It doesn’t take long looking at a map to realize that Irish town and city names look…well…different. At first glance they appear to be English, but they don’t seem to make any sense. What’s with all the “Bally” this and “Kill” that?
Although some Irish towns do have English names, the vast majority aren’t English at all. Rather they have been Anglicized from a language much older than English: Irish Gaelic.
Ireland’s Native Language
Until the late 1800’s, Irish (the preferred English term for the language), or An Ghaeilge, was the majority language in Ireland…in fact, it has been the predominate language of the Irish people for most of recorded history.
Irish is still the first official language of the Republic of Ireland, and is still spoken as the daily language of as many as 85,000 people.
The English colonizers, however, had little interest in learning Irish (and, in fact, made a concerted effort to eradicate it during much of their time in Ireland). When they recorded placenames, they simply wrote them down as they sounded to their ears, using English phonics.
Where do these sounds come from?
When you see a town name such as Lisdoonvarna or Limavady or Tobermore or Ballydehob, it can be hard to imagine where the sounds that make up these names could possibly come from. A little knowledge of key Irish words, however, can go a long way toward helping you decipher them!
Some Irish name roots
Here are some of the more common elements of Irish place names, with their Irish Gaelic origins and their meanings:
Ard/Ar: Ard – High/height
Ath/Aha: Átha – Ford
Bally/Balli: Baile – Town or place (also sometimes from Béal – River mouth)
Bar/Barra: Barr – Top
Barna/Varna: Bearna – Gap
Beg/Begs: Beag – Small/Little
Bel: Béal – River mouth
Cahir: Cathair – City
Carrick: Carraig – Rock
Cashel: Caiseal – Stone fort
Cloon: Cluain – Meadow
Col: Coill – Wood/Forest
Derry/Dare: Doire – Oak grove or Dara – Of oak
Dun/Don/Down: Dún – Fort
Dub/Doo/Doov/Duv: Dubh – Black
Ennis: Inis – Island
Gall: Gall – Foreign/Foreigner
Glass/Glas: Glás – Green/Grey
Glen: Gleann – Valley
Gort: Gort – Field
Hinch: Inis – Island
Kill: Cill – Churchyard (Sometimes Coill – Forest/wood)
Knock: Cnoc – Hill
Linn/lin: Linn – Pool
Lis: Lios – Fairy fort
Lock/lough: Loch – Lake
Mar/Mara: Muir – Sea
May/Mah/Magh: Maigh – Plain
Mor/More: Mór – Big/Large/Great
Patrick: Pádraic – Patrick (particularly St. Patrick)
Port: Port – Harbor
Rath: Rath – Fort
Ros: Ros – Headland/Wood
Sleev: Sliabh – Mountain
Tir/Tyr: Tir – Land/Country
Tra: Trá – Beach/Strand
Tubber/Tober: Tobar – Well/fountain
Some Irish place names in Irish
Athlone: Baile Átha Luain (BALL-yeh AH LOO-in) – Place of Luan’s Ford
Armagh: Ard Mhacha (Ard WAKH-huh) – Macha’s Height (“Macha” is a character from Irish legend)
Ballydehob: Béal an Dá Chab (Bayl un dah khab): Mouth of Two River Fords
Ballymena: An Baile Meánach (un BALL-yeh MYAWN-ukh) – The Middle Town
Belfast: Béal Feirste (Bayl FERS-cheh) – Mouth of the Shoal
Carrickfergus: Carraig Fhearghais (KAR-ig AR-ggish)- The Rock of Fergus
Clonmel: Cluain Meala (KLOO-in MYAL-uh) – Honey Meadow
Derry: Doire Cholm Cille (DUR-eh KHUL-um KILL-yeh) – St. Columba’s Oak Grove
Dublin: Dubh Linn (Duv lin) – Black pool. (Note: The official Irish name for Dublin is Baile Átha Cliath (technically “BAL-eh uh KLEE-uh” but in practice shortened to something like “Blah KLEE-uh) — The Place of the Hurdle Ford. The English name of the city came from the black pool of the River Liffey, along which the original Viking settlement was located.)
