The Gaelic origins of our placenames
by Claire DICKSON
23 September 2022
As part of Good Relations Week this year, an event was held at the Turas Centre in East Belfast exploring the historical Gaelic placenames of East Belfast. At the event, we learnt about the uniqueness of placenames in the area such as Knocknagoney, Connswater, and Willowfield which rarely occur anywhere else. The townland system itself has Gaelic origin and can be found solely in Ireland and Western Scotland. Within Belfast, the names of the townlands have a range of origins — for example, some placenames like Sandy Knowes and Fortwilliam are English whereas the area of Belvoir is French.
However, the vast majority of placenames stem from the Gaelic language. In fact, some English names are known to be translations of other Gaelic names. The same applies to East Belfast as almost all its placenames come from the Irish language. Important boundaries between the townlands have mostly been covered up such as rivers and other borders such as walls and fields are long gone.
It is thought that some names of townlands date from as far back as 2000 years ago – many are simple, describing rivers or mounds whilst others describe local people or historical events.
The speaking of the Irish language was another interesting point touched on during the talk. There was no English spoken in the east of Ireland until 1177 when Norman English armies conquered Ulster — the Norman Lords spoke mostly French. Irish was spoken as a native language up until around the 1800s and has always been spoken in East Belfast by native speakers who lived there, others who came there looking for work, or enthusiasts/language revivalists.
Presbyterians in particular had an affinity with Irish in the 1600s — these people may have been planters or native Irish folk who had previously converted to the religion. The speaker drew attention to the non-political nature of the language at this time and pointed to the example of County Down, which had a strong Presbyterian and Irish-speaking heritage. Monastic settlements such as those in Movilla and Bangor had strong connections with southern Germany and Switzerland, where holy men travelled to bring Christianity to that part of the world.
The final part of the presentation was based on the more recent history of the Irish Language in Belfast. In the 1890s the Gaelic League started up a revived interest, which continues today, in placenames and their origin. The Irish language had declined around that period due to emigration and the famine, but many branches of the Gaelic League being formed in Protestant areas such as Bloomfield, Breda, and Ballymaccarret, showed that it wasn’t viewed as a political issue at the time.