What's in a Placename?

Stephen Roulston digs for derivations

Most of the placenames in Ireland are derived from Gaelic words.


Many placenames in Ireland are derived from plants and, unsurprisingly, given the natural vegetation of the island, many of these are to do with trees. Derry (doire) is an oak grove and this placename is used on its own or in combination with other words in many places in Ireland.

For example Derrydrummuck townland in the Aghaderg Parish of Co Down comes from Doire Droma Muc or 'the oakwood of the ridge of the pigs'. The name for a yew tree is iubhar and it is from this word that Ballynure, for example, is thought to derive.

The word for a yew wood is eochaill and Ahoghill is thought to mean 'ford of the yew wood' while Achyoghill (Achadh Eochaill) near Kilkeel in Co Down means 'field of the yew wood'.

Sally is the vernacular name for a willow in Ireland – this comes from sail (singular) and sallach (plural). Townlands such as Ballysally, near Coleraine, point to how common the willow was.

A birch is called beithe in Gaelic and has given its name to townlands such as Aghaveagh and Ardnaveigh. Scé is the Gaelic for hawthorn and is quite common in placenames, from Skegoneill, in Belfast, to Gortnaskey (field of hawthorn), Co Londonderry, and Ballyskeagh in County Tyrone.

The alder grows in marshy areas and along riverbanks. Its name in Gaelic is fearn and the townland in Newtownabbey called Cloughfern has derived part of its name from the alder. All these names are a reminder of what has been lost from much of Ireland as you pass through places called after trees and forests which have long since vanished.

Other plants have contributed their names to places. For example, the Gaelic for fern is raithean and Coleraine stems from Cuil Raithean, the ferny corner. Wild garlic is called creamh in Gaelic and the wild garlic or ransomes that occur in undisturbed woodlands, with their unmistakable aroma, have given their name to a number of places in Ireland.

Cranfield, in Co Antrim, is a corruption of the original creamh choill or garlic wood. Fraoch is the Gaelic word for heather and Inishfree in County Donegal is a combination of inis (island) and freaoch.


Some places in Ireland have been named after animals. The sparrow is gealbhán and has given its name to Lisnagelvin near Derry. The eagle (iolar) has long been extinct in Ireland but its use in placenames such as Drumiller (Droim Iolar) in Co Down points to its occurrence in the past.

Even the humble midge gets a mention in some places. As mioltóg it has given its name to Pollnameeltogue – hollow of the midges – in Co Tyrone. The dog contributes to place names too. Some perhaps refer to the fox, as the dog (madagh) and fox (madagh rua – red dog) have similar names.

Limavady (Leim na mhadagh), for example, means the leap of the dog and there is still a place on the River Roe where locals assert that the dog jumped across the river. Muc is the Gaelic for pig and a supposed resemblance to the back of a pig has given its name to a number of places. Muckish Mountain in County Donegal, for example, is one of these.

Rabbits are coinín in Irish. Knocknagoney in east Belfast is the hill of the rabbits. This townland name may not be as old as some of the others, since rabbits are only believed to have been introduced into Ireland by the Normans in the 12th Century.

Cows also feature prominently in placenames, representative of their place in Gaelic culture as represented in Táin Bó Cuailnge (the cattle raid of Cooley) and other examples of early stories recorded by the monastic scribes. Drumbo, (Druim Bo) the ridge of the cow, occurs in Co Down and Ballyboe (Baile Bo) in County Donegal.

Landscape features

Many placenames use natural features of the landscape. Cloch means stone and is used by itself as in Clough, Co Antrim, or in combination with another word, such as in Cloughcor, Co Tyrone, (close to Stoneypath which gives an indication of the landscape).

Another common feature of placenames is creag which means rock. Creggan in Derry comes from the diminutive of creag meaning little rock. It can also be anglicised as Carrick giving the term ‘rock’ to places such as Carricknamanna in Co Donegal.

A plain in Gaelic is often known as magh or machaire. So Maygannon (Magh gCannann), in Co Down, is the plain of the white faced cows and Magherabeg (Machaire Beag) in the same county means small plain.

Mountain is sliabh in Gaelic, aften anglicised as Slieve. Many mountains in the Mourne Mountains have sliabh in them. Two in particular Slieve Meelmore and Slieve Meelbeg are sometimes thought to be derived from big bald mountain and little bald mountain. They are ‘bald’ because, unlike many other peaks in the Mournes, they lack granite tors.

A hill is cnoc, sometimes anglicised to Knock and sometimes to Crock. Crockalough in County Donegal would be an example of the later. Droim means ridge and this is a very common element of placenames from Drumahoe to Drumbo.

It is thought that rivers have particularly ancient names. Banna is Gaelic for goddess and gives its name directly to the Bann. Abhainn is also used for many rivers such as the Owencarrow in Co Donegal.

Some rivers are called after their colours, an example being the River Roe in Co Londonderry, from rua (red). Mouth is béal and this term refers too to the mouth of a river, for example.It is used in Belfast (béal feirste – the mouth of the Farset River, which flows into the River Lagan at the point where the city grew up).

The Gaelic for bog is mona – Drumona is ‘the ridge of the bog’. Carry is the local name for a weir in many parts of Ireland and it is a straight lift from the Gaelic word cora meaning weir. Ballycarry in Co Antrim means town of the weir, for example. Inis (island) can be anglicised as Inch, Ennis or Inish and has given its name to Inch Island and Inishowen, both in Donegal, to Enniskillen in Co Fermanagh and to many other places.

Personal names  

Another source for placenames is personal names of people associated with a place. Inishowen is named after Eoghan, one of the sons of Niall of the Nine Hostages who was taken there. Tyrone (Tir Eoghan) – the land of Owen – is also thought to be named after this Eoghan.

Many other places too are named after people who are associated with the land. Ballymartin in Co Down is derived from Baile Mhic Giolla Mhártain, or Gilmartin's Townland. Lismacloskey, close to Toome in Co Antrim, is from Lios Mhic Bhloscaidh – MacCluskey's fort.

Non-Gaelic placenames

Some placenames, such as Strangford and Carlingford, seem to be derived from Norse. Others are Ulster-Scots in origin. Whappstown in County Antrim, for example, owes its name to whaup, the name given by many Ulster-Scots people to the curlew. According to the Down Survey in 1662 it was called Crewganisseran. By the time of the Ordnance Survey in 1833 it had become Whappstown. Similarly, Clatterknowes and Loanends, close by in Co Antrim, derive from Ulster-Scots.

English placenames also occur. There are many clachans with English names such as Dunlopstown or Carsonstown. Some of these may be translations from the Gaelic but many reflect settlements formed in plantation times. Yet others are descriptive, such as Black Hill and Whitehead. Gracehill in Coy Antrim is a Monrovian settlement founded in the eighteenth century in the townland of Ballykennedy and named at that time.

By Stephen Roulston