A sense of place – the sense in names

Altavaddyvacky which is Gaelic for Steep Glen of the Lame Wolf
Altavaddyvacky which is Gaelic for Steep Glen of the Lame Wolf

PLACE names hold much information about our past landscapes, our ancestors and their life perceptions, as well as holding ancient stories – whether mythical, folkloric or historical.

In particular, the Gaelic lands stretching from Cork to Caithness, and from the Calf of Mann to Cape Breton in Canada, provide a rich tapestry of languages and life perspectives that give us an amazing wealth of place-name heritage.

The synergy of Gaelic and British dialects of Celtic; the fusion of Norse and Norman French; and the array of West Germanic languages (Scots, Dutch and English), have all worked to produce a great compendium of linguistic and cultural layers waiting to be discovered and enjoyed by all.

South Derry is no exception, and has its own special cultural heritage pertaining to its mixture of place names. The great forests of local history, Glenkonkeyne and Killetra – from the Gaelic ‘Gleann Con Cadhain’ and ‘Coill Íochtarach’ – mean ‘the Glen of Cadhan’s Hound’ and ‘the Lower Woods’ respectively.

Whereas, the geographical description of Killetra is apparent, the importance of Cadhan’s Hound is not so clear and begs the story behind the name. Delving into local folklore tells us of Cadhan Ó hInnéirí’s defeat of a monster of a hound that used to terrorise the woods.

Another interesting townland in South Derry is Altavaddyvacky. Not only is it interesting in terms of the sound and rhythm of its name, but also in its meaning.

From the Gaelic ‘Ailt a’ Mhadaidh Bhacaigh’, it may be loosely translated as ‘the Steep Glen of the Lame Wolf’. It is here that an understanding of the source language, culture and folklore come into play.

Without an understanding of this - a local story based on an old widow and a lame wolf, similar in sentiment to the Classical Latin, ‘Androcles and the Lion’ - might be missed.

For any community that wishes to learn about the history and heritage of their area, it is imperative for them to gain an understanding of their place names.

A community which seeks to research and analyse the meaning of its place names is much the richer for doing so, irrelevant of the area or of the languages involved.

Much knowledge locally has been gathered and analysed pertaining to the names of towns, villages, townlands, mountains and rivers.

But much has still to be done to record the few remaining fieldnames and feature names, which were once a vibrant and widespread element of our cultural heritage.

In order to increase our understanding of the issues and methods, Dr Micheál Ó Mainnín from Queen’s University Belfast and director of Place Names NI will be delivering a workshop with the Envision project at An Carn, with the aim of aiding in place names research locally – and in relation to field names in particular.

Dr Ó Mainnín will discuss the best ways to record place names for posterity and how to analyse them.

This event is free of charge and will be held at Naíscoil Charn Tóchair, Tirkane, Maghera. Numbers will be limited. The language of the workshop will be Gaelic. To book a place, please contact Pól Mac Cana at An Carn (Tirkane, Maghera): 028-7954-9978 or pol.maccana@ancarn.org.