Donegal: Dún na nGall (Doon nuhng-AL)- The Fort of the Foreigners
Downpatrick: Dún Phádraic (Doon FAH-rig) – Patrick’s Fort
Ennis: Inis (IN-ish) – Island
Galway: Gaillimh (GAL-iv) – Stony
Glendalough:Gleann Dá Loch(Glan dah lokh): Valley of Two Lakes
Kildare: Cill Dara (Kill DA-ruh) – Churchyard of the Oak
Limavady: Léim an Mhadaidh (Laym uh WAD-ee) – Dog’s Leap
Lisdoonvarna: Lios Dúin Bhearna (Liss DOO-in-VAR-nuh) – Fairy Fort of the Fort of the Gap (That’s a long one in either language!)
Mayo: Maigh Eo (Mwee Oh) Plain of the Yew Tree
Newry: An Iúraigh (uh-NOO-ree) – Grove of the Yew Trees
Omagh: An Ómaigh (uh NOH-mee) – The Virgin Plain
Roscommon: Ros Comáin (Ross KUM-on) – St. Coman’s Wood
Tralee: Trá Lí (Trah lee) – Beach/strand of the Lee (The Lee is a river in the southern part of Ireland)
Tyrone: Tír Eoghain (Cheer OH-in) – Eoghan’s Land (Eoghan was a son of Niall of the Nine Hostages).
Have a go at it yourself!
While this is by no means an exhaustive list, you can use it to puzzle out the basis of a lot of Irish placenames. Why not take a look at some of the names on this map and see if you can work some out on your own?
Did you find this helpful?
Did you know all this about Irish placenames before? Let us know your thoughts below!
9 thoughts on “Irish Cities in Gaelic”
When translating anglicised versions of Irish Gaelic place-names, it is often important to have local knowledge.
E.g. the word Lough when used in a name where there isn’t any water is always a bastardised version of the Gaelic word; Leacht which means; a mound of stones.
Also the name Eoghan / Eoin / Owen is often derived from the Irish Gaelic word for River Abhainn.
E.g. the village of Portglenone (pronounced PortglenOwen) in Irish Gaelic is; Port Gleann Abhainn. The village which is built alongside the River Bann has often been incorrectly translated as Port Gleann Eoghan!
Please respect Ireland’s Constitution.
Ireland’s name is Ireland and has been since 1937.
In 1937 the Irish people voted in a Constitutional Referendum to create A Republic & call it Ireland when writing or speaking English & Éire when writing or speaking in Irish Gaelic.
As the people in A Republic are sovereign, only they can change Ireland’s name & they haven’t been asked to change it since 1937.
Just recently Ireland’s President refused to attend a church service in Armagh which was celebrating 100 years of the illegal occupation of the 6 counties. One of his stated reasons for not attending was that the loyalists invited him as President of the Republic of Ireland. He informed them that he was The President of Ireland.
In Ancestry I have a relative listed as being born in Aughaueg, Tipperary, Ireland in 1809 yet can’t find it anywhere else. Could it just be an old name that’s changed?
I’m afraid Galway / “Cathair na Gaillimhe” does not translate as “City of the Foreigners”. It is a common error due to the similarity of the Irish language word “gal” meaning foreigner and Gaillimh.
Dún Bhun na Gaillimhe (‘Fort at the Mouth of the Gaillimh’) was constructed in 1124, by the King of Connacht Tairrdelbach Ua Conchobair long before the arrival of the Normans in the west of Ireland in the 1230s. The word Gaillimh means “stony” as in “stony river”.
Better a late reply than never! You are entirely correct, Eugene, and I will correct the entry for Galway. I was given misinformation myself, and I don’t want to perpetuate it!
Thanks for this post – I’ve been puzzling over this very topic for awhile, and was hoping for a lesson on it. Another good post, or lesson, could be on sound-a-likes in Irish (and/or look-a-likes), for those words that can get easily confused. As in cahair (city) and ceathair (four).
Nice suggestion! We’ll work on this. I appreciate the feedback.
I would love to know how to pronounce names of townlqnds.
Carol, a chara
Great idea! Unfortunately, there are many townlands in Ireland (over 60,000) so it would be a very long video indeed. This site https://www.logainm.ie/en/ might be of interest to you. It contains all of the townland names in English and Irish.