A Letter from Ireland:

7 Secrets to Understanding Irish Placenames

Are researching your Irish Ancestry? One of the “brick walls” I see people coming up against is understanding Irish placenames – especially when the spelling seems to vary so widely. In this letter – we’ll look at the 7 main component parts of Irish placenames.


Céad Míle Fáilte – and you are welcome to this week’s Letter from Ireland. It’s a holiday weekend here in Ireland, so things feel even more relaxed than usual for a Sunday morning. The weather is bright – but cool and changeable – typically non-predictable weather for an Irish day! I hear that there has been some terrible flooding in parts of the southern USA – so I do hope that wherever you are in the world, you are staying dry and safe today.

I’m looking at a nice cup of Lyons tea as I write (more about the Lyons in a minute!), and do hope you’ll join me with a cup of whatever you fancy yourself as we settle into today’s letter! Just this week, I received a request from Helen Wyse (always listen to someone with Wyse as a surname!). Helen said:

I am very curious about the naming conventions used for townlands, baronies, villages etc. which seem to repeated over and over again.  So many places are prefixed or suffixed in such a way that it makes me wonder what they mean and if the meanings are useful to us in our search for ancestors.  These are two examples: KILL as in Killaloe and LANE in Ballyvolane.  Do Kill, lane and Bally have a geographical significance or a descriptive significance?   Are they Gaelic words?

Here is a list of some of the prefixes that I frequently see in place names:

Kill, Droum/Drum, Rath, Balli/Bally, Cool, Gort, Mull, Doon, Knock, Ross, Knock, Castle, Glen

This is a list of some of the suffixes that I frequently see: Banno/Banno, Beg/Begg, Boy, More, Nagh, Nane, Reagh, More, Creagh.

Thanks for giving us a direction with your question this morning, Helen. You bring up something that I hear a lot of from readers – especially when you are trying to understand, or heaven forbid – pronounce – a townland that your ancestor originated in.

So, I decided NOT to look up lots of reference books – but give you an answer off the top of my head. So, forgive me in advance if some of this reply sounds a little opinionated – but you can also check with the “official” sources later.

Irish Placenames: Cows, Hills, Rocks, Forts, Churches, Woods, Towns, River Mouths – Big and Small.

It’s worth giving a little bit of context before we go on. Remember that most Irish placenames (especially townlands) have been in place for many hundreds – if not thousands – of years. Most were named when Irish was the everyday language.

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Before the arrival of the Normans in the early 1200s, Ireland was a land of many “Little Kingdoms”. The tribal boundaries of these little kingdoms were constantly under pressure from ambitious neighbours. These boundaries, and the agreements that held them in place, were often orally agreed and witnessed. Prominent landmarks like hilltops, rivers, forts – and so on – were used to provide reference points. It was a time well before the maps we know today.

Across Ireland, there was no single authority or administration – no single law system. The Brehons (judges) administered a type of local law – dealing with areas like the division of land across generations, and the often resulting disputes. While there were no maps, almost every visual feature in a kingdom, townland or field had a name. There were often up to 1000 identifiable features inside a single townland.

As time went on, the Normans arrived. They used the existing names and naming systems for many of the towns, castles and baronies they put into place. Even later still, English became more widely used across the island – and instead of translating from Irish to English, many of these placenames were “phonetically” anglicised – sometimes – well, sometimes, atrociously!

So, ready for some prime examples of common words in Irish placenames?

blog 9COWS – The cow was at the centre of the Irish farming economy for probably thousands of years. The Irish for Cow is “Bó” – pronounced “Boe” – and guess what we call roads in Irish? “Cow-ways” or “Bóthair” (small roads are often called “Boreens”). This comes across in many placenames such as Boherbue (Boher-bwee).

HILLS – Ireland has a fairly low tree line, and the tops of many of our hills and mountains are visible. The Irish for hill is “Cnoc” – pronounced Canuck – which you will often see in placenames as “Knock” – such as Knock, Knockroe, Knocknaheeny and so on.

FORTS – Forts were often built on small hills with good visibility all around, or in other prominent places. The Irish for fort is “Dún” – pronounced “Doon” – and this is contained in the names of plenty of Irish towns and areas, such as Dungannon, Dungarvan, Downpatrick and so on. Smaller forts were called Rath or Lios.

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ROCKS – These were often rocky outcrops in the middle of pasture or a bog even. Ideal for meetings or building a fort upon. The Irish for Rock is “Carraig” – pronounced “Carrig” – and you will find this in many placenames such as Carrick-on-Shannon, Carrickmacross, Carrigaline, Carrickfergus. By the way – a rocky fort was called a Caishel – pronounced “Cashel” – sound familiar?

