Ireland’s Lost Field Names.

Manchán Magan in the Irish Times, Uncovering Ireland’s lost field names before it’s too late:

Field names can tell us much about our local area how people appreciated the physical landscape, its hills and hollows, streams, and bogs; but also its history and traditions, from holy wells, to fairy forts, old settlements, and estates. An article in The Irish Times Magazine in 2018 explored the insights garnered from 7,000 names collated by the Kilkenny Field Name Recording Project, and 24,700 field names recorded in Co Meath, unveiling some very odd names indeed, including Co Antrim’s townland of Ballypitmave, derived from Baile Phite Méabha (which translates as Queen Maeve’s vulva), Co Tipperary’s Skeheenarinky, from Sceichín an Rince (little thorn bush for dancing), and Co Leitrim’s Faslowart, from Fás Lúghoirt (the deserted herb garden).

Each placename is like a code that can be deciphered to reveal insights into the culture, genealogy, myths, climate, botany, topography, and geology of a region. They are “the essential threads that hold the quilted fabric” of the landscape together, according to Alan Counihan of the Kilkenny Field Name project.

The latest area to have embarked upon such decoding of its landscape is Westmeath, where 725 field names were collected from 64 townlands in 2018, with the same amount again gathered from a further 55 townlands in 2019. Overall, 100 volunteers were involved in the harvesting of this lore and some noteworthy elements arose, such as the fact that in parts of north Westmeath, 10 to 15 per cent of the field names were in Irish, revealing that the language survived in the area far longer than one would imagine. […]

But for every prosaic and practical name rooted in the physical attributes of a place, there are others dealing with the esoteric and the unknowable. They include the many field names linked to fairy forts, and the few that were considered to be potential portals to another dimension, often known as “The Stray Field”. These had the ability to disorientate you and seemingly transport you to somewhere unrecognisable. The Horse Field in Cummerstown, Collinstown, is an example, which was described by a local as being “Noted for the Stray”, meaning that one could get lured to the Otherworld by walking through it.

I’m a sucker for local onomastics (cf. this 2011 post); thanks, Trevor!


  1. “The Stray Field”

    ar strae means astray or lost. AHD says “stray” comes from French, so the Irish might have got it from the Normans.

    In English we describe this disorientation as being “pixie-led”. Also “pixilated”, as in Mary Chase’s Harvey, but nowadays it would be confused with “pixelated”.

    Supposedly the cure is to take off your jacket and put it back on inside-out, but I never remember this advice when it would be useful.

    I believe this clip was posted here some time back, but it is once again on topic:

  2. Magan’s summary of the 2018 piece is somewhat misleading: townlands are legally defined areas whose Irish names are investigated by the long-established Placenames Branch. The fieldnames project is a recent crowdsourced auxiliary.

    Skeheenarinky is well known, being on what was the main Cork–Dublin road until 2008.

    My mother tells the story of a driver with a foreign accent stopping in her remote home place to ask for directions to Cork; the local said “turn left at the Back Field”.

  3. Thank you for that clip, Maidhc. I’m speechless.*

    *I’d mention a Simca racing-car engine designer called Gordini who (like Ettore Bugatti) was nicknamed “le sorcier” or “le sorcier de la mécanique” but I’m pretty sure this was a different vehicle.

  4. David Marjanović says

    10 to 15 per cent of the field names were in Irish, revealing that the language survived in the area far longer than one would imagine.

    Does that really follow?

  5. Any thoughts on whether Skeheenarinky (Sceichín an Rince) might be the origin of the title of the Sharon, Lois, and Bram children’s song “Skinnamarink”:

    The attribution in Wikipedia is to a 1910 Broadway song, but with a “gibberish” title.

  6. Blimey. In one ear and out the other.

  7. “10 to 15 per cent of the field names were in Irish, revealing that the language survived in the area far longer than one would imagine.”

    This is some real load-bearing analysis right here. I wonder what it reveals about the survival of Latin and Anglo-Saxon in southern England.

  8. “Any thoughts on whether Skeheenarinky (Sceichín an Rince) might be the origin of the title of the Sharon, Lois, and Bram children’s song “Skinnamarink”:”

    East Coast Scots includes “Skinnimalink” or “skinnimalinky” – noun and adjective respectively meaning extremely small and thin. (I suspect skinny plus “malenky” – one of a very few Russian-derived slang words in Scots).

  9. This is a big issue in Wales too, especially as farms are bought by English people who don’t speak Welsh. We’re in danger of losing an irreplaceable huge cultural, historic and linguistic legacy.

    Interestingly, this is happening as the National Library of Wales has digitised the whole Tithe Maps of Wales fro 19C giving us an invaluable set of information on field names (as well as use and owners).

  10. Passing English of the Victorian era (James Ware, 1909)

    Skilamalink (L. London). Secret, shady, doubtful. If not brought in by Robson, it was re-introduced by him at the Olympic Theatre, and in a burlesque.

