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Maghera Parish, County Down


Ir. Machaire Rátha 'plain of the ring-fort'; earlier Ráth Murbhoilg 'ring-fort of the sea-bag or lagoon'


The civil parish of Maghera consists of a mere 6 townlands sandwiched between the parishes of Kilmegan and Kilcoo.  The name Maghera clearly derives from Irish Machaire Rátha ‘plain of the rath’, but the parish was formerly also known as Ráth Murbhoilg ‘the ringfort of Murbholg’.  Murbholg ‘sea-bag’ was the Irish name for Dundrum Inner Bay which is almost totally enclosed.  The name has been preserved in the names of the townlands of Murlough Upper and Murlough Lower.  Murlough Upper is the more southerly of these, in Maghera parish.  Murlough Lower is the tip of the promontory opposite Dundrum village, and is in Kilmegan parish.

A group of early sources places Ráth Murbhoilg in Dál Riada in the north of Co. Antrim, but Reeves has shown that this must be a mistake (EA 154-5).  The error probably crept in from an early confusion of this Murbholg with another place of the same name, now Murlough Bay, on the north-east coast of Co. Antrim (PNI vii 198-9).  The ring-fort Ráth Murbhoilg occurs in early Irish martyrologies and calendars in association with St. Domhanghart.  He gave his name to Slieve Donard, which was earlier called Sliabh Slánga, and in the Tripartite Life of St. Patrick, Ráth Murbhoilg is said to have been beside this mountain (Trip. Life Stokes i 120), thus firmly locating Ráth Murbhoilg in Co. Down. 

The current contracted form of this name has been caused by the loss of the final syllable of the first element before the similar sounds in the first syllable of the second element.  This process, known as haplology, is closely paralleled by the reduction of the English word "library" in colloquial speech to libry, and it also occurs in other place-names, most notably, Maghera in Co. Derry which also derives from Machaire Rátha.  This contraction is evidenced in the interpretation of the name as Macha Raith 'plain of the rath or fort' by Patrick Rice's, informant for the Ordnance Survey Name Book.  However, the origin is apparent from the Colgan's form of 1645, Rath murbhuilg hodie Machuire-Ratha (Acta SS Colgan, 743 col. 2).

Note that while the hamlet of Maghera is in the townland of Ballyginny, the ruins of the medieval church and round tower are to the south in the townland of Carnacavill.


MÓM 1993; KM, 2009; with additions PT, 2012.

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