Dindsenchas | Ireland’s Lore of Places

Dublin - Baile atha Cliath

Dublin – Baile atha Cliath

Following on from Monday’s post, there is an ancient Irish text called the Dindsendchas, meaning ‘lore of places’, which contains over 176 poems, some of them dating back as far as C11th, concerning how various locations in Ireland got their names.

Some of these tales are quite fanciful, and clearly not true, but many of them derive from much earlier texts, which in turn describe long mnemonic poems and prose obviously devised to be recited from memory, as in the ancient bardic oral tradition.

In ancient times, there were very few large towns or settlements, so places were often named after distinctive features in the landscape, such as hills, lakes, islands, valleys, rivers, rocks, and so on. 

Later on, as populations and their habitats grew, places came to be named after man-made features, for example churches, castles, bridges.

Most place names in Ireland are of Gaelic origin, but some derive from old Norse, English and Scottish languages.

Dublin is an interesting example; although settled by Vikings, the city’s name comes from the Irish dubh linn, meaning ‘black pool’, yet the official Irish name is Baile atha Cliath, meaning ‘town by the hurdled ford’… confused yet?

Most Irish place names have been anglicised, or adapted to suit English phonology. Some interesting examples of this are;

  • Ardee, Louth, ard in Irish means ‘high’
  • Athlone, Westmeath, áth in Irish means ‘ford’.
  • Ballyconnell, Cavan, bally from baile in Irish, means ‘home’ or ‘homestead’.
  • Carrickmacross, Monaghan, carrig in irish means ‘rock’ or ‘rocky outcrop’.
  • Finglas, Dublin, fin in irish from fionn meaning clear/ light/ white.
  • Kildare, of same county, kil from cill in Irish meaning church/ churchyard.

I live near a small town in Cavan called Virginia… sorry to all the Irish people reading this, but you can’t get more English than that! In Irish, however, the name gets much more interesting; Achad an Iúir, meaning ‘field by the fork in the river’… apparently. Some prefer to explain it as ‘field of the yew’.  I wonder if Iúir could have been mistaken for lir or ler, the old word for sea; seeing as the town is situated right on the shores of the vast Lough Ramor, it could quite easily have been thought of as a field of water, or an inland sea.

The Vikings came to Ireland in the C9th, plundering and pillaging at first, but then settling and adapting to Irish life. Their language soon filtered down into the naming of places, and we can see evidence of this in some of our towns, for example Arklow comes from the Old Norse Arkells-Lag, meaning ‘Arkell’s (name of a person) low place’; in Irish, the place name is an tInbhear Mór, anglicised to Invermore. Skerries, in Irish na Sceirí, comes form Skeri in old Norse, and Wexford, meaning ‘muddy ford’, comes from the old Norse Veisa Fjoror, but in Irish is called Loch Garman.

Later, English place names began to be used, Sometimes they were just anglicisations of existing names, sometimes they were completely new, and were often pre-fixed or suffixed with words such as abbey, town/ ton, bridge, castle, church, and so on.

The names for Ireland’s provinces have interesting stories; Leinster, Munster and Ulster are all combinations of the old Irish names with the Old Norse staor, meaning ‘land of’;

  • Leinster, from Laighin and staor.
  • Munster, from Mumhain and staor.
  • Ulster, from Ulaidh and staor.

Connacht comes from Connachta, which was the name of the large tribe which ruled that province.

Incidentally, the word for ‘province’ in Irish is cuige, which means ‘one fifth’… why are they named ‘one fifth’ when there are only 4 provinces? Because in ancient times there was actually a fifth province, that of Mide, which formed the centre, or ‘naval’ of all Ireland, and it was from Tara at it’s heart from where the High King ruled.

Nothing about Ireland is ever straight forward or simple… that’s why I love it so much!

16 Comments on “Dindsenchas | Ireland’s Lore of Places

  1. Its a common assumption, its not Lúir, its Iúir. The first letter is an i not an L, as in Terenure, the land of the Yew. Iúir=Yew.
    Kind regards.


    • Hi Tom, thanks for the clarification! I see that now, it’s a very silly mistake to have made! In a way, its a bit of a shame, though… I quite liked the notion of our ancestors gazing out over the vastness of Lough Ramor, and naming their settlement after the ‘field of water’ which dominated their environment, but perhaps in those days there was an equally impressive forest of yew trees growing there too… I will amend my post accordingly! All the best, Ali.


  2. Another great post, Ali. I love the way you link all your historical posts to the present. Serious food for thought in the here and everyday! Keep them coming!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is really interesting to me. We just don’t have a ton of history to go with names in the American West. We had the Indian names, which were usually bulldozed over by white settlers. There is the occasional French name, like Grand Teton. How much more boring can you get than The Rocky Mountains. Fabulous place with a boring name.


    • Haha! Very funny! I never thought of it like that before… it IS quite a boring name for a fab place! Maybe it is a translation of an ancient tribal Indian name…


      • We do have some odd names like Jackass Flats. Death Valley is pretty descriptive.

        Then there are the cowboy names that USGS went back and changed on all their maps about 20 years ago when they went PC. Names like Nigger George, and a distinctive mountain called Molly’s Nipple. These were the names of places for 100 years or more, but they have new names now.


        • Well we’re still not that pc here in Ireland… we still have features of the landscape with their original ancient names based on features of the female anatomy… the Paps of Anu (might be Aine, can’t remember), for one, also the Paps of the Morrigu lol! Sure there must be more… I’ll have to get searching to see if I can find any named after male appendages… possibly not, as they’d certainly be more widely known…

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Awesome post, Ali! I love reading these posts of yours and learning so many new things. Thanks for sharing. 🙂 How are you?


    • Thanks! I am in stanstead airport uk on way back home. Even at 5am it is absolutely heaving! Cant wait to get home!!!


      • Its a common assumption, its not Lúir, its Iúir. The first letter is an i not an L, as in Terenure, the land of the Yew. Iúir=Yew.
        Kind regards.


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