FADÓ . . . reminiscences of one man’s life in Hibernia. Tadhg Ó Conghaile
Beal Atha na nEach (pr. Baylaw’ha’na-nyak, or thereabouts!) is the Irish for Ballinagh, my home town in Ireland. And, in the strange way of things Irish, the English for Beal Atha na nEach is actually Bellananagh, not Ballinagh at all! Ballinagh is a sort of abbreviation of Bellananagh – if you regard shortening an 11-letter word by just 2 letters an “abbreviation”. Is it any wonder that touring visitors to Ireland get lost there? In many cases, the town-name shown on road-signs – finger-posts as we called them – were, and probably still are, the “official” town-name and shown in Irish, quite different to the common name. On the way to Dublin, from my home, we’d pass through towns shown as Achadh an Iuir (Virginia), Ceanannus Mor (Kells) and An Uaimh (Navan) before arriving in Ireland’s capital, Baile Atha Cliath, aka Dublin, aka (for good measure!) Dubh Linn! Anyway, back to Ballinagh, just five miles (statute miles, not Irish miles, which are 480 yards longer – but which went out of fashion about five generations ago) from Cavan (An Cabhan) which is the administrative capital of my home county, County Cavan. Which is why you’ll hear people say they’re looking for “ . . . Cavan, County Cavan.” Now where, you may well ask, is all this going? Place-names!
I was asked recently if I knew why Irish postage stamps did not show IRELAND, but rather EIRE? The answer is simply that Eire (pr. “air’eh”) is the Irish for Ireland. Generally, Irish place names, many of which were given to infant settlements in lands such as ours to which the Irish emigrated, or were exiled to as deported criminals by the English occupiers, had a meaning of their own. Dublin, for example, is derived from Dubh Linn or Black Pool – the original settlement was sited on the banks of such a dark deep pool on the river Liffey. In time, a ford or crossing-place made of wooden hurdles (cliath) was laid down a little way upstream, giving rise to an alternative name for the growing town, Baile Atha Cliath, “the town of the ford of the hurdles”. My own village, Ballinagh, situated on a small river, likewise had a ford set down so that horses could cross: “the mouth of the ford of the steeds”. The southern city, Cork, or Corcaigh, is derived from corcach, a marsh, or marshy place. The city grew up around a monastery founded in the sixth century on the edge of a marsh on the river Lee, by St. Finbar. To this very day a part of the city is known as “the Marsh”.
Names that were transplanted to this side of the Atlantic, and are within reasonable hailing distance of us here (not many – the English and the Swedes had exerted their influence well before the transplanted Irish had that opportunity on and around the Delmarva peninsula) similarly had relevant meaning back in Ireland: Baltimore, town of the big house. Dundalk (Dun Dealgan), the fort, or fortress, of Dealga who was a chieftain of the Firbolg, one of the races of early of settlers in Ireland. Perhaps your people came from Mayo (Magheo) “the plain of the yews”, or Roscommon (Ros Comain), Coman’s wood, or forest. Saint Coman was and 8th century Irish monk who founded a monastery there. Donegal, the fort of the foreigners – the Vikings had a settlement there, more than a century before the 1169 Anglo-Norman invasion that began English rule over Ireland. Prior to that, Donegal had an earlier name, Tirconnell (Tir Chonaill), the land of Conall (Conall Gulban, son of Niall of the Nine Hostages). Kerry (Ciarraighe) from the clan of Ciar which once ruled there. Clare, where Shannon Airport is located (An Clar), “the level piece of ground” – good place for an airport! (Our ancestors had wonderful foresight!) And, finally, Knock – in County Mayo, site of the 1879 apparition of Our Lady and now an officially recognized Marian shrine, and of Ireland’s latest international airport, is from Cnoc which is the Irish for “hill”. Some words have great commonality when it comes to place names, and “Knock” is one of them, and always signifies that the location is in a hilly area, in the same way that “Kil” or “Kill” can signify a wooded area – Kilmore (Coill Mor), “big wood”, Kildare (Cil Dara) “oak wood”. And Cavan? That is from Cabhan – a hollow place. County Cavan has lots of little hills, and where you’ll find hills, you’ll find hollows – so it all makes sense!
I was probably about 12 years old at the time, when the Irish AA (no, nothing to do with the booze – in this case, the Automobile Association, like the AAA here) still provided road signage, and additionally decided to erect signs at the entrance to the towns and villages of Ireland, stating their names and welcoming visitors. (Sort of “Welcome to Ocean City” thing.) These were steel signs, about two feet by four, standing some five feet tall, by the roadside. In Ballinagh, the sign on the road on which our school stood was embedded just outside the school wall, and due to some sloppy work the name of our village, shown in Irish, was misspelled. On the first school-day following its erection we had some discussion in class about the error, and our teacher, Master McCormac, commented “That sign is a disgrace, and should be ripped up!” Well, two of my pals and I had a little discreet discussion about that, and later that evening we set about implementing the plan we had fermented: we returned to the site with the tools necessary to do the job, uprooted the sign, and dragged it across the road and heaved it over the low hedge to drop into the field that lay four or five feet below. A good day’s work, you might say! Or, so we thought! You can imagine his dismay when poor Master McCormac discovered our covert action! And that of our several parents when the truth became known! Vandalism at its worst! That weekend, we three heroes – as we had deemed ourselves to be – were put to work, retrieving the heavy offensive sign, dragging it along to the field gate and back to its site, and re-erecting it to await its replacement by means more lawful and constitutional that those that we misguided citizens had employed! It took a month, but the day did come when, to our great satisfaction we found, on the site of our misdeed, a brand new sign that read “Failte! Beal Atha na nEach.” This time, not a word misspelled! While he never told us so, I imagine that our teacher must have felt some degree of admiration for our initiative! Or, is that wishful thinking?
(with Jan. 2015 minutes HN)