Also worthy of mention is Caolán, a diminutive form of the name Caol, whose cult was particularly strong in east Ulster, especially Lecale in Co. Down (ibid. 152). Most interestingly, Caolán of Nendrum may link Kilkeel with the neighbouring parish of Kilbroney in that the latter parish is said to derive its name (Ir. Cill Bhrónaí) from his mother, Brónach.


Ó Mainní­n, M. (1992): Place-Names of Northern Ireland vol. 3 p. 5-17; MÓM 2013; McKay, P. (2007): A Dictionary of Ulster Place-Names, p. 83;

Additional Information

T., 1851 Census; see also the parish of Kilkeel.

Historical name form

Old FormRef. DateReference
Kylkeyl in the Mourne, the parish church of1369Reg. Sweteman $38
Kylkele, church of St. Colman of1406Cal. Canc. Hib. (EA) 27 (i 183)
Kylkeyll beic, The chapel of1407Reg. Fleming $67
Kylkeyll, St. Colman''s1407Reg. Fleming $67
Kylkeyll, St. Colman''s Church1407Reg. Fleming $46-7
Cyllcaeyl, parrochialis ecclesie Sancti Colmani de1423Annates Ulst. 110
Cyllcaeyl, the parish church of St. Colman1423Cal. Papal Letters vii 265
Killchil al. de Morun1446Reg. Mey 73
Killcil al. de Murnu, parroch. eccl. Sancti Colman1446Annates Ulst. 110
Killeaeil, parrochialis ecclesie de1476Annates Ulst. 111
Kilkill, parrochialis ecclesie de1480Annates Ulst. 112
Killcayll1526Reg. Cromer viii 342 $45
The Plebany of KilKahyll (or Kilcail)1527Reg. Cromer ix 41 $116
Cillcayl al. de Murna, plebanie Sancti Colmani de1531Annates Ulst. 115
Kyllghill al. Morne, the parish church of1536CPR Hen. IV (EA) 210
Kyllyghyll al. Moorne, The parochial church of1541cCPR (Tresham) ii 16
Kilkile1575Bagenal Rental 134
Kelcole1595Mercator's Ire.
Kelkule1595Mercator's Ulst.
Kelcole1599Boazio's Map (BM)
Kescole1599Boazio's Map (BM)
Killel1600Bartlett Map (BM)
Killel1601Bartlett Map (TCD)
(?)Kilcol[?]1603Bartlett Maps (Esch. Co. Maps) 1
Kilkaill1609Jas I to Down Cath. 179
Kelcole1609cBoazio's Map (NG)
Kescole1609cBoazio's Map (NG)
(?)Relly1610Speed's Ireland
(?)Relly1610Speed's Ulster
(?)Relly1610Speed's Antrim & Down
Kilkele1610cNorden's Map
Kilkeele1613CPR Jas I 247a
Kilkeile Parish, the Prebendary of1615cTerrier (Reeves) 39
Kilkioll1618CPR Jas I 368a
Kilkioll1618CPR Jas I 408b
Killkeele ruin1622Ulster Visit. Reeves 27
Kilkeele1625cInq. Ult. (Down) $15 Jac. I
Kelkole1630Maps Down (Mac Aodha) 66
Kelkule1630cMercator/Hondius Map
Kilkeil1633cRegal Visit. (Reeves) 115
(?)Relly1638Maps Down (Mac Aodha) 66
Relly1654?Maps Down (Mac Aodha) 66
Kilkeile1657Inq. Down (Reeves1) 101
Kilkeele al. Magre Murphy1659cCensus 1659 83
Kilkeile, rector de1661Trien. Visit. (Bramhall) 13
Killkeele + Killkeele Parish1661BSD 131
Kilkeel1663Sub. Roll Down 279
Kilkeale1664Trien. Visit. (Margetson) 21
Kilkeel1679Trien. Visit. (Boyle) 43
Relly1680cMaps Down (Mac Aodha) 66
Killkeel & Machermurphie1688Rent Roll Morne 4
Kirkeile1692Rent Roll Down 14
Kirkeel1712Maps Down (Mac Aodha) 66
Kirkiel1744Harris Hist. 12, 140
Kirkiel1755Map of Down (OSNB) E35
Kirkiel1767Map of Down (OSNB) E206; E35
Kirkeel1772Ir. Wills Index iv 168
Kilkeel, parish of1790Reg. Deeds abstracts iii $303
Kirkeele1810Wm. Map (OSNB) E206; E35
Kilkeelmore1829Ir. Wills Index iv 166
Kilkeel1830cBnd. Sur. (OSNB) E206; E175; E35
~Cill a chaoil ""Church of the Strait""1834cOSNB: gen. sources E206; E175
~Cill a chaoil ""Narrow church""1834cOSNB: gen. sources E175
~go Cill an Chaoil1840cMac Bionaid 19b: 12
~Cill a'' chaoil1901Omeath Infs (GJ) 157
~Cill Chaol1905Omeath Infs (Laoide) 81
~Cille Chaol1905Post-Sheanchas 81
~Cillidh Chaoil1925cOmeath Infs (Piatt) 11
~Cill Chaoil1969AGBP 117
~Cill Chaoil1988Éire Thuaidh
~Cill Chaoil1989GÉ 54
Cill Chaoil perhaps ""church of thenarrow place""1999Dict. Ulst. PN 86
Cill Chaoil ""(?)church of the narrow place""2002Culture NI PNN PMcK/JP
Parish in 1851
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