Understanding Irish Placenames

Many people have an interest in Irish placenames. Here are explanations of some of the more important words used in Irish placenames

Placenames can be useful for several reasons. The may give a flavour of the type of landscape in the area, commemorate a local hero, or be the only link that a person has to their roots. If you remember the book "Roots" you will recall that the author had just one or two African words passed down to him through the generations, which provided him with enough information to eventually find his roots. Many people of Irish descent may also have a single word in their head, which could provide the link to their homeland.


Like many American placenames, Irish placenames are often derived from a language no longer used in the area. The vast majority of Irish names are derived from Gaelic. However, while Gaelic is no longer used in most of the country on a daily basis, it is still widely understood by up to 30 % of the population. Most locals would be able to tell you the meaning of local placenames.

In the 1830's, the British began making detailed maps of Ireland. As part of this process, they needed to identify and delineate every townland in the country. One man in particular, John O' Donovan, had a particular interest in this work. He attempted to write down names as they were pronounced by the locals. Whenever he could, he also provided what he believed was the correct English translation of the Irish words.

This process gave us some very long placenames. The longest one is "Muckanaghederdauhaulia" (22 letters). The Gaelic version of this name is "Muiceanach idir dhá sháile" which means a marshy area (a "pig-marsh") between two saltwater inlets. You can see from this example that four Irish words were strung together to make the English version of the word. Most Irish placenames would in fact be two or three words if they were written in Gaelic. For example, Drogheda would be Droichead Ãtha, the bridge of the ford, and Mayo would be Maigh Eo, the plain of the yew tree.

Some of the more common words used in Irish placenames include:

Kyle (e.g. Kylemore) which means a wood

Kill or Kil (e.g. Kildare, Kilkenny or Killarney) which generally signifies an old church or monastic cell

Shan (e.g. Shanagolden, or Shankill) which simply means old (the Irish word is "sean")

Rath (e.g. Rathkenny or Rathfarnham) which is a type of fort

Lis (e.g. Listowel or Lisduff) which is another type of fort, sometimes affectionately associated with the fairies or little people.

Dun (e.g. Donegal or Dundalk) which means a fortified area, or fortress.

Caher or Cashel (e.g. Caherdaniel or the town of Cashel) which comes from the Irish word "cluain", meaning a fortified area (possibly including natural defences).

Derry (e.g. Derrynaflan) which means an oak wood.

Knock (e.g. Knockcroghery or Knocksedan). Which comes from the Irish "Cnoc" meaning a hill.

Bally (e.g. Ballyjamesduff) can mean town, but originally meant an area belonging to a particular clan or tribe.

All of these are derived from Irish words. However, many placenames have a mixture of Irish and English words. For example, Castleknock is made up of the English word "castle" and the Gaelic word "cnoc", which means a hill. Just to complicate things further, many names can sound like words in Gaelic but be entirely unrelated. Sometimes locals insist that their townland name has a specific meaning which cannot be proven. For example, an area might be called Kilmore and people may presume that this means Cill Mór, or the big church. However, closer examination may show that in fact it is derived from Coill Mór, (the big forest), or even Caol Mór, which is harder to translate, but might perhaps mean "the big narrow area."


There are over 60,00 townland names in Ireland, with thousands more local names. It is a huge task to decipher the original words and arrive at a suitable explanation of the name. That is the task being undertaken by the Placenames Office in Dublin, which is part of the State Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands. There is a vast amount of information available from this office tracing the history of names from the earliest texts (which date back to the 5th Century ) For example, the name Kells, which is known worldwide because of the Book of Kells, written in the 6th Century AD., can be traced back to very early times. The Irish name is Ceanannas, which doesn't look at all like Kells. However, the various sources show that the original name went through several changes, including Cenalis, Kenalis, Kenlis Kelles and eventually Kells.

Where to start

The first thing to do is to check the spelling of the name. It may have become distorted over the years. After that, you can try to match it to a townland name in the townland index (which is available in the National Library and the National Archives). This may be all that you want (for example if you are trying to locate your ancestors). However, if you would like help with understanding the name, try the Placenames Office (c/o the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, Mespil Road, Dublin 4, Ireland). They have already published many of the more common names and they have information on probably every townland in the country. You may find that the explanation of the name will provide you with more information about the area, which in turn may help you to understand the background to your search. For example, a woman earching for Omerbane could not find it in the townland index.. Luckily, she also knew the general location that the name came from. Using large-scale maps, she found "Irishomerbane" and "Scotsomerbane", which meant a lot to her (apparently there was some significance in the family tree to this division between the Irish and Scots areas).

Understanding placenames can be a difficult and time-consuming task, especially when there is more than one language involved. However, the knowledge gained can often be worth the effort.

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