Placenamesni.orgthe history behind our place-names

Millisle, County Down

Origin

Scots mill + isle 'meadow', possibly a borrowed name; earlier possibly Ir. Baile an Mhuilinn 'townland of the mill'

Background

On E coast of Ards Peninsula, 10.5km SE of Bangor

par: Donaghadee bar: Ards Lower

Three 17th century forms indicate an Irish original Baile an Mhuilinn "the townland of the mill" which may well have been an earlier name for Millisle.  Unfortunately there is no conclusive evidence that these forms refer to Millisle.  The earliest evidence for the current name relates to the establishment of a Presbyterian congregation (later amalgamated with Ballycopeland) and the building of a church at Millisle in 1773 (Gravestone Inscrip. (Down) xvi 173). 

In the OSNB for Donaghadee O'Donovan writes, "Mille Isle supposed from Milles Isles, thousand islands, the shore being rocky, and a great number of them appear above water when the tide is at ebb." This idea may have originated with Walter Harris, who wrote in 1744 "From Donaghadee near two miles south are a group of rocks called the Mill-Isles, and by some the Plow, no way dangerous, because well known, and seen above water at half tide" (Harris Hist. 135).  However, whilst the shore is indeed dotted with rocky islands, the application of a French name to a landscape feature is most improbable here.  Furthermore, it should be noted that the form of the name given by Harris is Mill Isles, not the Millisle, and that he associated the name with islands along the coast rather than the village in question.  Therefore, despite its importance as an early source, Harris' allusion to the name, is open to doubt in terms of its application and interpretation. 

It is more likely that we are dealing with a name created or imported by Scottish settlers in the Ards or their descendants.  There is a hamlet named Millisle in Wigtownshire, south-west Scotland.  Although this is a place of no great size, it is the location of the Church of Scotland parish church of Sorbie, and was recorded in 1782 as Mill isle on John Ainslie's map of the county of Wigton.  The Scottish Millisle, like Millisle in Co. Down, is not a true island (it lies about 1 mile inland from Garlieston Bay) and it is interpreted by Maxwell as "the 'isle' or meadow of the mill", cf. the use of the element island in Ulster place-names (Ó Mainnín 1989-90).  The name is also stressed on the second syllable, as with our Millisle (Maxwell 210).  This suggests that the name was either imported directly from Wigtownshire, or that a new but analagous form was created by Scots speakers. In either case, it would have been appropriate as a partial translation of an earlier Irish name, Baile an Mhuilinn.  The mill in question may have been a water-mill (located on Mill Burn?) which preceded the windmill in Ballycopeland townland, built in 1785 (W.G. Pollock 1975: Six Miles from Bangor - The Story of Donaghadee, p.54). 

References

Hannan R. J. (1992): Place-Names of Northern Ireland vol. 2 p. 194; revised PT, 2012; McKay, P. (2007); A Dictionary of Ulster Place-Names, p. 107

Additional Information

T., spelt as 2 words in 1851 Census

Historical name form

Old FormRef. DateReference

Ballewillen, the bay of

1623Ham. Copy Inq. [1623] li

Ballywillen al Ballymullen, the river and bay of

1623Ham. Copy Inq. [1623] lii

"a Group of Rocks called the Mill-Isles, and by some the Plow, no way dangerous, because well known, and seen above Water at half Tide"

1744Harris Hist. 135

Oileán an Mhuilinn

1969AGBP 118

"Millisle Presbyterian Graveyard... The congregation was established and church built in 1773..."

1976Gravestone Inscrip. (Down) xvi 173

Oileán an Mhulinn

1989GÉ 142

Baile an Mhuilinn (?) 'townland of the mill'

1992PNI ii 194 (R.J. Hannan)
Ballinwillin1605Inq. Ult. (Down) $2 Jac. I
Milntowne1617CPR Jas I 326a
Mill Isle1834cOSNB: gen. sources E 167, E 24
Barony
Ards Lower
Parish
Donaghadee
Parish in 1851
Donaghadee
Townland
Ballymacruise/Ballycopeland
Place name ID
6750
Place name type
M:V