The preservation of placenames has become urgent in Ireland, as the keepers of the memory are getting older, and taking all their knowledge with them to the grave.
One group in Castlehaven and Myross has embarked on a fascinating project to try to rescue their local placenames before it’s too late, and are succeeding magnificently. In their undertaking, they are providing a model to any other community that wants to follow their lead. We met with Conor Buckley and Annette Glanton (above) as well as Vincent O’Neill recently to learn what this project is all about.
Annette showed us her work, which centres on Carrigillihy, near Union Hall. Her main informant was her father, who has an intimate knowledge of every inch of the area. Working with him, she has labelled fields, inlets, islands, cliffs and streams. The result is a detailed map of names – some in English, such as Badger’s Hole, but most in Irish, such as Faill na Cág (pronounced file na cawg – I will give approximate pronunciations in brackets after Irish words from here on), the Cliff of the Jackdaws. I am showing just a small portion of her maps, above.
Conor then took us on a walk across the heath, to a vantage point where he could point out many of the surrounding features and name them. We crossed two streams on the way, and he told us each one was a townland boundary. We started in Castlehaven townland, crossed a stream into Glasheenaulin, and from there walked to Ballycahane, crossing the Glasheenaulin stream as we did so. Since a ‘glas’ is a rivulet, a glasheen is a small rivulet or stream, and aulin is an anglicised version of álainn, which means beautiful – so, we crossed the beautiful little stream, and indeed it was.
The historic map of the area, above, shows the townland boundaries in red. The middle boundary is marked by the Glasheenaulin, below, being crossed by Vincent and Annette.
From our vantage point Conor pointed down to where the sea came boiling in over the rocks – perhaps because of this effect, this small inlet was called Poll a’ Choire (powl (rhymes with the bird, owl) a Quirrah), or the hole of the cauldron. However, he showed us that within all the roiling water and rocks was another, smaller hole, which filled and emptied with water, and told us that there was a possibility that the name might be Poll na Caora (powl na kay-ra) or Sheep’s Hole, since it may have functioned as a sheep-washing station! Welcome to the intricacies of figuring out Irish placenames!
From the same spot we had a good view of the coast west and east. To the west is the unmistakeable mass of Toe Head – a promontory that has a distinctive rise (see the first and last photos in this post). On the near side is a hill which locals traditionally call Beann tSidháin (which they pronounce Been te Sheedawn), or peak of the fairy mound. A place with a name that included references to the Sí was a place to be treated with respect and caution – the Other Crowd was not always benevolent.
When I asked if it was possible that this might have been séideán (shay-dawn), meaning place of gusty winds, Conor gave me an insight into the depth of research that he and his advisory group undertake. He responded with several references to dictionaries, placename tomes – and a manuscript from the 1660s! I can just imagine the meetings of this group as they ponder of the possible variations and come to a conclusion – as Conor said to me, ‘it’s as much an art as a science.’
A lot of Toe Head itself has had names assigned, and I was intrigued by the name given to the piece of rock that has in the distant past, sliced off from the mainland (above). Locals call it the Sciollán (skull-awn), which means a seed potato – or maybe the piece of a potato that you can plant as long as it has an eye in it. Once you know that, you can’t unsee the nobbly bit of potato.
We will head east now, to the series of tiny inlets that indent the eastern side of Sandy Cove. Each one has a name, beginning with cuas – a cuas (koo-us) is a small inlet or cove although it seems to be used particularly in Cork and Kerry. To name each one makes total sense of course – if you were telling a neighbour which cuas you left pots in, or where you were going to dig sand, you all had a shared knowledge of the store of names.
Going from left to right along the bank you have:
Cuas a Chúir – this might be Inlet of the sea foam (cúr) or inlet of the tower (thúir). There is no tower here now, but Sandycove was once called Torbay, so maybe…
Cuas na Leac – a leac (lack) is a flat stone or flagstone. This cuas has an alternative English name – Nun’s Cove. Apparently it was the one used by nuns from the Skibbereen convent to swim in.
Cuas na gCloch – cloch (cluck) is a rock – hence, rocky inlet.
Sandy Cove – this is a preferred swimming spot for locals and visitors
Cuas na nGabhar. Lots of scope here! A gabhar (gower) is a goat, but apparently it’s also the name for a certain type of pollock, known as a scad. [Just to complicate things, it can also be a little white horse, and therefore white-crested waves. Gabhra Lír, for example, means the little white horses of Lír, who was the king of the world under the sea in Irish mythology. Whew! – But that’s just my own musings]
Cuas an Tairbh – tairbh (tarriv) is the irish word for bull, and the rock just off this point is the Bull Rock. It probably has the shape of a bull from some angles.
Cuas Móire – móire (moy-ra) is an adjective usually applied to a place that experiences great gusts of wind or rolling seas. Apt! But this could also simply be Cuas Mór (more), meaning Big Cuas, since it is the biggest one.
Just before the Cuas Móire theres a significant cliff labeled The Pulley (about where the cattle is in the photo below) and here’s the story about that name. On top of the cliff was a pole with a bar attached – the bar, with a pulley at the end of it, could swing out over the cliff. A long rope threaded through the pulley was controlled by a patient horse which was lead away from and toward the cliff, thus raising and lowering the rope. At the end of the rope was a large basket. A man climbed into the basket and was lowered to the bottom of the cliff at low tide. There he set about harvesting kelp with a tool that cut it off above the roots. As he gathered armfuls, he filled up the basket which was raised up to the field and piled onto a cart. He continued to do this until the tide came up to his neck, whereupon he jumped into the basket and was the last load to be pulled up.
Almost unbelievable, isn’t it? The hardship and courage of that – it was done all year round! Yet, as Vincent and Conor explained to us, sand and seaweed were the only fertilisers available to people and gathering both was an important part of the yearly round of labour needed to grow food. Both were also taxed by local landlords, so they were a commodity over which landowners exercised control. The National Museum has a good piece on seaweed harvesting, with photographs showing how it was done – no cliffs, alas. Another piece on RTE from 1962 shows hand harvesting in Clare.
You will have noted that all of these placenames are now on maps, which I have used in my illustrations. The site is https://www.openstreetmap.org/ and Conor, Vincent and their team are using it to record these names for posterity. Anyone can do this, but, as they pointed out to us, it’s best done in an informed way, since labelling a place with a modern name (e.g. Danny’s fishing cove) can perpetuate new, personal or inaccurate names. The team has annotated many of the placenames with additional information – such as about the possible names for Cuas a’ Chúir, above, and Cuas na Leac, below.
I have only given you a tiny look at what the Castlehaven and Myross Placenames team is doing – their work is extensive and ongoing. And it’s important – these are among the oldest ‘transparent’ placenames in Europe. As Conor explained to me placenames start out as transparent – people name what they see in front of them. But over time, the names become opaque, mostly due to a change in the dominant culture – a new language wreaks havoc with pronunciation of ‘foreign-sounding’ words. However, the names around West Cork, as long as there is someone who still remembers them, are as ancient as it gets. Hydronyms (place names associated with water) survive better than toponyms (land-based) possibly because they were a shared resource.
The team are happy to share their expertise and would love to encourage other groups to undertake similar projects in their own locality. You can get in touch with them by emailing email@example.com or through their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/castlehavenhistory/