SNSBI Thirtieth Spring Conference 2024

The 2024 SNSBI Spring conference took place from May 10 to 13 at the All Hallows Campus of Dublin City University at Drumcondra. Abstracts of talks can be found after the program below. The excursion on Sunday afternoon was to Fore Abbey/Mainistir Fhobhair.

Dé hAoine/Friday

Dé Sathairn/Saturday

Session 1: Irish surnames

Session 2: Ulster placenames

Session 3: Dublin placenames & Irish placenames

Session 4: Placenames

Session 5: The Ordnance Survey in Ireland & Scotland

Session 6: Reports

Dé Domhnaigh/Sunday

Session 7: English place-names

Session 8: Scottish place-names & housenames


Conchubhar Ó Crualaoich ‘Placenames of Ireland: an inverted historical periscope through which we can peer into ancient time’

  This presentation will outline some of the features and possibilities of placenames study in Ireland. It begins with a description of the loss of Irish as the vernacular in most of Ireland in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Gaelic Revival, foundation of the Irish Free State, establishment of the Placenames Commission and its research arm, the Placenames Branch. Improvements to the placenames database will be highlighted, along with an outline of Placenames Orders, and the significant potential our research offers to peer into past through placenames. As examples we will look at surnames in placenames, and how these can reflect regaelicisation of colonised areas, as well allowing identification of differences in landholding law in Gaelic Irish and Anglo-Norman areas. Placenames can also enable a macro-analysis of features of different Irish dialects, as well as elucidation of flora and fauna (both domestic and wild) in the Irish landscape of yesteryear.

Liam Ó hAisibéil ‘Eighteenth century 'translations’ of Irish surnames’

Irish surnames have been adapted to the English language in various ways over time, resulting in the surname forms that are most widespread and familiar to people in Ireland and around the globe today. This paper considers the evidence for these adaptations in administrative sources from the Tudor period onwards, and examines how Irish-language scribes engaged with this practice of adaptation and in particular, of translation, in their own scribal practice during the eighteenth century.

Justin Ó Gliasáin ‘Researching the Placenames of Inishowen’

The Baronies of Inishowen East and Inishowen West in Co. Donegal cover the entirety of the Inishowen Peninsula and contain the most northerly parish in Ireland. Staff at the Placenames Branch are currently carrying out systematic research on the townland names of Donegal, for which the focus is currently on Inishowen. This paper aims to give an insight into the research of the Placenames Branch in the context of these baronies. Reference will be made to archival research currently being carried out as well to previous research carried out in the area, including fieldwork which was undertaken by staff at the Branch in the 1960s and 1970s. Common elements and other preliminary research findings will be discussed.

Paul Tempan: ‘Place-names on Robert Lythe’s Map of Carrickfergus Bay (Belfast Lough), 1567’

The earliest extant regional map covering Carrickfergus, its environs and the sea-inlet which later came to be known as Belfast Lough, is held in the National Archives at Kew, reference MPF 1/77. It shows Carrickfergus and the lough, Belfast, Larne Lough, Island Magee, Bangor, etc. at the scale of 1 inch to 1 mile. It is an unsigned map on parchment, commissioned by the Crown during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and not made for publication. It was one of the 16th century maps of Ireland catalogued and described by R. Dunlop and attributed to Robert Lythe (Dunlop 1905). This was supported by John Andrews, who dated it to the year 1567, the year in which Lythe was sent to Carrickfergus to begin a campaign of surveying in Ireland (Andrews 1965). Lythe’s map is valuable for many reasons, most obviously because it is the earliest extant map of this part of Ulster. It reflects a completely different age from, say, John Speed’s map The province Ulster described, made four decades later in 1610. The Lythe map is post-Reformation but pre-Plantation, and this is reflected in the marking of territories. Belfast was little more than a muddy fording point on the Lagan between Carrickfergus and Bangor. Irish place-names are more in evidence than on other maps of the era. Holywood appears as Ardemaghste (< Ir. Ard Mhic Nasca); Grey Point as Roneraiagh (< Ir. Rinn Riabhach); Thornfield near Carrickfergus as Houghtonskie (< Ir. Achadh na Sceiche). The map in question comes just before a period of major change. It is also a key source for several other later maps which are better known, such as those of Mercator, Hondius, Boazio and Speed (Andrews 1993). Mercator’s Ultoniae Orientalis Pars (‘Eastern Part of Ulster’, 1595) and Speed’s The province Ulster described (1610) are derivative of the present map where they overlap. This paper discusses Lythe’s map in context and the characteristics of the 36 place-names shown. It offers new derivations and identifications for some of the more problematic names.