CHURCHES AND WOODS – Ireland had a monastic and saint tradition from about the 400s. The Irish word “Cill” – pronounced Kill – meant church. Places like Kildare, Killarney, Kilkenny all got there names from an association with a saint and their church.

I also mention Wood here – as the Irish for Wood is “Coill” – very close to “Cill”, but usually pronounced more like “Kwill”. This also appears in many of our placenames – often with a Kil or Cil at the beginning, making it hard to know if it were named after a church or wood. Examples are Killduff, Kylebrack, Clonakilty, Kilgarrif and so on.

TOWNS AND RIVER MOUTHS – I suppose the most recognisable Irish placenames are those starting with “Bally”. “Baile” is the Irish for town or home – pronounced Balya – and appears in many of our townland (called Baile in Irish also), villages and town names. Names such as Ballymena, Ballinlough and so on.

Also, the Irish for mouth is “Béal” – pronounced Bale – and this also features in many town and city names that are located at the “mouth” of a river. Names such as Belfast, Ballydehob and Ballina.

The Road to Rockhill Church, Bruree, County Limerick.

The Road to Rockhill Church, Bruree, County Limerick.

BIG AND SMALL – Where you have big hills, big fields, big rocks – you also have small ones. The Irish for small is “Beag” – pronounced “be-yug”, and the Irish for big is “Mór” – pronounced “Moor”. These words often spring up as “Beg” and “More” in many placenames. Places like Killybegs, Beginish, Ardmore, Lismore and so on.

And there are so many more placename words – but those ones above are the ones I see most often! Don’t even get me started on colours – Red (Roe), Black (Duff), Grey (Reagh), Yellow (Bue/Boy), Green (Glass), Brown (Dunn).

Let’s finish off with a little link back to Irish surnames. You see, you often see an original Irish tribal name spring up within a place name. Just this week, I was travelling through the north Cork village of Castlelyons.

Castlelyons is “Caisleán Ó Liatháin” in Irish and is named after the Gaelic tribe who were prominent in this area up to the 1200s. This was one of the “little kingdoms” I mentioned earlier – the tribe was called the Uí Liatháin, and held this area until the arrival of the Norman Barry family.

One of the leading families took the surname O Liathain – which later became anglicised as “Lyons“. So, the Barrys drove the Lyons away – but there is still room for both of their teas on my shelf (sorry, I couldn’t resist!).

If you travel around Irish land today, you often see the word “Ua” or “Uí” included in the placeames on signposts – this is a good indicator that you are driving near an old Irish tribal territory.

I think I better stop there, Helen and everyone else – before I go on too long! I hope that helps as a primer to Irish place names and why it is useful to understand a little more of their origin as you bring your Irish ancestry to life! Now, back to my cup of Lyons tea! If you would like to say hello – or ask a question about a placename – please feel free to leave a question or comment below!

Slán for this week,

Mike and Carina : )

  • Julia Donaaghy says:

    This was so timely! Just arrived in Belfast from USA this morning for three weeks of “ancestor hunting”. Sitting in a B&B garden on a lovely afternoon, planning my adventures.

    • Sandra Girard says:

      Traveling to Ireland next May or June. Any tips for finding reatives still there?

      • Dorothy James says:

        Library’s are a very good source of information. If in Dublin I go to the Gilbert Library where they have a research room with computers for you to use and there are very helpful people there to help you. Good luck x

      • Helen Blake says:

        My favourite place for searching records is the manuscript section of the National Library in Dublin. The staff are very helpful also. I would recommend you work out exactly who and what you are looking for before you go to Ireland and send some emails requesting information to the family history organisations in the particular part of Ireland you are interested in. They can tell you what they have, if anything at all. It may save you wasting your time.

  • Judy Palmquist says:

    Very interesting, Mike I go on the facebook site now and then, but mostly I’m in the green room. I was wondering if anyone answers visitors post that people make on facebook?

  • Kathleen Jackson says:

    What is the best season to travel to Ireland? Is spring or fall nicer? We are gearing up for a trip and want to be sure we target the right time of year.

    • Randy Melody says:

      My first trip to Ireland was last November and I was shocked by the dampness and wind, and I live in Wisconsin where it snows and experiences below zero temps in Jan and Feb. However, the sunny days were a great compensation. Another advantage I liked was no crowding as with tourists, still plenty of people enjoying themselves but for me at a pace I could roll with.. next time I’ll travel in Sept or Oct or April -May..

    • Mike Collins says:

      I’m with Randy on those recommendations – just include June also. Mike.

