The study of field names in Co. Louth

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Maeve’s Gap in the Cooley Mountains.

What do people make of places? The question is as old as people and places themselves, as old as human attachments to certain portions of the earth … Our attachments to places … are unthinkingly taken for granted. As normally experienced, sense of place quite simply is … until, as sometimes happens, we are deprived of these attachments and find ourselves adrift … It is then we come to see that attachment to places may be nothing less than profound (Basso 1996, xiii).

The Irish landscape is made up of many layers, from the rocks laid down millennia ago to the settlements built by humans over the last ten-thousand years. Place names are one of the most intangible but vital layers of this landscape. They tell us about those who have gone before us, and how they interacted with and understood their surroundings; they tell us about how communities past and present make meaning in place; they tell us stories about ourselves. Place names serve a number of roles. They make claim to place, they identify landmarks and orientate us within our surroundings, they highlight the presence of significant resources, they inscribe history and tradition on the landscape, and they are central to creating a local ‘sense of place’. Field names fulfil many of these roles as well as identifying fields as units of property or for the purposes of farm management.

Field names tell us a good deal about people’s relationship with the land. The field name Crockbrea in Dromgoolestown, Co. Louth, for example, is an Irish name that can be translated as Cnoc Brea, the fine or lovely hill. The name intimates a kind of relationship with the land that is very different from some modern farms where fields are known solely by a reference number.  Indeed, changing farming practices and the concomitant loss of field names have provided part of the impetus for the Louth Field Names Project (LFNP). Changing landownership patterns have also contributed to the loss of field names. Many people involved in the LFNP felt that the project is ‘twenty years too late’, or told of recently deceased members of their communities whose field names died with them. LFNP surveyors reported that certain landholdings lacked field names altogether, or that the fields are simply known by a number. Despite this loss c.10,000 field names were collected by the LFNP in a short sixteen months from c.70% of townlands across the county.

Studies of Minor Places Names

Field names and other minor place names are remarkably under researched in Ireland. In our neighbouring island of Britain field names have a long history of study, and they are an essential component in many studies of past settlement (see Field 1993). Townland names have received the closest study in Ireland. Townlands were historically important administrative units and consequently they appear in documents from the medieval period onwards, and with particular frequency from the sixteenth century. They were first mapped in the Down Survey and they were used as a unit of land transfer in various plantation settlements (see McErlean 1983; Duffy 2007, 58). Townlands were mapped in detail by the Ordnance Survey in the 1830s and 1840s. Their names were standardised by the OS for the purposes of mapping under the supervision of John O’Donovan. The OS Letters and the OS Name Books remain an important source for studies of townland names (Duffy 2007, 65-6).

By contrast, place names below the level of the townland occur far less frequently in the historical record, and consequently are less well studied. Many survive solely in the fragile repository of oral history. The Ordnance Survey did record some minor place names but O’Donovan was sceptical about the value of recording many of the minor place names, which he deemed to be of ‘local significance only’ (Duffy 2007, 67).

In 1982 Breandán Mac Aodha published a thorough study of the minor place names (mionaimnneacha) shown on the first edition 6-inch OS maps of Co. Louth (1836). Mac Aodha identified 700 minor place names on the maps. Some 391 of these were duplicates of their townland name (1982, 142). Two-hundred and nine of the names that Mac Aodha identified referred to physical landscape features like hills, lakes, wells, rivers, promontories, and bogs (1982, 127). Of these 71% were duplicates of their townland name, and so Mac Aodha considered them to be ‘ainmneacha úra’, new names (1982, 127-30). Names pertaining to man-made features included houses, castles, glebes, settlement clusters, villages, crossroads, bridges, archaeological monuments, industrial buildings, territorial units, and demesnes (ibid, 130-42).  Overall Mac Aodha found the OS maps to be a ‘disappointing’ source for minor place names, but his study did succeed in sketching out a useful classification of the sorts of minor place names that occur in the county. He also highlighted a phenomenon which he called ‘name-shifting’ whereby townland names come to be applied to specific features within their bounds (ibid, 128, 143).

The recording of minor places names, including field names, has largely been undertaken in the last century by interested individuals or community heritage groups. Studies have been undertaken in Kerry, Cork, Waterford, Donegal, Mayo, Clare, Sligo, and Antrim (Ó Muraíle 2001, 225). One of the first county-wide projects to collect and map minor place names was the Cork Place Names Survey, established in 1996 by Dr Éamon Lankford. Áitainmneacha Chiarraí was formed in 2000 to conduct a similar survey in Kerry. Over 12 years the projects collected a combined total of 300,000 minor place names (Cork and Kerry Place Names Survey 2014). More recently, field name collection projects have been carried out in Meath (Meath Field Names Project) and Kilkenny (Kilkenny Field Names Research Project). The ground-breaking Meath Field Names Project has been a major inspiration for the LFNP and our project borrowed heavily from their approach.

In Louth the study of minor place names stretches back over 100 years. Between 1908 and 1911, Major General Stubbs published a four-part series in the County Louth Archaeological Journal (CLAJ) treating a long list of place names in Louth. As well as townland names, which make up the bulk of his work, Stubbs also discussed minor names. In each case he gives the place name, along with a proposed derivation and brief historical notes. He also provides historical reference to the names’ occurrence in a number of historical sources including the Annals of the four masters, Archdall’s Monasticon Hibernicum, the Down Survey, Cogadh Gaedhel re Gallaibh, various inquisitions, the Ordnance Survey map, the OS Letters, the OS Name Books, Taylor and Skinner’s road map (1778), and Trias Thaumaturga (Stubbs 1908, 29).

