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Moira Parish, County Down


Ir. Maigh Rath 'plain of streams' or 'plain of wheels'


The civil parish of Moira is situated in the north-west corner of Co. Down, although it does not include the large townland of Kilmore, linking Down with Lough Neagh, which belongs to the parish of Shankill, which is mainly in Co. Armagh.  The 21 townlands lie across the river Lagan, which becomes the boundary between Cos Antrim and Down at the north end of the townland of Lurganville in the north-east of the parish, a mile and a half east of the village of Moira.  There is no townland bearing the parish name.  Moira village, like Magheralin a mile further south, is not built directly on the river, but on higher ground a mile from its western bank, occupying the small townlands of Carnalbanagh East and West. 

Moira was only created a parish in 1725, when it was divided from the parish of Magheralin.  Nevertheless the name was already well known referring to a district, not corresponding exactly to the parish, largely because of the famous battle of Mag Rath fought in AD 637.  The name was well-known in Irish. The first element is magh (Modern Irish ) 'a plain', probably anglicized from the dative or locative form maigh, which has more recently been used as the nominative.  The traditional interpretation of the rest of the name has been either Magh Ráth 'plain of forts' or Magh Rath 'plain of prosperity' (John O'Donovan: Circuit of Ireland 31; cf. forms from OSNB).  Several forts such as Rough Fort and Pretty Mary's Fort, survive near the village of Moira.  Atkinson assumed the name meant 'plain of the fort' (Atkinson's Dromore 216), but this would require the second element to be spelled rátha, and there is little evidence in the Irish sources for a final vowel,  the only example being mag cuanach Muigi Ratha 'the beautiful plain Magh Rath', to rhyme with the artificial place-name Daire in [Fh]Latha 'oakwood of the prince' (CMR II 174 n-5).  Likewise the internal vowel of Rath is rarely marked long, and a short vowel is confirmed in verse, where the name is frequently, and predictably, made to rhyme with cath 'battle' (Buile Suibhne §6 v4, §16 v1, v13; CMR II 210, 312).  

Ráth 'fort' is thus excluded.  If the second element were rath 'prosperity', the form would have to be genitive plural, an unusual formation unless rath could be understood in a more concrete sense, e.g. 'of bounties'. 

Many of the early forms, up to the 14th century, give the vowel in the second element as o not a, in some cases confirmed by the rhyme-scheme used in verse, so that ar Muig Roth 'at Moira', and a cath Roth 'from the battle of Moira', rhyme with moch 'early' (Clann Ollaman 64 §20; Buile Suibhne: §75 v9 p140 top).  The ordinary meaning of roth is 'wheel'.  The place-name element roth has been discussed by J.B. Arthurs (1952-3(a), 10-11).  The meaning 'wheel' had been suggested in names like Rouen in France (of Gaulish origin), which seems to be a parallel formation to Mag Roth, as Rotumagos 'wheel plain'.  Arthurs thought this unlikely, and quoted Welsh and Gaulish names which suggest that roth could be connected either with the Irish verb rethid 'runs', or with Welsh rhyd 'ford' and Latin portus 'harbour'.  If Mag Roth once meant 'plain of rivers' or 'fords' this might provide one explanation why it was given Magh Comair, 'plain of the confluence' as an alias name (Arthurs 1952-3(a), 10; CMR II 110, 226; noted EA 369; though it is doubtful whether the name was still 'understood').  Apart from the river Lagan, there is a stream in Tullyard, ponds in Risk and in Legmore, and probably a stream preceding the Lagan canal ('the going of the water called the ford of Hakar' between Aghalee and Blaris, Fiants Eliz. §4327).  A 'small stream' formed the chief part of the boundary between Aghagallon and Moira parishes (OSM xxi 26b), and several streams join the Lagan near the old ford at Spencer's Bridge.  On the other hand this area was at the meeting of routeways north and south, and east and west, and thus could be called 'the plain of wheels'.   

After 1583 the later anglicized spellings have a final -gh, but it is doubtful if this was intended to show that the name ended with [x] or even [h]in pronunciation.  Although it is not clear when the current stress on the first syllable Moira developed, it may not have changed in the 17th century and the -gh may have been added to the second syllable to indicate that it bore the stress in pronunciation.  One could contrast the name, stressed on the first syllable, of the Moyry Pass on the old route from Dundalk to Newry (Lawlor 1938(a), 3, map), which was anglicized from Bealach an Mhaighre (AFM vi 2222n, 2256n: AD 1600-1).


Muhr, K. (1996): Place-Names of Northern Ireland vol. 6 p. 271-7, where the name is discussed in further detail.

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