Liam Mac Mathúna ‘A corpus of Irish-language place-names from the Dublin area (c. 1728)’

King’s Inns Library MS 20 was written jointly by the bilingual Dublin scribe Tadhg Ó Neachtain and his son Peadar in Dublin in the years 1724-36. Tadhg’s contribution includes a number of lists, mostly of place-names. This paper discusses the corpus of place-names contained in Ó Neachtain’s Irish language abridgement of the botanical work Synopsis Stirpium Hibernicarum (Dublin 1726, 1727), compiled by Caleb Threlkeld. The Synopsis is a trilingual glossary (LatinEnglishIrish) of plant and herb names, arranged alphabetically by the Latin versions. Threlkeld came to live in Dublin in 1713 and much of the book is the result of first-hand study of the plants growing in the city area. The Ó Neachtain family lived in South Earl St. in the Earl of Meath’s Liberty beside St Patrick’s Cathedral. Ó Neachtain’s summary extends to just a tenth of the original work, with the result that much of Threlkeld’s presentation is excluded. Rather surprisingly, the omissions include many of the dialectal Irish names of plants provided by Threlkeld. On the other hand, Ó Neachtain retained much of the place-name information regarding the locations where the various plants were to be found. This paper examines the corpus of Irish language names from a number of perspectives, incl. geographical range, the relative proportions of settlement names and physical features, exploring the light they throw on continuity and fissure in Gaelic scholarship at the time.

Aindí Mac Giolla Chomhghaill ‘Irish alongside English in the placenames of the Dublin glens’

  This paper is concerned with two mountain glens lying within the county of Dublin, namely Glenasmole and Glencullen. Glenasmole, the mythological hunting-site of Fionn mac Cumhaill, was also the location in which the last native Irish speakers of the county were recorded in 1837. In both glens an unusually high proportion of Irish field names and other microtoponyms has survived into our own era alongside nomenclature of English origin. The results of recent research and analysis will be presented under three headings: Irish topographical names; Irish field names; Irish-language survivals in anEnglish-language environment. Irish generic elements occurring in the names of various natural features, as well as fields, will be discussed as to frequency and distribution. The percentage of Irish survivals will be compared with two other nearby areas for which similar data is available. The generic and specific elements identified in the surviving Irish-language corpus will then be categorized and compared with the elements found in the English corpus.

Pádraig Ó Cearbhaill ‘Sliabh na mBan (‘the mountain of the women’)’

Sliabh na mBan is a conspicuous mountain in south Tipperary. It rises to a height of 720 m, with a cairn on its summit.  It is situated on the eastern edge of a rich extensive area of low-lying land formerly known as Mag Femin or simpliciter Femen which stretched North-South from Cashel to Clonmel. This paper looks at the different names of Sliabh na mBan mountain as well as those of the cairn. Both sets of names are inter-related. Various other geographic features called Sliabh na mBan will be considered, ands also names which share the same specific elements. In conclusion the underlying mythological significance of the name will be summarised.

Peder Gammeltoft ‘Quantitative Extra-linguistic Methods in Place-Name research – Worth the Bother?’

The so-called quantitative method, an extra-linguistic statistical means of determining age and prominence of settlement name types has long been used in place-name studies in Scandinavia, especially in Denmark. Here, the quantitative method has been used to augment and underpin periods of productivity for settlement name types established from linguistic and historical analyses. In addition, the method has been used to say something about preferred location, soil-types and resource accessibility of settlement types to reveal the typical agricultural setting in which a name type was used. The model has been much less used outside of Scandinavia. Why is this? Is it because it is only applicable to (southern) Scandinavian conditions, or is it because of a lack of data availability – or something third? This paper will investigate what can be learned from applying quantitative extra-linguistic methods on an Irish place-name material. The paper will use purpose-made Irish extra-linguistic quantitative data relating to generated from townlands and soil-types datasets. Preliminary data tests suggest that we may use the method for not just dating and typologisation as in Denmark but also that the method can say something about predominance of the named feature. An example of this are townland names of the type Baile (na) Móna “Village of the Bog” (see illustration). A view of the dominant soil type of townlands with this name show that two-thirds of the townlands consist mainly of well-drained soils – only ten percent of Baile (na) Móna townlands consist mainly of peats, bogs and peaty topsoils and some twenty percent of poorly drained soils. This clearly indicates that that the naming motive, a bog, is usually not a very prominent feature – if existing at all. This article will explore the implications of these findings in terms of representativity and determining an original meaning of place-name elements.

