The erosion and eradication of the Irish language by English settlers is part of Ireland’s history that many leprechaun loving tourists might not be familiar with. Many visitors and welcomers when we travel the globe are astounded when we convey our dislike for the British Empire.
“So you guys are British, right?”
“Oh, God no! We’re Irish. From Ireland. An independent republic. Not the whole island, mind, but we’ll hopefully all be united again.”
“But you guys are on the same island as the Brits.”
“Nope. Different island separated by the sea. Irish.”
“That’s so confusing!”
Apologies to all the Americans (and unfortunately it is usually Americans), Australians and other confused nations who have never seen a globe before and struggle with basic geography. Ireland is Ireland. We haven’t been remotely linked with the Brits since 1937. Thank God.
If you log on to Twitter and have a look through some Irish language topics you will see a constant lament of our country’s national language and how it is barely being spoken. I don’t think the situation is as dire as the average Twitter user will make it out to be, but the facts are there. As of April 2016, approximately 39.8% of the population of Ireland can speak Gaeilge. That figure may seem high to any Irish person, but that does mean 60% of the population can’t speak its native language.
However, we haven’t lost touch completely with our mother tongue. If you decide to travel around the Emerald Isle you will see hundreds and thousands of road signs and place names. All along the Wild Atlantic Way and Ireland’s Ancient East you will see all signs in English and in Irish. This lockdown and quarantine has made a lot of Irish people rediscover their own country and with it the language. I am not for one second saying that Irish people are becoming more fluent just by being in the vicinity of some road signs like some sort of Gaeilgeoir osmosis. The names are brilliant when you break them down, though.
My family moved to Cork in 2003. We were told in our new school that our new home, Rathpeacon, Ráthphéacháin as Gaeilge, meant the Fort of Crows. That meant little to me then as I read books about little mice wielding swords and wizarding worlds within our reach. Now, though, place names and the Irish language builds stories in my head. Why was this simple village named, ‘Fort of Crows’? More than likely the ringfort that was here was also home to a number of crows. The namer of the fort put two and two together and made a kickass name. The part of my brain that is creative and some might say a bit mad, likes to imagine a town of crows thriving until the arrival of the evil Man.
A friend of mine in college hailed from the Waterford town of Lemybrien. Translated from Irish it means ‘The Leap of Brian’. According to local legend, Brian of Na Fianna, Ireland’s mythological group of hardened heroes, jumped from a nearby mountain (The Comeragh Mountains, probably) and the crater he created when he landed became the village my friend is from today.
Irish place names were anglicised so as not to create any confusion for any settlers and was a reminder of the hierarchy of our small nation. Some places that I have grown up around and lived sound unremarkable when you hear them first. However, when you hear them in Irish and then learn what they actually mean you will have a deeper respect for what they represent.
I’ve already explained Rathpeacon. Sounds like any old one-road village in the back-arse of nowhere. But, start telling people you are from the Fort of Crows and they might take a few seconds to wonder whether you are an immediate threat to their personal safety or not.
Killeens, five minutes up the road, when taken from Irish means ‘Small church’. Blarney, a name so synonymous with the Irish tourism industry that perhaps the literal translation is kept from the tourists by Big Travel, literally means ‘The Little Field’. Of course, the Blarney stone and its promise of smooth talking, or muck talking depending on what side of the Atlantic you reside, is a better draw than a little field.
Cloghroe, who I had many a run in on the G.A.A. pitch with over the years, has an impressive name to almost rival Rathpeacon. Meaning ‘The Red Stone’, that would strike fear in the heart of any man donning his helmet and boots for a Sunday of splitting ash!
Some places made the direct journey from Béarla (English) to Gaeilge (Irish), like Bishopstown (Baile an Easpaig) and Newtownshandrum (Baile Nua Sheandroma, Sheandroma meaning old back?). Most Irish place names have a clue in the title to tell the story of the town you are in, like Kinsale (Cionn tSáile) meaning head of the brine, very suitable for a town by the sea.
I think we can all agree, no matter our allegiance or birthplace, that our original townland names are much more interesting and much more authentic than their English descendants. I may start telling more people that I come from the fort of crows. Those conniving birds will try and take the fort back some day, I’m sure of it!