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Bangor Parish (Castlereagh Lower portion), County Down

Origin

Ir. Beannchar, perhaps meaning 'place of points'

Background

The parish of Bangor is located in the north-east of Co. Down and lies in two baronies, the greater area being situated in the most northern part of the barony of the Lower Ards, with a much smaller portion in the north-east of Lower Castlereagh.  Of the thirty townlands in the parish only seven and a half are in Castlereagh Lower.  The Copeland Islands are also included in this parish which comprises 17,027 acres, and 2 perches.  It is bounded on the north by Belfast Lough, on the east by the parish of Donaghadee; to the south lies the parish of Newtownards, and the parish of Holywood borders it on the west.  The monastery of Bangor was founded by St Comgall in 555 or 559 and the site is marked by the present Church of Ireland church (the Abbey Church) at the head of the town, in the modern townland of Corporation.  It is interesting to note that among the possessions of the monastery of Bangor outside the parish were lands centred around Glenmaye in the Isle of Man (Broderick 1981-2: 24). 

A number of Irish-language sources offer origin legends and meanings for the name Bennchor, later Beannchar.  The Old Irish text Táin Bó Fraích (TBF 15-16) contains an explanation for Trácht Bennchoir “Bangor strand”.  The Connaught warrior Fróech and the Ulster warrior Conall Cernach were returning to Ireland from the Alps with Fróech's cattle when Conall's servant, Bicne mac Láegaire, died at the place which then came to be known as Inber mBicne, today Bangor Bay.  When they came to shore, the cattle shed their horns, thus giving rise to the name Trácht mBennchoir, “the strand of the horn-casting”.  Here Bennchor is taken to derive from benn “horn” + cor “casting”.  There are similar stories which account for the name in the Metrical Dindsenchas and in the Martyrology of Oengus (Fél. Óeng.). 

By and large, more recent scholars have not been convinced by these explanations.  There is a consensus that the name contains the word beann which can mean ‘horn’, ‘point’ or ‘peak’ but its exact significance in this place-name is uncertain.  Nor is the exact structure of the name clear.  P.W. Joyce suggested that Beannchar contains the word beann “horn” which “signifies horns, or pointed hills or rocks, and sometimes simply peaked hill” (Joyce i 385).  Joyce seems to be suggesting a compound beannach + ar, where the first element consists of beann + adjectival suffix -ach, followed by the suffix -ar.  Joyce also mentions Banagher in Co. Offaly, which he claims was named from the sharp rocks in the adjacent River Shannon.  It is also possible that Bangor, Co. Down, was named from sharp rocks around the shore.  However, most recent attempts to explain the name have taken it to refer to the monastery of Bangor founded by St Comgall.

There are a number of townlands in various parts of Ireland which have been anglicized Banagher and derive from an original Beannchar.  It seems strange, however, that Beannchar in North Down should be anglicized as Bangor.  Perhaps it was influenced by the name Bangor which is commonly used as the name of ecclesiastical sites in Wales.  The two names may share some common attributes.  Bedwyr Lewis Jones draws some interesting parallels between the name Bangor in Wales, and Bangor in Co. Down (Ainm 5: 59-65).  Alfred Neobard Palmer has suggested that Bangor in Wales normally meant “high choir” (Palmer 1990), however, he also states (ibid.) that bangor is found in the Welsh laws meaning “wattling”.  Ifor Williams derives Welsh Bangor from ban “a band used to strengthen something” + côr “a plaiting” (Williams 1990).  Melville Richards takes Welsh Bangor to mean “a cross-bar in a wattled fence”, which referred to either the wattled construction of the monastic cell, or to a fence surrounding it (Richards 1970).  This suggests another possible derivation for Irish Beannchar.  One meaning for the first element benn is “prong” (DIL s.v.); the second element could be cor “act of putting, placing; setting up”.  If this etymology is accepted, it could be argued that beannchar refers to a type of fence constructed with prongs surrounding the monastic site, and that it subsequently came to mean the area within the enclosure.   

References

Hannan R. J. (1992): Place-Names of Northern Ireland vol. 2 p. 141-50 (where the name and history of the parish is discussed in further detail).

Additional Information

A larger portion is in Ards Lower barony. See town of Bangor for historical forms of this name.

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Historical name form

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Barony
Castlereagh Lower
Parish
Bangor
Parish in 1851
Bangor
Townland
None
Place name ID
35121
Place name type
P