Disappearing Place Names

John Hagan considers the decaying of ancient nomenclatures in favour of 'anodyne' modern equivalents

You are either a ‘bally’ person, or you’re not. Me? I’m undoubtedly a ‘bally’ person. Let me explain.

I was born in Ballydown, County Down, attended the Ballydown Primary School, and later spent many a joyous youthful vacation at Ballycastle. I played my first school rugby game against Ballyclare, and scored my best rugby try – the only one has got to be the best, doesn’t it? – against Ballymena. It was while attending a dance in Ballymoney that I met my wife. Need I go on?

‘Bally’ is a pretty common place name in Northern Ireland. Some ‘Ballys’ are mundane, others are a little more exotic – Ballycarrickmaddy, County Antrim; Ballywillwill County Down; and Ballyclaber, County Londonderry, to name but three.

Some 5,000 places in Ireland sport the prefix ‘Bally’, of which 45 bear the nomenclature of Ballybeg (little town). ‘Bally’, or ‘baile’ in Gaelic, is an Irish agrarian division known as a ‘townland’ – a land category which is unique to Ireland.

Let’s put townlands into perspective. Ireland was divided into four Provinces (Ulster, Munster, Leinster, Connacht), which were separated into counties. These counties were further broken up into baronies, which in turn were split into parishes, with each parish made up of a number of townlands.

Of course, not all townlands, or Irish place names, are fortunate enough to be blessed with the prefix ‘bally’ – the majority are not.

Pollnameeltogue and Derryfubble (both County Tyrone), are amongst those ‘beyond the pale’, but my own particular favourite ‘non-bally’ designation must be Muckanaghederdauhaulia (Gaelic for ‘pig-marsh between two saltwaters’) in County Galway – the longest single-word townland in Ireland.

Arguably, the majority of Irish townlands, and place names, were derived from Gaelic, while others gained their moniker thanks to some literary corruption and/or the ineptitude of English scribes.

During the 17th century, there was concern that Irish place names were 'uncouth' and 'unintelligible', causing William Petty, the legendary map-maker, to comment that 'it would not be amiss if the significant part of the Irish names were interpreted, where they are not, nor cannot be abolished'.

There are around 63,000 townlands in Ireland, and, as might be imagined, these townlands come in varying sizes. In Northern Ireland, for example, with its 9,700 townlands, the scope ranges from the extensive 4,500 acres of Slievedoo, County Tyrone, to a tichy three acres at Acre McCricket, County Down, with the average townland area being 355 acres.

It would appear that the size of the townland was influenced by the fertility of the land and its latent productivity. In hilly areas, townlands tend to be generally larger, while in the lowlands – potentially blessed with more lush pastures – they are commonly smaller.

Within each townland can be found many minor place names; on average there are 20-30 per townland. This amounts to an enormous number of Irish place names, perhaps running in to the millions.

The sources of Irish townlands and place names are many and varied. Some originated from the names of the families who lived in the area, with Ballymacpeake (MacPeake’s townland) and Tamniaran (O’Herren’s field), both located in County Londonderry, being good examples.

Some place names are derived from an easily identifiable local feature, such as Creggan (little rock), and Drumlamph (ridge of the marsh-mallows/elm trees). Place names may also reflect old habitation sites, with rath (fortification) being a common prefix in names such as Rathfriland (or Fraiole's fort) in County Down.

Many place names are derived from plants, such as Derrydrummuck (the oakwood of the ridge of the pigs) in County Down, and animals, as in Drumbo, County Down, meaning ‘the ridge of the cow’ in Gaelic. Admittedly, not all our place names are of Irish derivation.

Some, such as Strangford and Carlingford, are Norse in origin, while others like Whappestown and Loanends, both in County Antrim, originate from the Ulster-Scots. And, of course, English place names do occur: Dunlopstown, County Down and Draperstown, County Londonderry being apt examples.

For centuries, the townland was the bedrock of Irish society. The school, railway halt, farmer's house, post office and local hall, all embodied its name, affording the townland a unique identity, and making it visible, and known, to travellers. Later, the townland name was also reflected in its postal address.

Prior to the 1970s, all rural addresses in Northern Ireland were embellished by their townland name. Now this heredity identity is being replaced by ‘ho-hum’ road names and numbers. For example, the blandly named Coast Road, running for 12 miles between Limavady and Coleraine, has replaced the names of 27 townlands, including Ballyscullion, Upper Magherawee, Oughtymoyle and Castleoodry.

When I lived in Northern Ireland, my postal address was Ballydown, Banbridge. It is now (if I were still residing there) 252 Castlewellan Road, Banbridge – the townland name has been excised. While it still maintains house numbers and road names, Fermanagh District Council is the only bailiwick in Northern Ireland which continues to retain, and champion, the use of townland names in local addresses.

Another threat to our rich townland nomenclature tradition is reflected in the relatively recent blight of housing developments. To promote sales, and make these often dreary estates seem more attractive, many developers dispensed with townland appellations, choosing to dub their new anodyne idylls with such descriptors as ‘Thorndyke Mews’, ‘Heathfield Heights’ and ‘Oaktree Grove’.

Thankfully, some attempts are, or rather were, being made to ‘save’ our townland and place names. The Northern Ireland Placename Project was set up in 1987 and, to date, seven volumes have been produced on the history of their evolution and what they represent.

Completed research relates to parts of County Down (four volumes), sections of County Antrim (two volumes) and one for the Moyola Valley in County Londonderry. Unfortunately, with much work still outstanding, project funding was terminated in 2010, resulting in the break up of the dedicated research team.

The result of this decision increases the possibility that the rich wealth of information relating to place names is in grave danger of being lost, although a new website, PlacenamesNI, is a valuable new resource for those keen on discovering the derivation of their chosen place names.

According to Dr Eamon Lankford, who initiated the Cork and Kerry Placenames Survey, 'Placenames identify us as a people, they give us a sense of history, culture, heritage… They tell us the way we viewed and used the landscape over the centuries. They are hugely important.'

Many would no doubt agree with Dr Lankford and view place names as one of our most evocative landscape descriptors, providing a revealing historical window on the land, its people and their evolution. Can we really afford to lose such a ‘bally’ important aspect of our Northern Ireland heritage?