Local History - Place Names

Oughterard Newsletter

Maire Ni Dhonncadha

Oughterard Newsletter May 2005

Tourism is undergoing a change!  People no longer visit Ireland out of a sense of loyalty because their ancestors came from Ireland. They now complete a lot of research into their family history before arriving. They come to Ireland to tie up loose ends and possibly see the ruins of their old family homestead and any other links to the past.

Their ancestors left our shores and travelled to the far corners of the earth, many out of necessity and others from a sense of adventure; but their descendants have all got one thing in common; a desire to discover their origins.

It may seen strange to those of us whose families have lived in the same area for generations that people will travel thousands of miles to look at a pile of old stones. Irish people are also becoming interested in their past. Searching through the available records requires some facts and the most basic is the place-name and the smallest unit is the town-land.

Over one hundred and fifty years ago an ordnance survey of Ireland was undertaken to map and name virtually every part of Ireland. Military engineers and civilians swarmed all over Ireland surveying and mapping every nook and cranny. For some parts of Ireland parish reports were compiled. Unfortunately this was not done for the Galway region. There are however three volumes of archaeological notes to accompany the survey compiled by John O’ Donovan and his team. John O’ Donovan was one of the ablest of the civilians who recorded details of old monuments and archaeological sites.

The purpose of the survey was to record accurately the old Irish names of the town-lands and villages for the purpose of making maps of Ireland. The results of their labours have endured to this day.

Villages are of Norman origin but the town-land is an ancient system of land division that is uniquely Irish. It is the smallest administrative division in use today and groups of town-lands form the basis of parishes, electoral areas and even whole counties; although they existed long before counties were formed. This in the case of Galway was 1610.

Some town-land names describe the topographical features of a place such as Gleann or Cnoc or Cluin. Some indicate the presence of a settlement and include the name Baile. Even in towns the old town-land name can rise to prominence when it is attached to a modern district or housing estate and parts of Oughterard allude to old town-land names such as Fough East and West.

The origins of the town-land are steeped in mystery but the general consensus is that it dates back at least to pre-Norman times when Gaelic chieftains ruled. The area of a townland appears to have been based on old Irish land measures. The main land measures in Connaught were the quarter and the cartron. A quarter contained 4 cartrons and each cartron was equivalent to 30 acres. Four quarters made up a town-land.

In 1585, according to the books of surveys and distribution: a quarter was a measure of value not of actual acreage. The town-land was originally a division of the ancient Ballybetagh; thirty of which made 120 quarters. This in turn related to the Tuath which was ruled over by a chieftain or local leader. Connaught was formed into baronies in 1585.  Oughterard is in the barony of Moycullen which combined the former O’Flaherty territories of Gnomore and Gnobeag.

The subject of place-names is currently topical as a controversial new law came into force recently which decreed that road signs in the Gaeltacht will only be in the Irish language. Most of the ordnance survey maps already show the names in both English and Irish and maps produced for tourists will no doubt soon follow suit.


This page was added on 28/06/2011.

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