Michal Boleslav Měchura  ‘A critical look at the data structure behind’.

The internal structure of the Placenames Database of Ireland ( is relatively easy to understand: each place is represented as an object with a unique identifier, and each such object has properties such as names, category labels (townland, river, etc.), geographic coordinates, and links to its hierarchical parents (e.g. from townland to parish). In this paper, I will look at a few phenomena which have turned out to be relatively challenging to represent in the Placenames Database of Ireland, and I will discuss the solutions we have implemented or considered implementing. In particular, I will focus on three topics:

1. The name/language relationship: What do we mean when we claim that a particular placename is a name in some language (in English, in Irish)? Can we – and should we – represent nuances such as borrowing and anglicisation?

2. The name/place relationship: What are the things that placenames refer to? Is the concept of a “place” identical to something definable just by geographic coordinates, or do we need an additional layer of abstraction between names and their geographic referents?

3. The place/place relationship: What is the best way to represent hierarchical connections between places (eg. counties > baronies > parishes > townlands)? How can we represent non-nesting hierarchies (when eg. a townland is in two parishes simultaneously), and is hierarchical arrangement the same as geographic inclusion?

The paper will illustrate that, from an IT perspective, the Placename Database of Ireland is far from “finished” and that the team behind it are still actively searching for an adequate data model.

Thomas Owen Clancy ‘The Ordnance Survey and Scottish Gaelic in the nineteenth century’

In Scotland the Ordnance Survey OS historically has come in for considerable criticism, for mangling, anglicising or effacing Gaelic place-names in the creation of its standard maps. To some extent, this scholarly paradigm of the relationship may be imported from that witnessed in Ireland in the early years of the OS, and it may also correspond to the relationship between the OS and minority languages in the twentieth century. Recent research work on Iona has started to reveal a different story, however. The mid nineteenth century was a high point for Gaelic literacy, and both the sappers working for the OS, and many of their local informants, are likely to have not only been Gaelic speakers, but literate ones. The OS 6 inch to the mile 1st edition maps show, in some areas of Scotland, the presence of literate Gaels, reproducing grammatically correct and standard Gaelic forms of names. This in itself, however, may mask local, dialectal forms of names. The case-study of the island Iona, where we uniquely have a roughly contemporary small-scale name survey, and where we know something about many of the informants, presents a chance to test out the hypothesis that the relationship between the OS and Gaelic in the mid nineteenth century was a different one that that typically portrayed. Some tentative thoughts about how and why the relationship may subsequently have altered in the twentieth century will be offered. This study thus offers a somewhat different story of minority languages and officialdom.

Zenobie Garrett ‘OS200 Digitally Re-Mapping Ireland’s Ordnance Survey Heritage’

In anticipation of the bicentennial of the Ordnance Survey in Ireland, the OS200 project, supported by funding from the Irish Research Council (IRC) and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) has spent 3 years building a database focused on the original maps, drawings, and documents from the first series of survey between 1824 -1846.  Key outputs of the project include the creation of an online resource in conjunction with the DRI that will allow the public to search and download the digital archive created as part of the project as well as a research database of location, places, and events in the documents. This demonstration will focus on the project’s work with the name books, illustrating the research potential of the database as well as a preview of the online resource set to officially launch at the RIA 22nd June 2024.

Abigail Lloyd ‘Learning from Celtic predecessors or creation from scratch: What then is a dūn?’

