How Are Things In Glockamorra?

I’ve always been interested in words and their meanings and origins, so it’s a natural extension of that to like to understand place names. One of the features of Irish geography is that place names always mean something fairly direct in the Irish language. Usually, the only difficulty is reconstructing the original spelling and pronunciation from the current, Anglicized version.

BenwiskI have only a little conversational Irish, but you only need a small additional geographical vocabulary in order to guess the meanings of place names. Failing that, there are many published references to look them up.

A very common element in the names, particularly, it seems, in Ulster, is baile. It’s usually Anglicized as “bally”, and pronounced more-or-less like that. What I find interesting about it is that it’s a concept that does not translate well into English. Today, “Bally-” is the start of many town names, but baile didn’t actually refer to a town. The official translation is “townland”, or sometimes it’s rendered less accurately as “hamlet”, but it refers to the traditional Irish occupation pattern of a group of dispersed farmsteads. Towns in Ireland were invented by the Vikings: we never had them before that.

DonegalThe Irish name of Dublin is Baile Átha Cliath, Townland of the Wicker Ford. (Pronounced something like “blaw clay”. Irish pronunciation and Irish spelling have never been very close friends.) “Dublin” was the Vikings again, apparently, although it’s two Irish words, “black” and “pool”.

My house is between two villages. Aghalee, in its original Irish, is Achadh Lí, Lee’s Field; and Ballinderry is Baile an Doire, Townland of the Oak Grove. In both cases the modern name captures the Irish pronunciation reasonably well. Belfast is Béal Feirste, Mouth of the Sandy Ford, but the pronunciation isn’t so good this time. If you wanted to spell out the sound of the words in English, it would be more like “Bel Farshtia”.

Oh, go on.I think my favourite Irish place name is Dromahair, in Irish Droim a dhá Eathair, Ridge of the Two Air-demons, although Termonfeckin is pretty good too. (St. Feichin’s Sanctuary, honest.)

(Oh, by the way “Glockamorra” is an obvious fake, as is “Brigadoon”, because they don’t mean anything.)

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