Remembering your place

When place-names disappear, people not only forget what the names were - they also lose sight of who they themselves are. ‘By imposing meaning on a section of the earth’s surface (people) transform it into a place where they feel at home’.

Countless Irish place-names have been lost, and they will disappear even more quickly if postal codes are used in the Republic. Place-names tell us about the geography an area, about its history, its people, how they worked and played, what they believed in. They can tell us more than any textbook. They show imagination. They are poetic.

If I could be allowed a little bias, I shall give a few examples of places around Gleann Gad (the glen of the withes, or willow rods).

Gleann Tuaiscirt (the North Glen); Léim an tSúdaire ( The leap of the tanner, leather worker); Baile na hAbhanna (the town of the river); Creig na bhFaoileog (The rock of the seagulls); Sraith na Feannóige (The flat ground of the hooded crow); Beinn an Fhia (The peak of the deer); Port na Long (The port of the ships), Port an Lín (The port of the flax); Baile Fhiocháin (The homestead of St. Feicín). These are all to be found in the recently published book by Seoirse Ó Dochartaigh : ‘Inis Eoghain, the Place-names of Inishowen’.

Seoirse is from Belfast, but he has been living for a number of years now in Inis Eoghain. He is well known in Irish language circles for his recordings of traditional Irish songs and he has produced a number of excellent CDs. He is also an artist and a photographer, as can be seen in his richly illustrated book.

Dinnseanchas (charting place-names) is a fairly inexact science in Ireland. When the local language changed to English, the place names became sounds without any meaning. When the last native speaker dies, a people’s heritage also dies. To retrieve a place-name, you often have to find the oldest speaker in an area who can remember perhaps how his grandfather or grandmother pronounced the name.

Seoirse’s book will have done much to arouse interest in preserving this important part of our heritage. The book has a valuable introduction to the history of local names, along with maps, diagrams and photographs. The main part of the book gives the (corrupted) English forms of the place-names, followed by the original Irish, followed by the meaning. Alternative versions of more obscure names are given in copious footnotes. Seoirse also names sources and courses of Inis Eoghain rivers. The book is compulsory reading for anyone interested in the rich history of this area (There is, incidentally, a section on Derry place-names in the book).

This work will give rise to much discussion, and even controversy. This is inevitable, but it is healthy. I disagree with a number of explanations myself! ‘Inis Eoghain, the Place-names of Inishowen’, should prove stimulating to local organisations and should encourage workshops and study groups. It will be warmly welcomed by the people of Inis Eoghain, both at home and abroad.