Many English places are named from landscape features, using specialised and nuanced vocabulary. Such names provide an unparalleled insight into historic perceptions of the landscape, as well as medieval understandings of identity. This paper is the result of a country-wide survey of the Old English place-name element dūn. Dūn has long been said to signify a hill of some sort, but also, as Gelling (1984) highlighted, to entail a settlement intrinsically within its core meaning. It is the precursor to the modern name reflex ‘down’ – an evolution in meaning which is almost tantamount to an inversion in meaning. Dūn is an oronym whose precise origin has long been a puzzle. Contemporaneous cognates in other Germanic historic languages are lacking. Yet, Gelling rejected the obvious possible influence from Celtic languages (see Irish Gaelic dún, Scots Gaelic dùn and Welsh and Cornish dīn) for the creation of this word in England. Kitson, on the other hand, felt that both meaning and linguistic form were too close for coincidence. Gelling and Cole (2000) suggested that an interpretive key to this element was its distinctive profile and topography, universally recognisable from afar, so uniform and consistent throughout England that a traveller might navigate by it. This paper is based on a study which has revisited their ideas. Employing an interdisciplinary approach with newly available datasets, the study combines linguistic analysis, field work, GIS-software, viewshed and topographic modelling, as well as archaeological, geological and historical data. The emerging results present a challenge to aspects of the Gelling and Cole ideas. Detailed analysis of the distribution patterns in dūn-names, the dates of first attestation, the peaks and troughs of name-coining and the kinds of qualifying elements with which dūn does or does not collocate, as well as archaeological, historical and topographical analysis, provide a huge amount more data with which to reassess this debate. What then is a dūn? is a question that can now be answered with improved clarity, with important implications for deepening understanding of medieval naming-practice and medieval settlement, as well as the evolution of a name-form throughout time.

Eleanor Rye ‘Old English and Old Scandinavian in contact: dialect-contact and place-names’

Until relatively recently, contact between speakers of Old English and Old Scandinavian was discussed in relation to language-contact frameworks that predominantly described outcomes of contact between speakers of unrelated or distantly related languages (Haugen 1950; Thomason and Kaufman 1988, 263–330). Place-names formed during the period of English-Scandinavian contact have also been discussed from this perspective (e.g., Ekwall 1918; Grant 2003; Rye 2016). However, more recently, contact between dialects has received scholarly attention (e.g., Trudgill 1986; Kerswill 2020). Studies of dialect contact have shown that the outcomes of dialect contact differ from those of unrelated or distantly related languages. Over twenty years ago, both Townend and Dawson and argued that there was sufficient mutual intelligibility between speakers of Old English and Old Scandinavian for English-Scandinavian contact to be considered as a form of dialect contact (Townend 2002; Dawson 2003). There has since been some discussion of English-Scandinavian contact from a dialect-contact perspective amongst linguists (Dance 2012, 1727; Warner 2017). However, there has been little consideration of the implications of Townend and Dawson’s arguments in relation to place-names formed in and after the period of English-Scandinavian contact. This paper will argue that considering English-Scandinavian contact from a dialect-contact perspective helps explain some of the linguistic forms visible in place-names. The paper will begin by considering what happens in dialect-contact situations and will then explore how taking a dialect-contact approach can help us understand some of the medieval place-name evidence. The evidence discussed will include both major place-names and minor place-names from north-west England.

Bibliography: Dance, R 2012. ‘English in Contact: Norse’, in A Bergs and L J Brinton (eds), English Historical Linguistics. An International Handbook, 1724–37, De Gruyter Mouton, Berlin. Dawson, H C 2003. ‘Defining the Outcome of Language Contact: Old English and Old Norse’, Ohio State University Working Papers in Linguistics, 57, 40–57. Ekwall, E 1918. Scandinavians and Celts in the North-West of England, Gleerup, Lund. Grant, A. 2003. 'Scandinavian Place-Names in Northern Britain as Evidence for Language Contact and Interaction’, University of Glasgow. Haugen, E 1950. ‘The Analysis of Linguistic Borrowing’, Language, 26, 210–31. Kerswill, P 2020. ‘Contact and New Varieties’, in R Hickey (ed), The Handbook of Language Contact, 241–59, Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester. Rye, E. 2016. 'Dialect in the Viking-Age Scandinavian Diaspora: The Evidence of Medieval Minor Names’, University of Nottingham. Thomason, S G, and T Kaufman 1988. Language Contact, Creolization, and Genetic Linguistics, University of California, Berkeley. Townend, M 2002. Language and History in Viking Age England: Linguistic Relations between Speakers of Old Norse and Old English, Brepols, Turnhout Trudgill, P 1986. Dialects in Contact, Blackwell, Oxford. Warner, A 2017. ‘English–Norse Contact, Simplification, and Sociolinguistic Typology’, Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, 118(2), 317–404.

Keith Briggs ‘Suffolk place-name project’

I have been collecting Suffolk place-name material for 20 years, and assembling it into an EPNS-style survey volume. This has now been accepted for publication by the EPNS, and will probably appear as four volumes within the next year or so. The organisation and representation of the data, and the final typesetting stage, use several innovative IT techniques which will be described.

