The Pleasure of Irish Place Names

This is the hill known as Suí Finn – Fionn’s Seat (sadly anglicized to ‘Seefin’), a coastal view point on the beautiful Sheep’s Head peninsula in Cork (and the highest point on the peninsula). One of at least ten sites around the country with this name (or some derivative), most of them tend to be associated with the mythological Irish hero, Fionn mac Cumhaill.

One point that’s common to all of these sites, is that they’re located on hill tops or other highland features that usually offer spectacular views over the local terrain. One of the romantic notions behind the naming, of course, was that the mythological seer and warrior had passed some time at that site to admire the view (no doubt thinking deep thoughts and pondering profound concepts as he did so). A number of these sites are cairns, thereby also linking the character with access routes to the Otherworld.

Back in the day, it wasn’t that uncommon to name high points or features in the terrain after national “celebrities” (such as Fionn or one of the saints) but most places tended to be named after local chieftains or strongmen. There are many other sites which include ‘fionn’ or a derivative in the name but, in most cases, these tend to relate to the other meaning of the word (white, blond or bright). Examples for this might include Fintragh (Fionn trá – ‘The white beach’), Finnis (Fionnais – ‘white back’, or ‘white ridge’) etc. etc.

That’s one of the things I’ve always liked about Ireland. Our landscape nomenclature really is saturated with history and reeks with connections to ancient stories and legends. It’s only when you live or visit “new” countries like New Zealand, Australia etc. and see indigenous names completely eroded by colonization and replaced with the sterile names of (relatively) recent politicians or bureaucrats, that you release how good we have it. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the foresighted people who managed to save our native placenames.



This article in the Irish Times gives a very nice rundown on the astounding work carried out by the Placenames Branch of the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. In a sense, this particular group carries out a similar kind of preservation/conservation work to the very effective Irish Folklore Commission (who started work back in the 1930s and finished in 1971).

Ireland’s extremely lucky to have such a treasury of placenames because each placename carries elements of language, history, geography, beliefs and so on. Some names are based on people or events who have disappeared from societal history but there are enough in the reminder to establish overall patterns that give insights into our ancestors’ lives and how we ended up where we are in the world today. This is particularly important when it comes to a placename for a townland or field, which often has a more immediate relevance for families living in a particular area.

Although it’s a great article overall, there’s an amusing irony in the fact that the author refers to ‘ráth’ and ‘lios’ as fairy forts. At this stage, most people know they had very little to do with either fairies OR with forts.

The link is just below: