Some Puzzles and Cautions in Interpreting Irish Local Names

Patrick Weston Joyce

IN no country in the world is there so large a proportion of the names of places intelligible as in Ireland. This may be accounted for partly by the fact that the names are nearly all Gaelic, which has been the language of the country without a break from the time of the first colonies till the introduction of English, and is still the spoken language over a large area, so that the names never lost their significance; and partly that a very large number of the names are recorded in their correct original forms in our old Gaelic books. But, even with these helps, we have still a considerable number of local names whose meanings we cannot discover. In my two volumes on "Irish Names of Places," I have confined myself to those names of whose meanings I had unquestionable evidence of one kind or another; but it may be interesting to pass in review here a few of those names that came across me whose meanings I was unable to determine.

Where names do not bear their interpretation plainly on their face in their present printed anglicised forms, there are two chief modes of determining their meanings;—either to hear them pronounced as living words, or to find out their oldest forms in ancient Gaelic documents: in either case you can generally determine the meaning. But still there are names—and not a few—about which we are in the dark, though we can hear them pronounced, or find them written in old books.

And here it is necessary to observe that once you hear a name distinctly pronounced by several intelligent old people who all agree, or find it plainly written in manuscripts of authority, if in either case it is not intelligible, you are not at liberty to alter it so as to give it a meaning, unless in rare exceptional cases, and with some sound reason to justify the change. It is by indulging in this sort of license that etymologists are most prone to error, not only in Gaelic, but in all other languages.

Let us look at an example of this vicious procedure. There are many places in Ireland called Templenoe or Templenua, a name quite plain and simple, meaning "new-church," so called in each case to distinguish the building from some older church in the neighbourhood; exactly like Kilnoe or Kilnue ("New Church"), which is also a common townland name. There is a parish called Templenoe near Kenmare in Kerry, taking its name from an old church still existing. Ask the old people of the place to pronounce the name, and they always say "Templenoe," never anything else (except perhaps a few who have been recently perverted by the new and spurious book learning detailed here). Or look through written Irish documents in which the place is mentioned—especially songs—and you always find it written Templenua.

But a name which means nothing more than "New Church" was too prosy and commonplace a designation in the eyes of certain local antiquarians—some of them good Irish scholars too; and in order to connect the old Church—for its greater honour—with the Blessed Virgin, they invented a form of the name which never had any existence at all anywhere outside themselves—Temple-na-hOighe (pronounced Temple-na-hoe), which would mean the "Temple or Church of the Virgin." The discussion was carried on in print some twenty-five or thirty years ago with mighty learning, drowned in a whole deluge of conjecture and guesswork, which had no more limit or law than the flood of Noah. I think the disputants in the end settled down to Temple-na-hOighe, blissfully oblivious of the fact that there are many other places called Templenoe, which, like this one, were—and are— called correctly, by the peasantry, who had the name from their grandfathers, as well as in writing.

This is the sort of spurious etymology, which, a century ago or more, made the treatment of our antiquities the laughing stock, not only of England, but of all Europe. But the sky is clearer now; though we come across still—now and then—some wild freaks of etymology, dancing before our eyes like a daddy-long-legs on a window-pane.