Visitors to Connemara in the far west of Ireland are understandably awed by the wildness and by the breath-taking scenery of this landscape. The colour patterns of the land, water and sky can vary, not only from season to season, but also from hour to hour as sunshine changes to rain and back again; morning light casts a very different glow on the land compared to the low evening sunlight which etches a much altered relief everywhere. Sparsely populated, you could be forgiven for thinking that human activity has left little mark on such splendid and panoramic beauty. But you would be wrong!
We have hard archaeological evidence for continuous occupation in Connemara for at least the last 6,000 years, with some new finds suggesting even older use of this land by early hunter-gather groups. Couple the rich archaeological heritage with the broad historical swathe of Gaelic, Norman and English conflict here; couple the ancient literature and sagas with the complicated arrival and spread of Christianity (from the 5th century CE); couple the ancient Gaelic language with the arrival and rise of spoken English; and you can see how a very rich cultural heritage is co-mingled with the natural. And we have not mentioned the music and song.
To begin to grasp how rich the natural and cultural heritage of this landscape is requires that you begin a conversation, an interaction with the very land you walk upon. In this article I will show you one entry-point to such an interaction: placenames. Most placenames in Ireland are Anglicizations of the original Irish language names. And these Anglicizations are not random corruptions of the Gaelic. They are the concentrated product of the Placenames Office of the British Army’s Ordinance Survey. They were all collected in the first half of the 19th century during a great army mapping project. Everywhere the British Army had a presence, from Ireland to Africa to India; the local placenames were all re-worked to an exacting standard. This was to enable officers to pronounce correctly the names of the places wherein they served. And Connemara was one such place.
I propose to wander through Connemara and give you a sample of local placenames that can tell of topography, mythology, history, folklore and nature. We begin with the name ‘Connemara’ itself. Most ‘English’ names echo the Gaelic version so do not be put off my introducing you to bits and pieces of this language. The Irish rendering of Connemara is Conamara and this is, in turn, a contraction of Conmaicne Mara, an ancient people who occupied the region from the early historic period, the 5th or 6th century. These people were the supposed descendants of the mythical Conmac, with Conmaicne meaning ‘the people of Conmac’, The original lands of the Conmaicne were further north where they were a client kingdom to the powerful O’Neill dynasty. As the O’Neill’s power grew one branch of the Conmaicne were settled in what today is Connemara, to protect their overlord’s interest. This group became known as the Conmaicne Mara, Mara meaning ‘by the sea’, to distinguish them from other branches of that people. So, Connemara, The People of Conmac by the Sea.
As we travel out from Galway City, named for the pre-Christian goddess Gaillimh, who was associated with the river that flows into the Atlantic there, one interesting place we find is Aughnanure Castle. Aughnanure is correctly Achadh na nIúir, The Plain or Land of the Yew Trees; a scarce enough tree to warrant its use as a placename. This was built by the O’Flahertys about 1500CE, The Castle was sited close to the shores of Lough Corrib and was used by the O’Flahertys to control trade on the lake into Galway City. The O’Flaherty clan were not original occupiers of Connemara. They were originally important Gaelic lords on the fertile plains east of Galway City. In the 13th century the Normans drove them off their ancestral lands west into Connemara where they in turn dispossessed the Conmaicne Mara and another dynasty, the O’Cadhlas. Their depredations on the Norman barons and on the merchants of Galway led to an inscription being written over to west gate of that city – “from the ferocious O’Flahertys dear God deliver us”.
As we head further west we encounter the Twelve Bens (sometimes Twelve Pins) – the lovely mountain range that dominates the region. Bens is from the Irish Beann or Binn depending of which dialect you use and this simply means peak. In Irish they are Na Beanna Beola or the Peaks of Beola, who in some long-lost piece of folklore was a ferocious giant.
Nearby we find Ballynahinch lake. This is Baile na hInse or the settlement of the island. Baile, meaning settlement, is a very common placename element in Ireland. In the lake is an island with a ruined O’Flaherty Castle on it. In fact the island is a man-made island called a crannóg, a fortified lake-dwelling, which was occupied since pre-historic times, This island was the seat of the Conmaicne Mara and the O’Cadhlas before it was taken over by the O’Flahertys in the 13th century. The O’Flahertys were dispossessed by the Cromwellians in the 17th century and the land was granted to the Martin family, one of the 12 great merchant families of Galway city. They held it until they were bankrupted after the Great Famine of the 1840s.