Other early work published in the CLAJ were concerned with place names and their connection to myth and legend. Morris’ 1906 ‘Some place-name from the Táin’ sought to identify places mentioned in the Táin with place names in Louth. O’Gorman’s 1907 ‘Place names and legends’ records a handful of minor place names from around Kilcurry and relates legends associated with them.  Other articles concerned with place names and myth published in the CLAJ include a 1914 article entitled ‘Mag Clochar’, Enda and N. Lawless’ ‘Barnesvave and Barr Neava’ (1919/1920), and Morris’ ‘Ath Da Ferta’ published in 1926. Mac Íomhair’s 1962 CLAJ article on the boundaries of Fir Rois again turned to place names to help recreate the historic and mythic territory. This vein of research was most recently taken up by archaeologist Paul Gosling with his 2012 CLAHJ article ‘Placing names in Táin Bó Cúailnge: the gaps “Bernas Bó Cúailnge” and “Bernas Bó nUlad”’.

While identifying mythic place names on the ground was one thread of toponymic research, the need to record minor place names outside of their direct connection to mythology was also recognised. In 1914 Peadar O Dubhda published a list of 254 minor place name from Omeath, then a Gaeltacht (O Dubhda 1914). O Dubhda collected the names from the ‘old Irish speakers’ as well as from students at the Irish college. He provided a standard Irish rendering of the names along with an English translation and snippets of stories relating to them. Time did not permit O Dubhda to map the names that he recorded, and today the location of many of the names has since been forgotten (Andrew McGuinness, pers comms). O Dubhda’s work was continued by R. Ní Mhurchú, in an unpublished thesis completed at St. Patrick’s College, Dromcondra, in 2000. Ní Mhurchú collected field and mountain names from fourteen Omeath people and also made use of historical material, like that collected by O Dubhda and Stubbs. She discussed 353 minor place names from across Omeath and showed their location on extracts of the 25-inch OS map, giving their local pronunciation, modern Irish spelling, and an English translation.

From 1924 on the CLAJ began publishing detailed surveys of the townlands in Louth. The surveys contained information on the history, archaeology, and folklore of the townlands, as well as detailing field names, whose location was shown on townland maps. For a more detailed discussion of the CLAHS surveys see Seamus Bellew’s article below. As well as the CLAHS, other local history groups and individuals have recorded field names from Louth. Philip King’s Monasterboice heritage, a centenary celebration (1994) recorded a large collection of field names from the Catholic parish of Monasterboice. The location of the field names are shown on townland maps and accompanied with detailed notes on the history of each townland. Termonfeckin History Society also conducted its own field name collection project. The names were written onto six-inch OS map sheets, now in the possession of Declan Quaile, who transcribed the names for inclusion in the LFNP database. Declan Quaile published two articles exploring the place names of the Termonfeckin area in the 2002 and 2005 editions of the Termonfeckin Historical Society Review. The surveys are available online on the Termonfeckin Historical Society’s website [www.termonfeckinhistory.ie]. Reaghstown Newsletter (Issue 21, January 2003), published a list of 119 field names from nineteen townlands in the Reaghstown and Aclint areas. Unfortunately no accompanying maps were provided. Other local journals and magazine have also sporadically published material on field names. In March 1990, for example, Togher Topics published an article by Bryan Rogers on the field names of Dysart townland.

Categorising field names

A typology of Louth field names.

A typology of Louth field names.

In order to try to make sense of the pattern of field names a rough typology was devised of the different kinds of names that occur. This was initially based on the findings of the Meath Field Names Project (2013) and John Field’s A history of English field-names (1993). The typology was amended as the results came in. The typology is merely an index of the kinds of names that can be found, and some names don’t fit easily into any category, while others belong to two or more groups.

  • Farming: names to do with domestic animals and crops.
  • Rural Industry: names to do with milling, the linen industry, lime-kilns, quarries, salt-making, pottery-making etc.
  • Rural Settlement: names to do with rural settlement, houses, yards, haggard, sheds, barns, wells, pumps etc.
  • Transport: roads, bridges, railway lines, paths etc.
  • Wildlife: names to do with wild plants and animals, trees, woodland etc.
  • Hunting: fox coverts, deer parks, duck decoys etc.
  • Relational: fields named for their location, frequently in relation to a house. This group includes terms like far, near, above, beyond, upper, lower etc.
  • Landscape: names describing the landscape itself. Often in Irish. Hills, rivers, bogs, steams, meadows etc.
  • Archaeology: Names relating to archaeological features like raths, standing stones or megalithic tombs.
  • Size and Shape. Names describing the size and shape of a field.
  • Narrative and Historical. Name that tell a story or relate to a historical event.
  • Personal/Familiar: Fields named after people or families.

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One thought on “The study of field names in Co. Louth

  1. Thanks for that,

    I suspect that the (imminent?) introduction of post codes will reduce the usage and importance of townland names as it has done in the North (although we don’t have the rural road names that they have).

    Brendan

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