Project Canterbury Some Archbishops of Dublin
by T. S. Lindsay.
Dublin: Church of Ireland Printing Co., 1928.
Irish Place Names
I PROPOSE to write something generally on our place-names, but only as an introduction to the information they give us about our Church-life in olden times. It is a very fascinating and instructive subject, at least as regards ancient names of places. Modern names do not, indeed, convey much meaning. All the older towns and villages and the townlands and rivers and lakes and hills of our country have the names given to them many centuries ago, but in recent times there has been much naming of villas and of some towns, such as Swanlinbar. In the early Victorian period there was a vogue of calling them after the builder, or, very often, after his wife or mother, and the postman is familiar with such names as Killeen Terrace, or Maryville, or Janeville. Later they were called Seaview or Hillside. Then the names ceased to have any relation to fact, and fancy stepped in. Near Malahide, where I live, there are a number of houses called after foreign towns such as Cintra, Cremona, La Mancha, Mantua and Casino. Walk along the suburban roads of any of our cities, and you will see Woodthorpe, Roseneath or Eversley, some name which the builder thought pretty, or with which he had some association.
But in ancient times naming was done in quite a different way. It was not that one person chose a name that pleased him, but that the people of the district gradually got into the habit of designating a locality or a cluster of huts by the name of the principal owner, or of some striking feature in the scenery, or by some remarkable event that occurred there, or, in later times, as we shall see, by the name of some holy man whose spiritual influence dominated the country round. And, bearing this in mind, how intensely interesting are these old names. There they are, after so many chequered centuries, on the lips of generation after generation of people who, as time went on, were ignorant of their origin and of their meaning. Yet they all had a meaning, and when we discover this it throws a beam of light upon those far-off ages, tells us something about the men who lived there, or the events of their time, or how the place looked then.
There is a place close to Malahide named Moldowney. It is a very ancient name. It takes us back to the days of the Firbolgs, long before the Celts came to Ireland, that is to say "downey" does. It appears that the Firbolgs, in the dim pre-historic ages, no man knoweth how long ago, landed in three places, of which Malahide was one. And the band that landed there were called the Firdowney, or the men of the deep holes, because in their tillage they had the sense to dig deeply. There we have a little ray of light on ancient Malahide. We are told that the "Mol" was added by the Danes in later times. It meant a rapid or whirlpool, as in "maelstrom," and refers to the strong tidal current that flows there.
So Derby is the town of the deer, "deer" being the German "thier" or wild beast, and "by," as in "by-law," being the Danish word for a town. It is very common in Lincolnshire. Our islands were then over-run by fierce animals, and this is indicated by occasional place-names, like Feltrim, near Malahide, which means the hill of the wolves. Much country also was covered with wild scrub; so thickly wooded was it that it used to be said that a squirrel could travel from the East coast to the West, by leaping from branch to branch, without touching the ground.
There are in England many names indicating forests where they have now disappeared. The tract in Kent and Sussex now called the Weald, a word equivalent to wold or wood, was once covered with trees. Even in Iceland, now a treeless country, there are many names ending in " holt " or wood, showing that in old times it was not treeless. To return to Ireland--it is a mistake to suppose that " Kill " always means a church. There are about 3,400 places whose names contain this syllable, and Joyce estimated that in 800 of these it represents "coil," a wood. He instances the Barony of Kilmore, Co. Cork, whose forest was celebrated in the wars of Elizabeth's reign, and Kylemore, Co. Gal way. There is no way of telling by the written word whether Kilmore meant the great church or the great wood, but Joyce says that the sounds are quite distinct in Irish, and sometimes it is possible to know by documentary evidence.
Sometimes we have indications, not of forest trees, but of brake, a low thicket or jungle of briars and shrubs. This is the meaning of "money" as in Ballymoney, a frequent name in Ireland--Moneymore, Monaghan, and others. These thickets have long disappeared by the labour of forgotten men, and have given place to tilled and productive fields.
Sometimes a name tells us of some great and venerable tree, long since dead, under which old men discussed their politics and children played. One of these words is "cran," found in many names; another is "billa" or "villa." We have it in Rathvilly in Carlow, and in a place where many happy hours of my childhood were spent, Ringabella, near the entrance to Cork Harbour. Sometimes the very kind of tree is, as it were, fossilised in the name, as in Derry, Adare, Kildare and Derrynane, where "dare" meant an oak. [A distinction must be made between "derry" and "dare." "Derry" is an oak grove, whereas "dare" is a solitary tree. Thus, St. Columba's Derry was a wood, not a sacred tree. On the other hand, St. Brigid's, Kildare, points to a particular tree]. An idea of the prevalence of oak trees in Ireland may be gathered from the fact that no less than 1,300 names begin with "deny" in some form, and it is the termination of names innumerable. We also find the ash, the birch, the elm, the yew, the holly, the ivy, the heather, the hawthorn and the furze entering into the names of Irish places.
