Maps and Mayhem

Lee Henry meets Dr Kay Muhr to find out the story behind NI's place-names

The etymology of Northern Irish place-names is a decidedly complex business.

Gaelic, Norse, Roman, Anglo-Norman and Ulster Scots in origin, the names of Northern Irish villages, towns and cities were originally derived from all sorts of sources - plants, animals, mountains and people - and meant all sorts of things.

Derry, for example, is derived from the Gaelic word doire, meaning oak grove, while Strangford comes from the Norse Strangfjörthr, meaning ‘sea inlet’, and Whappstown finds its genesis in the Ulster-Scots word whaup, meaning curlew.

No matter the meaning or derivation, it is the Anglo-Normans we have to thank for first recording ancient NI place-names during the 12th century, and an Englishman, Richard Bartlett, who compiled one of the first comprehensive collection of maps relating to the North of Ireland during the English campaign against Hugh O’Neill, Lord of Tyrone, in 1600.

Dr Kay Muhr, senior research fellow with the Northern Ireland Place-Name Project (NIPNP) and Chairman of the Ulster Place-Name Society, will be giving a seminar on the intrepid Mr Bartlett in Washington’s Library of Congress on May 16, as part of the Rediscover NI programme.

Originally from Cambridgeshire, Dr Muhr has written and lectured on the use of place-names in the Ulster Cycle stories, early Irish literature, mythology and early Irish maps, and has also contributed to the Place-Names of Northern Ireland series.

As senior research fellow with the NIPNP at Queen's University, Dr Muhr works closesly with the Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland's Pointer database, explaining the origins and meanings of townland names.

She will be joined by Henry Glassie, College Professor for Folklore at Indiana University, whose following seminar, entitled Ballymenone: The Power of Place and the Riddle of History, relates to his time spent in the north east of NI during the 1970s, researching the living conditions of country people and recording their stories.

Buried under a pile of hardback books and dog-eared maps in the corner of her office overlooking Queen’s University, the diminutive Dr Muhr took a few minutes out from her research to talk a little about her Washington seminar.

‘I don’t claim to know the historical side of the 1600 campaign in great detail,’ Muhr admitted. ‘But basically Bartlett seems to have been a young man, probably from East Anglia, who was employed as a cartographer on the English side.

‘Because I’m dealing with a plantation mapmaker, I’m going to be talking not only about the indigenous Irish language place-names, but also the names of fortifications and commanders and so on that were imposed on the landscape at that period.

‘I think that will resonate with people in America, because the same sort of thing happened there. America was also colonised by people who partly adopted the local names and partly imposed their own.’

Bartlett accompanied Charles Blount, Lord Deputy Mountjoy, on his campaign in Ulster to defeat the Irish chieftain Hugh O’Neill between 1600-02. But very little is known of the mapmaker himself.

A Mr Bartlett was listed in the English Army in Ireland in 1601, as the Lord Deputy’s cornet. This officer’s post may have been a cover for a brief to provide a visual record of the campaign, as Mountjoy’s secretary, Fynes Morrison, was procured to do in writing.

A perusal of Bartlett’s maps do indeed show the progress of the conflict, with fortifications, army camps and battle grounds highlighted with flying red flags.

However, in the course of this visual documentation, commissioned as a military aid, Bartlett managed to produce an accurate map of the whole of NI, recording many place-names for the first time and providing modern historians with an extraordinarily detailed geographical account of Ireland in the 17th century.

‘The maps show Ulster districts and their boundaries,’ Dr Muhr adds. ‘Lakes, hills, woods, churches, castles and crannog islands. South East Ulster adds route ways and campaign tents, star forts and comment on events.

‘Some types of names shown are Ancient Ulster ecclesiastical arrangements, the native political and cultural system and families, including inauguration sites, settlements, churches, hills, rivers and passes which were of interest then for travel, and now because they preserve a record of names which may have been lost.’

The only thing known of Bartlett - other than his cartographical achievements - are the circumstances surrounding his death.

After the Flight of the Earls in September 1607, much of the land in the west of Ulster was confiscated and given over to new English landowners.

Sir John Davis was in charge of the Escheated County mapping, the mapping of newly confiscated land, and it is in a statement from him that we learn of Bartlett’s fate.

Davis witnessed that his surveyors worked under guard in 1609, ’for one Barkeley being appointed by the late Earl of Devonshire [Lord Mountjoy] to draw a true and perfect map of the north parts of Ulster (the old maps being false and defective), when he came into Tyrconnell the inhabitants took off his head, because they would not have their country discovered'.

Of course Davis mistakenly refers here to Bartlett as Barkeley, and Tyrconnell, or modern day Co Donegal, stems from the Gaelic Tir Conaill, meaning Country of Conall, an ancient Irish king.