Brainstorm St Patrick's Day: hundreds of Irish placenames are descriptions of the environment which was formed over 15,000 years ago

Occasionally, I am asked how I became interested in the Irish physical landscape, its evolution and its influence on the people of Ireland. I can generally trace my interest back to my childhood, and in particular to childhood holidays in beautiful Camp in Co Kerry. Gazing up at the Slieve Mish mountains, over at Mount Brandon beyond Castlegregory or across at Fenit in the distance, my wonder grew as I began to notice the gullies, the valleys, the hollows carved into the landscape and I began to ask why they were there. And I began to explore, by the hands of my mother and aunt who have a love of landscape, the environment around me. That topography, along with the landscape of my native Cork harbour, in some sense formed my professional identity.

The Irish landscape has that type of ability - arguably, any landscape has. For the Irish, our link to our landscape and our sense of place forms an essential part of who we are. This link is so strong that we have used geographical features to put names to parts of our landscape. Many of our placenames are simply descriptions of our environment, and as such contain a rich heritage, telling a story about the places we inhabit. 

For example, Co Monaghan has approximately 230 townlands which contain "drum" or "droim" in Irish. That is about 12 percent of all the townlands in the county. Translated roughly as a small hill, many of these townlands are centred on elongated hills which were deposited and streamlined by the last ice sheets that covered Ireland over 15,000 years ago. These landforms, which are called drumlins (from the Irish droimnín, or little hills), are a subglacial bedform. Just as the sea creates ripples on a sandy seashore, the ice sheet created these great ripples, or bedforms, which are up to 400 metres high in some places. 

 Drumlins in Co Fermanagh. Photo: Caroline Johnston

The island of Ireland has over 20,000 drumlins. In fact, it has so many drumlins that Irish have gifted the word drumlin to the world’s scientific literature. Regardless of where it is located in the world, every drumlin owes its name to the term the Irish gave to these features. 

Recent mapping has revealed the full extent of these drumlins across Ireland. As well as the drumlin fields of Cavan and Monaghan and Clew Bay, drumlins also exist in isolation, such as the drumlin mapped to the east of Dunboyne. Each drumlin indicates the ice flow direction at the time of its formation, as the drumlins were streamlined by the ice. The full extent of drumlins can be seen in the new all-Ireland Quaternary map which was released in November 2017 by the Geological Surveys of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Monaghan may have 230 townlands which contain "drum" in their name, but it also has another 180 (or 9.8 percent of all townlands) with "corr" or rounded hill, another reference to the drumlins which Patrick Kavanagh made famous with his poetry. That’s over a fifth of all townlands in Monaghan that reference glacial features. 

Clew Bay drumlins. Photo: Irish Defence Forces

Other townlands around the country have equally rich names. The placename of townlands called Esker shares a similar heritage to the drumlins mentioned above. Eskers (from the Irish eiscir) are sinuous ridges of sand and gravel deposited within tunnels carved by great rivers at the edge of the ice sheet during the last glaciation. Again, like drumlin, this Irish word has been incorporated into the world’s scientific literature. 

Places with "carraig" (or carrick) reference rock outcrops on the landscape. Carrickfergus, Co Antrim owes its name to King Fergus who, according to the chronicles, came to what we now know as Carrickfergus in 531 AD to look for a cure for a skin disease at a holy well located there. Unfortunately for Fergus, his visit was ill-fated as his ship was wrecked against a rock and he drowned, with the place where this occurred given the name Carraig Fheargais (the rock of Fergus) to commemorate the event. 

Carrigaline (Carraig Uí Leighin) in Co Cork is the rock of the O Leighins – an east Cork family who were physicians to the Roches of Fermoy. The Irish use these townland names to locate themselves to this day - the addition of postcodes or Eircodes to Irish addresses is very recent and, while it is very useful for administrative purposes, it is being resisted by some.

Carrickfergus, where King Fergus met his end

But towns, parishes and townlands are not the only element of the landscape that the Irish have named. Many fields in Ireland has its own name, which has been handed down from generation to generation. Volunteers in Co Meath have been collecting the fieldnames along with the history and folklore of the county for about 10 years now. Other areas around Ireland have also followed suit, from north Kilkenny to Co Louth. The recording of these elements is important as their names give an insight into the history and also the topography and environmental conditions of the location.

These names, and the landscape they describe, form part of the sense of place, the identity of each Irish person. We are rooted in this landscape and in the stories that it contains – stories of its formation and of our ancestors’ use of it. Next time, you add your address to a website form or write to someone in Ireland, think of the stories the address may tell you.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