Further west we find the Parish of Ballinakill. Again we have Baile but this time it is Baile na Cille, the Settlement of the Church. Cill has its origin in the Latin word cellus as does the English word ‘cell’. (In English the hard ‘k’ sound of the Latin ‘c’ is softened; in Irish it is retained). In Irish the sense is ‘monastic cell’. Any placename with cill in it usually indicates an early Christian monastic presence and in Ballinakill we have a 13th century church ruin built on an earlier monastic site. Nearby is a Holy Well (of which Ireland has thousands) called Tobercellac, correctly Tober Ceallaigh or Ceallach’s Well. Ceallach is one of a vast number of very localised early Christian Irish saints of whom the following anecdote: Ceallach was living in the nearby monastery when a dispute arose with the local chieftain who was pagan. The chieftain neatly lopped off Ceallach’s head in a fit of temper. Ceallach then bent down and gently retrieved his head from the ground, walked to the well, washed the head and replaced it on his body. Ceallach lived, the chieftain accepted Christianity, and the well is Holy since. Marvellous times !
Clifden, the largest town in the region, is nearby. The Irish name is An Clochán from the Irish word cloch meaning ‘stone’. The town was built in the early 19th century near where an ancient road forded the local river. Most people interpret An Clochán as the ‘stepping stones’ at this ford.
Heading north we come to the lovely village of Letterfrack where the entrance and visitor facilities for Connemara National Park are situated. Letterfrack is officially recognised as Leitir Fraic. This is the oldest (18th century) written form of the name found by the Irish Placenames Commission and ‘rules is rules’ so this is the official name. Leitir is easy, meaning a waterlogged hillside. Fraic is unknown, an enigma. A 1901 book on Irish Placenames has Leitir Bhreac, The Speckled Wet Hillside. The bh is sounded as an English ‘v’ and the ‘h’ inserted for grammatical reasons. But as this is of a later vintage it is not accepted by officialdom. The hill overlooking the village is part of a trio of hills extending west from the Twelve Bens, the two adjacent being Ben Brack (Binn Breac, The Speckled Peak) and Knockbrack (Cnoc Breac, The Speckled Hill). Letterfrack takes its name from the local townland that encompasses half of the overlooking Diamond Hill. So Leitir Bhreac, The Speckled Wet Hillside seems more likely to me, having the Speckled Peak, Hill and Wet Hill all in a line.
And finally, to end this introduction we have Kylemore; a townland, a lake and an abbey. Kylemore is An Choill Mhór, the Big Wood and today it is one of the very few wooded areas in Connemara. The area boasts a 6000 year old megalithic tomb, the outline foundation of an early Christian monastery and a huge 19th century lime-kiln. Kylemore is famous worldwide because of the renowned Kylemore Abbey, a community of Benedictine nuns who for years ran an exclusive international boarding school for girls. But this community’s origin is not in Kylemore. From the 17th century onwards catholic chieftains and landholders found it increasingly difficult to source suitable education for their children in Ireland, especially clerical education. About this time Irish Colleges began appearing in various European cities and the Kylemore nuns were originally The Irish Dames of Ypres. From the 1640s to 1914 they educated the daughters of the Gaelic elite. At the start of the First World War Ypres, in Belgium, was heavily shelled by the German army and the nuns had to flee. They spent some years at a convent in England and in 1920 they began a search for a suitable location in Ireland. In 1922 they discovered Kylemore Castle was on the market and the rest, as they say, is history. But who built Kylemore Castle ? The site where the abbey stands today once held a hunting and fishing lodge owned by a local landlord, the Blakes of Renvyle (Rinn Mhaoile, The Bare Headland). A wealthy English businessman took his new bride there on honeymoon and when she fell in love with the place he bought it and built her a castle in the 1860s. An uplifting note on which to end.