  • Padraic Mac Coitir says:

    I have a big interest in placenames and the above article was very good. The part of Béal feirste I grew up in is Lenadoon (Leana an Dúin) and many of the streets are named after towns in Dún na nGal such as Bunbeg, Dungloe, Fallcarragh and Creeslough. We have campaigned for years to have them bi-lingual and although most of the street signs are now as bearla agus gaeilge they aren’t ‘recognised’ by the council, post office etc. So I often tell people that if they send a letter or card with the gaeilge address it won’t be delivered. However if I send a card from Béal Feirste to an address as gaeilge in Corcaigh, Gaillimh etc that would be delivered. Frustrating to say the least!

    • Mike Collins says:

      Sounds like you are well on the way to changing that system, Pádraic!

      Very disapointing to see townlands not showing up in the 6 counties – except Fermanagh (I think?) Mike.

  • Marilyn O'Keefe Walbourne says:

    My mother’s maiden name is Wyse. I was so surprised to see a request from Helen Wyse. My mother’s family name has nearly died out in Newfoundland and Labrador. We always knew her family name was Irish but we would love to know more about it. My mother and her sister are the only surviving members of the family and they are 96 and 95 respectively. They will be so excited to see the family name in print.

  • Debbie says:

    Castlelyons is one of my ancestral villages, and I was there a year ago. Thank you for the history lesson! Barrys show up as witnesses and godparents in the records of my family. Fascinating to stumble across this and see something that is so relevant to my family research.

  • Marguerite says:

    Thanks for this article. Very informative. Answered questions I’ve had.
    I’m from Tasmania, Australia, and have very recently discovered 2 convict ancestors who were tried and convicted in Cork and Dublin, marrying one year after arrival here.
    It’s nothing out of the ordinary here to make such a discover, as you undoubtedly well know, but my Irish family always swore we were descended from “free settlers” (even when it became “fashionable” to discover convict roots). When we got together for gatherings and celebrations and wakes in the 1950s and 60s, Irish songs were sung, stories of the Black and Tans told and Irish freedom fighters. Tasmania is a verdant isle, but they also went on and on about “you’ve never seen green ’til you’ve seen the green of Ireland”.
    I remember being mightily astounded when I sent my great-uncle, Francis Roach (previously Roche) a postcard from the Dingle Peninsula in 1971 and he replied, with tear-felt emotion, that I was the first of the family to step on Irish soil since 1850. My recollection had been that they had all known the place first-hand. I should have known then that the “free settler” story was a fiction.
    I suppose my story is no different than that of many others, but I just wish I’d known about the convicts two years ago when I was back in Ireland again and spent time in the family history section of the Dublin library (can’t remember the exact name, but the Irish genealogist who made the presentation was wonderful)
    I’ll just have to save up and come back. Thanks again.

  • C. Biggane says:

    This sure would have helped during my recent visit. It was my first time there, but my cousin and travel companion had been many times before. He was quite amused at my seemingly tongue-tied, butchered pronunciation of many of the towns and roads along the way!

  • Sandy Kennedy LaFerriere says:

    This is another ” favorite post” Mike. So interesting and Thanks for helping with the spellings and pronunciations!! I need all the help I can get!!

  • Nancy Morgan says:

    My grandmother’s name was Healy. She had two sisters, Eleanor, Marguerite and can’t remember the third. They supposedly came for County Cork. I don’t know much at all about them. I don’t even know if they were born in Erie, PA or back in Ireland. Does anyone know anything about the Healys in Ireland?

  • Nancy Morgan says:

    They were probably born around the 1880’s if that helps at all!

  • My Grand-mother Bridget Kilgallon came from Balina County Mayo in the 1880’s. Her birth certificate has her mother Winnie Barrett and her father John Kilgallon. It has he was a Scutcher, I have tried all over to find out what a Scutcher is but no one seems to know. If any one can help with this, I would be most grateful.

  • Maire says:

    Recently I discovered my first link to the area in Ireland where my ancestors lived. My great, great uncle’s eat Certificate listed his place of birth as Lower Wood, County Sligo.

    Lower Wood isn’t a townland but is near Grange, Sligo. The only references I’ve found that mention this is a few other death certificates and a comment from the website: “Sligo Walks” where one of the walks from Grange mentions walking from Rincoe through the ‘Deserted village of Lower Wood’.

    Anyone here familiar with Lower Wood?


  • Lora Hansen says:

    My family comes from County Mayo and the way we spell our name is different than most. It is spelled O’Mailia and the relatives have made sure they wanted it passed on that way, It was however spelled as Omalley and even Malay, My grandfather was Myles O’Mailia and he was born in Quay of Westport. I noticed that there is a Westport and was wondering why he always said he was born in Quay of Westport. Are they the same place and is there a reason for the name Quay

  • Joan Quilter says:

    Can you recommend a good source or book about the Normans who came to Ireland? They were my ancestors, and I’d like to read more about them. Thanks


  • Anne says:

    My grandfather was an O’Reilly from county cork. I didn’t see anything listed with that name.

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