Discover the geographical meanings behind Irish place names. iStock

Venturing outside of Ireland’s best known spots can be daunting tasks for tourists faced with unpronounceable place names such as Dun Laoghaire (Done Leery), Geashill (Gee-shill), and Altmooskan.

One of the best things about visiting Ireland, however, is the beauty of these place names and the way in which they describe the area they name. No famous figures or names for us, our place names have passed down through the centuries jam-packed with geographical information.

Over the years, especially during British occupation, Irish place names became anglicized as the British attempted to map the land for tax and ownership purposes. The attempts of the British to understand the original Irish names resulted in distorted versions being recorded as English spellings were forced on Irish language place names.

There are ways, however, to retrace spellings and place name parts back to the original so as to understand the area more. We look as ten of the most common words used and dissect their meaning.

1. Bally/Balli e.g. Ballybunnion, Ballygibbon, Ballyreilly

Meaning: Town/Homestead

“Bally” can very simply be traced back to the word “Baile” meaning homestead or town. If we take Ballyreilly as an example, the original Irish would be “Baile Uí Raghailligh” or the “Town of Reilly/Reilly’s town.”

Ballybunion is slightly more remote these days. Image: Loz Pycock/Flickr

Ballybunion is slightly more remote these days. Image: Loz Pycock/Flickr

2. Kil/Kill e.g. Kilcock, Kill, Ballinakill

Meaning: Church/Wood

“Kil/Kill” is slightly more difficult, stemming from either “coill” meaning “wood” or “cill” meaning “church.” There are several places named “Kill” throughout Ireland and some of them are “An Choill” in Irish, while others are “An Chill.”

This is where further investigation itself comes into play as access to maps or exploring the area yourself does help. If there is evidence of a church in the area and no reference to a wood then it’s more than likely that you’re dealing with “cill” not “coill.”

(With Ballinakill, we can see two words coming into play: baile and coill. Therefore Ballinakill is the English equivalent of “Baile na Coille” or “The Town of the Wood/The Wooded Town.”

Many areas were named after significant landmarks such as woods.

Many areas were named after significant landmarks such as woods.

3. Drum/Drom e.g Drumwood, Drumroe, Drumlane

Meaning: Ridge

“Drum” or “Drom” comes from the Irish word “Droim/Drom” meaning “ridge.” Place names such as Drumwood, or “Coill an Droma” in Irish, mean “The Wood of the Ridge.”

A stone ridge in the Burren, Co. Clare. Image: Chad K/Flickr

A stone ridge in the Burren, Co. Clare. Image: Chad K/Flickr

4. Carrick/Carrig/Carraig e.g Carrickfergus, Carrickarone, Carrigcastle

Meaning: Rock

You’ll find place names involving “Carrick” more common in the rockier parts of the country. “Carrick” comes from the word “Carraig” meaning “Rock”. If we take Carrickfergus (“Carraig Fearghais”) it probably means “Fearghas’ rock.”

Carrickfergus. Image: Tourism Ireland.

Carrickfergus. Image: Tourism Ireland.

5. Cloch/Cloich/Clough/Clogh e.g. Ballyclogh, Dromclogh, Kilclogh

Meaning: Stone, stone building

Another one for the rockier parts of the country, although it can be found in the majority of counties and it could also refer to a single standing stone. If we take Ballyclogh (or “Baile Cloch”), it simply means “the town of the stone.”

Areas can be named after a single standing stone. Image: mozercork/Flickr

Areas can be named after a single standing stone. Image: mozercork/Flickr

6. Cloon/Clon e.g. Clonmel, Clonmore, Clontarf

Meaning: Meadow, pasture

The “Battle of Clontarf“ or the “Battle of the Bull’s Meadow”? “Cloon” and “Clon” come from the word “cluain,” meaning that names such as Clonmore (“Cluain Mhór”) literally mean “a big meadow.”

A recreation of the Battle of Clontarf or "the Battle of the Bull Field."

A recreation of the Battle of Clontarf or "the Battle of the Bull Field."

7. Loch/Lough e.g. Loughinisland, Loughaunanillaun, Ballinlough

Meaning: Lake

Possibly one of the most well-known as we still use the word “lough” but the use of “loch/lough” in a place name is a sure sign that there is water in the area. The Irish for “Ballinlough” is “Baile an Locha” meaning “The Lake Town.”

Glendalough - the glen of two lakes. Image: Stuart Cale/Flickr

Glendalough - the glen of two lakes. Image: Stuart Cale/Flickr

8. Letter/Leitir e.g Letterkenny, Lettermore, Lettermacaward

Meaning: Hillside

An appropriate name for Letterkenny in the hills of Donegal. Letterkenny comes from “Leitir Ceannain” meaning “Cannon’s Hillside.”

Mount Errigal sets the scene for Donegal hills.

Mount Errigal sets the scene for Donegal hills.

9. Lis/Lios e.g. Lismore, Liscasey, Coollisteige

Meaning: Ring-fort, enclosure

The past or present locations of ring-forts or enclosures can be discovered through place names including “lis.” The town Lismore (“An Lios Mór”) means the “Big Ring-Fort.”

Towns such as Lismore may no longer show many signs of a fort or enclosure such as this.

Towns such as Lismore may no longer show many signs of a fort or enclosure such as this.

10. Temple e.g. Templebar, Knockatemple, Ballintemple

Meaning: Church

Templebar or “Barra an Teampaill” does not means the “Bars of the Church” but the “top of the church.” How times have changed!

Modern day Templebar is quite far away from the atmosphere of a church.

Modern day Templebar is quite far away from the atmosphere of a church.

Of course, as with most methods, it’s not completely fool proof. Place names change over time and because of the rich diversity in dialects within our small country, the same word can be pronounced a completely different way a few miles over, altering the place names as it goes.

Pull up the car along your journey and go searching for the geographical features that the place names mention now and again, it gives the small rural towns that extra piece of beauty!

What information have you discovered on the origins of Irish place names? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

* Originally published in 2015.