And what a picture rises before the mind's eye when we know the meaning of "Dublin"--dubh linn, "the dark pool," which filled twice a day with the tide, and near it Ath-cliath, "the ford of the hurdles," on which you could cross the river at low water. Again, what a picture rises when we hear the name "Cork." Where streets and shops and slums now occupy the ground, there spread a great swampy marsh, where snipe and woodcock feared not the sportsman's gun, stretching away from both banks of the river Lee.
But if it so often happens that place-names are eloquent about the changes that successive generations of men have wrought in the appearance of the land, they still more frequently tell us of man's impotence. You go to a place whose name begins with "Knock" or "Carrig," and you are not surprised to find a hill there. Forests may be rooted out, swamps may be drained, villages may be deserted, wolves may be exterminated; but strands, plains, valleys and lakes survive; "men may come and men may go, but the brook goes on for ever," and the names they gave to places countless generations ago are the names to-day in the mouths of people who have not the slightest notion of their meaning.
We now turn to the light thrown on the religion of Ireland in Christian times by the place-names that arose after heathenism had disappeared. There are vast numbers of names in this land that had their origin in religion--obviously these are later than those which referred to the natural features of the country, for in a land thickly populated from ancient times, the rivers, hills and valleys would have long been employed to designate localities by the inhabitants ages before St. Patrick's day. But in the fifth and succeeding centuries, as Christianity conquered heathenism, and became a strong, living force, moulding men's lives into a new fashion, and filling them with the joy and the enthusiasm that are born of new hopes, the new wine of great spiritual truths undreamt of before, all over the country churches were built, monasteries were founded, schools of learning were established, and devoted men and women, reverenced by the ignorant people and enshrined in the memory of their far-away descendants as saints, took up their abode in solitary cells or banded together in brotherhoods and became centres of Christian influence. Naturally, then, the building of a religious edifice or the residence of a highly-honoured man of God would be seized upon to designate the sacred spot. We may divide these names into two classes, those that indicate the existence of an ecclesiastical building, and those that perpetuate the name of a saint.
(i.) Many thousands of places in Ireland derive their names from some church or school or monastery that once stood there. In most cases the very site can be identified, indeed, generally a modern church stands on the site of the ancient one, with an old graveyard attached to it. It is a noticeable fact that nearly all such names are derived from the Latin, not from the Celtic, for Latin was the ecclesiastical language in those times, indeed, the common medium of speech for the learned in all Western countries. Most of the Irish words for church ceremonies or offices are really Latin, as, for instance, "soggarth," a priest, from "sacerdos," and "easpog," a bishop, from "episcopus," from which, indeed, our word "bishop" is derived. This does not show that early Irish religion came from Rome, for, as I said, Latin was the international language used for commerce, politics and scholarship in all Western Europe. Take the word "Kill," a church, which Joyce estimated to have entered into over 2,600 place-names. It is the Latin " cella," or "kella," a cell, which Skeat derives from "celare," to hide, as in our words "conceal" and "cellar." Other etymologists derive it from a Greek word koiloV, hollow, from which comes the Latin "coelum," the sky, the French "ciel," and our "ceiling." Anyway, whether a kill was a hiding place or a hollowed out-place, it was a very humble structure, in many cases the tiny abode of a hermit, where two or three would meet for worship, and near which a larger edifice would afterwards be built. Sometimes we can gather its mode of construction from its name, as in Kilclay or Kilclief, which means "the hurdle church."
Hurdles or wattles plastered with mud was a common mode of building in ancient Ireland, and this accounts for the fact that so few of the really old edifices have survived, even in ruins, to our time. The Venerable Bede tells us of an Irish monk named Finan who became Bishop of Lindisfarne, and who built a church there "fit for his episcopal see, not of stone, but of sawn oak, and covered with reeds, after the manner of the Scots," that is of the Irish.
We have near Bray a place called "Shankill," which is usually supposed to represent "St. John's Church." Irish scholars, however, believe that it more probably meant "the old church," I suppose because a new and better one was built in the neighbourhood. Relatively, to our own times, "new" and "old" have no meaning. The Newcastle built by the Normans on the Tyne is 800 years old, and still keeps its name; Naples, or Neapolis, is still older. Nablous, in Palestine, is twice as old, having been founded by Vespasian when he destroyed Samaria. New College is one of the oldest in Oxford, and New Palace Yard at Westminster has been so called since William Rufus built a royal house there.
Another word which denotes a place of worship is "Donagh." This is derived from "dominica," belonging to the Lord, the adjectival form of Dominus. It also signified Sunday, or the Lord's Day, as it does still in the French "dimanche" and Italian "dominica," and Archbishop Ussher thought that this was the original meaning, and that churches were so called because their foundations were laid on a Sunday. Be that as it may, the word "donagh" or "dun" enters into a great many place-names, such as Donaghmore, Donaghadee, Donaghpatrick, and so on. There is a place inland from Swords called Dunshaughlin, that is, "the Church of St. Sechnall," who was nephew of St. Patrick. It does not follow, however, that Dun always meant a church. It still more frequently meant a hill crowned with a fort, when it is exactly equivalent to "fort," meaning "strong." It is akin to the termination "dunium," so common in old Latinized names, both in England and abroad. The "dun" in Verdun, for example, anciently Verodunium, is the same as in Dundalk, Dundrum, Downpatrick and the Glen of the Downs. It is found in "London," which was originally "Lud's Dun," or King Lud's fortified hill, now Ludgate Hill, on the summit of which stands St. Paul's Cathedral. How many Londoners know that their city has a Celtic name?