Carole Hough ‘The Old English contribution to Scottish toponymy’

Within the rich and varied strata of Scottish toponymy, Old English is often difficult to differentiate not only from its Germanic sibling Old Norse and descendant Scots, but also from its Celtic neighbours Brittonic and Gaelic. The Leverhulme-funded project Recovering the Earliest English Language in Scotland (REELS) has made significant progress, but many ambiguities remain. This paper addresses some long-standing issues in the Scottish Borders and beyond. MacKenzie’s (1931, 119) derivation of Rutherford ROX and Rutherglen LAN from OE hrȳþer ‘cattle’ has not been supported by later scholarship. Williamson’s (1942, 169) suggestion of a Brittonic river-name tends to be preferred (e.g. BLITON; Nicolaisen 1970, 163), but other contenders include Brittonic roudo-s or ON rauðr, both meaning ‘red’, or (for Rutherglen) a Brittonic personal name Rydderch or Gaelic ruadh ‘red’. The generic of Rutherford is usually taken to be OE ford ‘ford’, and that of Rutherglen as either Brittonic glyn or Gaelic gleann, both meaning ‘valley’. None of the Celtic interpretations is fully consistent with historical spellings of the first element, but the perceived problem with an Old English origin, particularly for Rutherglen, is the ‘unlikely combination’ with a Celtic generic (Nicolaisen 1970, 163). Re-examination of the linguistic evidence, alongside comparison with other place-names in mainland Britain, supports a derivation of Rutherford and Rutherglen from OE hrȳþer ‘cattle’. It is unnecessary to posit a hybrid formation, since Gaelic gleann was borrowed into Scots as glen ‘valley’. Indeed, DOST cites Rutherglen as an example (s.v. glen, n.1). I therefore argue that both place-names derive from OE hrȳþer ‘cattle’ or an early Scots reflex. The generic of Dublin also has many relatives in the historical languages of Scotland. Three place-names in the REELS study area and others elsewhere are from Scots linn ‘waterfall’ or ‘pool (below a waterfall)’. The two meanings are taken to derive from separate origins in Old English and Gaelic respectively (e.g. DOST; OED; PNF5, 425). However, OE hlynn did not mean ‘waterfall’ but ‘noise’, with a transferred sense for a noisy river (DOE A–I). Gaelic linne, on the other hand, meant both ‘waterfall’ and ‘pool’ (Dwelly 2011). I therefore suggest that both meanings were borrowed into Scots from Gaelic, with no influence from Old English.

References: BLITON: The Brittonic Language in the Old North: A Guide to the Place-Name Evidence, 3 vols, Alan G. James, rev. 2023. DOE A–I: Dictionary of Old English: A to I online, ed. Angus Cameron, Ashley Crandell Amos, Antonette diPaolo Healey et al. (Toronto 2018). DOST: Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue, ed. William Craigie et al., 12 vols (Oxford 1937–2001), online at Dwelly, Edward. 2011. The Illustrated Gaelic-English Dictionary, 11th edn (Glasgow). Mackenzie, W. C. 1931. Scottish Place-Names (London) Nicolaisen, W. F. H. (ed.), 1970. The Names of Towns and Cities in Britain (London). OED: Oxford English Dictionary. PNF5: Taylor, Simon with Gilbert Márkus. 2012. The Place-Names of Fife. Vol. 5 (Donington). Williamson, May G. 1942. ‘The Non-Celtic Place-Names of the Scottish Border Counties’, PhD thesis (Edinburgh), online at

Chris Lewis ‘Helensburgh house-names of the later Victorian period’

The names given to houses in Britain between 1850 and the Second World War were immensely varied — geographically, chronologically, and by social class. One recurrent feature was the use of other domestic and foreign place-names (such as Galloway Cottage and Dargeeling sic House). This paper explores one small corner of the corpus of names by way of opening up some wider themes. It starts by briefly setting out the broad context of house-naming from places abroad, and then turns to the small town of Helensburgh on the Firth of Clyde. In the late Victorian period Helensburgh was characterized by large detached houses occupied by Glasgow business commuters, the newly retired, persons of independent means, and other well-off individuals. The corpus of about 600 names includes some houses of the earlier nineteenth century but primarily those built after the railway arrived in 1858. The house-name stock as a whole is distinctively Scottish, and uses Scottish local names in a different way from English house-naming practices. The main focus of the paper is houses named from foreign places (Matakanui, Omaha, and Taormina give a flavour) and the specific motivations of their owners in choosing names which often reflected their personal and family experiences in the wider world. The social history of the business and professional classes of Glasgow is deeply implicated in the names that were given.