  11. PlasticPaddy says

    What about an initial Skinny McLanky? I vaguely remember other names formed similarly (Bathless Brogan springs to mind)

  12. Jen in Edinburgh says

    Skinnymalinky Long Legs, big banana feet,
    Went to the pictures and couldnae find a seat…

  13. …including Co Antrim’s townland of Ballypitmave, derived from Baile Phite Méabha (which translates as Queen Maeve’s vulva)…

    I recently read Beckett’s Molloy, and the above immediately reminded me of the Bally/Ballyba/Ballybaba bit, which made me practically laugh out loud as I was reading it on the metro. See snippet here:

    (Couldn’t find the French version.)

  14. What about an initial Skinny McLanky?

    Filthy McNasty and Gerald McBoingBoing are the earliest I can think of, about 100 years too late.

  15. Siôn, how about the Welsh government paying for small name signs at gates to fields? Putting names on maps is ok for research but it doesn’t keep the name in use (unless we’re talking about google maps).

  16. That sounds like an excellent idea.

  17. In rural Brittany there’s a placename sign every half-km or so along every road, half of them starting with Ker- (“inhabited place” in Breton, cognate with the Car- in Cardiff). You can see the density of placenames by zooming in on Google Maps.

  18. “there’s a placename sign every half-km or so along every road” — Lieu-dit

  19. Trond Engen says

    AJP: how about the Welsh government paying for small name signs at gates to fields?

    Hat: That sounds like an excellent idea.

    I’ve wanted signs along the roads at the boundaries between navnegårder or matrikkelgårder, the old farmsteads with a continuous recorded history since the first matrikkel (Eng. cadaster?) and a name that in some cases can be assumed to go back to the early Iron Age, but which are now dissolving because there’s little protection of immaterial heritage; modern farming needs larger farms, urban planners don’t care much for imaginary lines in the landscape, and property developers have little use for the names unless they add to property value.

    These borders would be more clearcut in some parts of the country than others, with fields more readily being bought and sold independently of the farm in densely farmed regions, but one might still mark idealized borders, based on common understanding at the beginning of the modern era. Or reconstructed pre-modern borders, where that is more convenient.

  20. matrikkel: land register, tax roll, but in England it’s the Domesday Book. My gt uncle who lived in London bought a small wild-flower meadow in Cambridgeshire that our family knew so that it wouldn’t be subsumed in the 1960s & 60s by larger farms. He rented it out to cows during the summer. It was mentioned in the Domesday Book.

    modern farming needs larger farms
    No it doesn’t. All that’s going to change now.

    I don’t like signage in the countryside, but I’d make an exception for this as long as it’s discreet.

  21. Trond Engen says

    Very discrete. I’d model them on the small blue signs at old milk ramps slash bus stops (there are still some few to be seen, rusty and faded, along old country roads), telling the name of the farmstead they served.

    No, actually I want those signs too. It’s as important to know the center of a location as its boundaries.

  22. He rented it out to cows during the summer

    I imagine that would be much easier nowadays, since the cows have Paypal or Venmo accounts and no longer need to sign cheques or count out five-pound notes.

  23. I know there’s a pun in there somewhere, David. I just can’t think of it at the moment.

    Small blue farm signs – I’ll look out for those. I haven’t seen them.

    More about the farming in today’s Gneisenau.

  24. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    I have read that Shetland has the highest density of place names in the world. I can’t find a source for that, but Google Maps certainly shows plenty.

  25. Sounds plausible. I’d imagine that the place with the highest density of toponyms would have the following features: coastal, with a highly indented coastline – lots of bays and headlands to name;
    heavily farmed, with a lot of small farms with small fields, rather than a few big ones;
    mainly rural rather than urban – each house has a name, rather than just a street number;
    settled for a long period – time for features to be named;
    literate with good record keeping, so that toponyms are preserved.

    Shetland fits the bill on all of those.

  26. PlasticPaddy says

    The norse field names seem to have been retained over multiple changes of owner and government. I suspect that this is probably not the case for most Irish town lands and field names. There would have been a gradual freeze as authorities rationalised the tax system, but I doubt this was complete before sometime in the 1800s with the UK ordinance survey mapping.

  27. Irish townland names are legally fixed since the boundary survey of the 1830s. Many go back centuries before that.

  28. Are there Irish tithe maps with field names?

  29. PlasticPaddy says

    Unfortunately, only a bit is available in digital format. I don’t know about earlier records….

  30. I don’t think any systematic records of field names were ever made, mapped or otherwise.

    Even manuscript estate maps usually only give the field’s acreage and tenant, not the name.

    Ordnance Survey > Data Catalogue > Base Information and Mapping > “Historic Map 6 inch (1837-1842)” delineated fields, and “Historic Map 25 inch (1888-1913)” included their areas, but not names.

    19th-century Valuation maps traced tenement boundaries on the Ordnance Survey 6-inch maps.

    In the Republic of Ireland, even though townlands are legally defined units valued by locals and historians they don’t appear on signs at all (except, as often happens, they share the name of a settlement or other signposted feature). Historically the reason was lack of funds for much signage of any description.

    In Northern Ireland, rural road nameplates often show the name of the townland in addition to an alphanumeric systematic ID.

  31. Oh, interesting.

    Applotment. Chiefly in Ireland: apportioning a property tax between those taxed; the assessment of the rate of such a tax.

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