Another word for "church," found in a good many places, is "Aglish." There is a parish in Cork of this name. It comes from ecclesia, the Christian people catted out of the world and afterwards the building in which they worshipped. A third word is "Temple," which was adopted at an early date. About 90 townland names begin with it, as Templemichael. A cathedral or any large important church was called Templemore; the City of Derry, for instance, used to be in the Parish of Templemore. The word is Latin, from a Greek word, meaning "to cut," because it was a sacred enclosure, cut off from secular uses. This, word is used in France to designate a Protestant place of worship.
One other name for an ecclesiastical building we may notice. It is "chapel," as in Chapel-midway. This word long puzzled etymologists. Brachet, a French authority, derives it from capella, a shrine in which was preserved the capat or cope of St. Martin. Dean Burgon, in his amusing letters from Rome, says that capella was the hood or covering of the altar, and that the word was first applied to the arched sepulchres excavated in the walls of the Catacombs of Rome, which afterwards became places where prayer was wont to be made.
(2.) Let us now turn from the churches to the saints. In most Eastern countries it is common to find places called after the names of men who in their life were specially revered for their piety, and whose good influence was not interred with their bones. But in that respect Ireland stands pre-eminent. It was the Island of Saints, and Joyce says that in this small country no less than 10,000 places commemorate by their names either those who first founded churches there, or those to whom those churches were dedicated, or those who lived there and made the places famous. Some of these men were the first Christian Missionaries who ventured into the mountain fastnesses to tame their savage denizens. From the village names in Ireland it would be almost possible to compile a hagiology of these sainted men, who were often canonized only by local tradition, and whose names are not always found in the pages of the Bollandists. Early Irish writers have left us ample records of a vast number of these saints, but of a still larger number we know nothing save the name, immortalised by the place. Even local tradition, that so tenaciously retains the memory of events long past, has for the most part died into silence, and though no doubt for many centuries the peasants would pass on facts, growing more and more legendary, about the deeds and character of the saint whose name was incorporated in that of their parish, I do not suppose that many of these traditions have survived to our day.
There are two words which bring to our minds two special varieties of these saints. One is Desert. The late Professor Stokes, in his interesting book on "Ireland and the Celtic Church," gives an account of the solitaries, and draws from them an argument that the ancient Irish Church drew its inspiration from Eastern rather than from Western sources. It was, indeed, a remarkable form for the religion of Christ to take. Some of these ascetics lived on grass; some wore hardly any clothes, even in winter; some secluded themselves in cells too low to stand up in and too short to lie down at length. Such a cell, as some believe, may be seen to this day in St. Doulagh's Church. Some, like St. Doulagh, were walled up anchorites, living in indescribable filth, just kept alive by a scanty, unwholesome and irregular fare, their limbs useless through inaction, their minds vacant and semi-imbecile through long-continued idleness. But, however mistaken, they exercised a strong spiritual influence, for the surrounding people recognised that they sincerely desired two things--to escape sin and to hold communion with God. These hermits would seek some solitary place for their dwelling, free from distractions, a place deserted by men, and so the place became known as Desertserges, or Desertmartin. There are a great many townlands and parishes into the names of which this word enters, and not always recognised, as, for instance, Eastersnow in Roscommon, a name corrupted from Desertnooan, the hermitage of St. Nooan. There is still to be seen his holy well, known as Tubbernooan.
The other word to which I referred is "anchorite," and it, too, is embedded in some names. Stokes adduces one, a hill near Athlone, called Anchorsbower, which he thinks should be Anchor's boher, the anchorites' road, and certainly the old road to the Parish of Disert led over it. He tells us that the life of the anchorite, or walled up hermit, survived down to the year 1700, and that many of the cathedrals, such as Cashel and St. Canice's, Kilkenny, had anchorites attached to them.
I will conclude with a reference to two other parts of place-names which shed a light on old-world religion in Ireland. One is contained in the name of Ballyboghil, a village between Swords and Balbriggan. We all know that bally means a town. It is akin to the Latin vallum, the stockade surrounding a fort, and to the English wall or bailey, as in the Old Bailey. But what does boghil mean? It is from the Latin baculus, a staff, whose diminutive is bacillus, a word which has attained notoriety in our times in an unexpected connection. Baculus or boghil came to be applied in ecclesiastical language to a crozier, or bishop's staff, and a persistent local tradition at Ballyboghil holds that for centuries St. Patrick's staff was preserved there until, I suppose, the place was raided by the Danes.
The other word is "cross," which enters into hundreds of names. In some of these it may indicate cross-roads, but in by far the greater number it commemorates the erection of a stone cross to proclaim to all and sundry the Christian Faith. One of these still stands on the side of the road, six miles from Dublin. It is at the foot of the avenue leading to St. Doulagh's Church, a relic of the steadfast religion of our rude forefathers.