Wednesday, November 26, 2014

“A Dear Profitless Spot of Land”

A gneeve, a sessiagh, a ballyboe.

Surely, none of these terms would make sense to anyone in the English-speaking world but the Irish—well, at least the Irish who are familiar with the “traditional” designations of land divisions. I’m sure you’ll be as grateful as I was to uncover a study explaining those ancient divisions of land in Ireland, compiled by the first director of the Ordnance Survey of Ireland and posted by some kind and sympathizing soul on Wikipedia.

The tally goes something like this:
            Ten acres equals one gneeve.
            Two gneeves is one sessiagh.
            Three sessiaghs becomes one ballyboe.

It is after this point that our tongues finally stumble upon words that seem vaguely familiar. Two ballyboes make one ploughland. And four ploughlands make up one townland.

And you thought pronouncing the names of the townlands was difficult!

The townlands in Ireland—that Gaelic system of land division pre-dating the Normans—form the smallest unit of governmental administration under the civil parishes. There are more than sixty thousand townlands in Ireland. To give you an overview of the townland names for just one county—County Kerry in the southwest coastal region of the Republic of Ireland—you can peruse the listing here. I’m sure you’ll spot some personal favorites among the many names listed, as I did—even if you can’t figure out how to pronounce them.

Despite the calibrations detailed above, those townlands are not of a uniform size, and an extensive amount of work has been done, over the years, to standardize the boundaries of these townlands.

Though you may have noticed the “town” in “townlands,” the concept of towns as we know it was not part of the traditional, pre-British, rural Gaelic system. That timeframe represented a more agrarian society and lifestyle. Indeed, the very term “ballyboe” comes from the Irish baile bó, which means “cow land.”

Of course, not every piece of property was designated for grazing land. But you can be sure each of those tongue-twisting townland names came with its own meaning.

As far as pronunciation challenges go, there are lots of townland names to put you to the test. Though I haven’t the faintest how to pronounce them, here are some of my favorites—all gleaned in honor of our visit to the townlands of our Kelly and Falvey ancestors in County Kerry.

There’s Coomdeeween and Cloonnafinneela. Derrylooscaunagh and Dromvally. Gortdromagownagh and Gortna Killa. Perhaps you’d fancy Inchymagilleragh? Great. You have your choice of Inchy East and Inchy West.

Or how about Knockacappul? Here’s one the younger generation can celebrate: Knockaneacoolteen. See? They told you it was so.

And here’s my personal top favorite: Knockataggle Beg. Not enough for you? There’s always Knockataggle More.

Yes. There is a place called that.

Of course, there are unimaginative townland names like Acres. Or Barleymount—not just one, but three: Barleymount East, Middle and West. Someone must have liked that name. At least you can pronounce it. And then, the least imaginative of them all: Castlefarm. Ya think?

Not to say these names are all nonsensical creations. They do, of course, have meanings. Meanings reaching back far before the anglicization of the island. To get an idea of some of the place name meanings, take a look at this list of townland names for just the area surrounding the village of Currow. The translations describe something about each piece of property, giving a much clearer sense of what life might have been like for those hoping to gain their living from these green—or rocky, or sometimes desolate—patches of land.

Though the land might have been beautiful, it must have demanded hard work from those trying to extract a living from it. Consider the Irish place name Farran, meaning land, field or territory. Add to it the Irish word for dear—or expensive—and you find the townland name of Farrandoctor actually reveals a wry editorial comment on one person’s lot in life:
 A dear profitless spot of land.

Field north of Killarney in County Kerry Ireland

Photograph: Field with cows grazing, to the north of Killarney in or near the townland of Lisheennacannina in County Kerry, Ireland; courtesy of Chris Stevens.


  1. All these townland names have been butchered, I mean anglicized phonetically, Jacqi. They can be hard to translate back, but my best guess is your favorite ‘Knockataggle Beg’ was once ‘Cnoc an tSeagail Beag’ meaning ‘Little Ryehill’. (cnoc = hill, seagal = rye, beag = little) and ‘More’ comes from ‘Mór’, meaning large.

    1. Thank you, Dara. It is all as I suspected--what looks like English has its roots in a much different language, is not pronounced the same, and certainly has a depth of meaning far greater than the sing-song sound seems to the English-speaking ear.

      We first realized that when we asked about visiting Ballina and Killaloe in County Tipperary--the first Irish person I asked gave me a blank look, because of my pronunciation. It wasn't until afterwards that I realized the way those town names are pronounced likely draws more from the original language than from how the British decided to spell them.

      Thank you for offering that translation! I would love to have more resources to guide in both pronunciation and meanings, Dara. If you have any suggestions, please mention them. I've tried Google Translate, but suspect the results there are rather sorry attempts--at least for Irish to English.

      I really appreciated finding that list of the meanings of the townlands around Currow--it was a really good concept to look to the translations from the original Irish to get a clearer picture of what the places were like--but even then, I don't know how reliable the translations were. Regrettably, the list was limited to only a small area in County Kerry. How I wish something like that were available for the whole of Ireland's townlands.

      Delving into the language would certainly open up another avenue of understanding about the place of our family's roots.

  2. So what happened that Cobh got only 4 letters?

    1. You got me on that one, Wendy. Different county?

      Actually, Cobh is a town, not necessarily a townland. It's name (at least during the British era) was from an English word ("Cove"), but was replaced by another name--Queenstown, also English--which it held until the 1920s. At that point, in a total reversal from the situation we see with the age-old townlands names (Irish converted to English spelling), the port was given a "Gaelicized" version of that original English word--"Cove" becoming "Cobh."

  3. The little ditty about Ten acres equals one gneeve... sounds like Dr. Suess!

    I went to the list of townland names and oh my!!! I sprained my tongue! I hope my HMO covers it!! :)

    1. I have no idea how to pronounce those townland names, Iggy, but in whatever way I mangled the pronunciation, I still thought they sounded quite poetic, as names go.


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