Celebrating Ulster's Townlands



Signpost: Introduction

  The Ulster Place-Name Society and place-name study in Northern Ireland

Logo: Townlands

Interpreting the origin and meaning of place-names was a respected branch of study in early Ireland. Some 16th-century maps of Ireland have a table listing frequent terms in Irish place-names with their meanings. These clearly interested the 17th-century surveyor William Petty, although he considered once the meaning was known that all the names should be translated into English. Scientific and antiquarian interest inspired the 1830s Ordnance Survey to take the place-names seriously, and the Irish scholar John O' Donovan was employed to work out the original Irish form of townland names. Later in the 19th century P.W. Joyce published his 3-volume study Irish Names of Places, still the most important work on the whole island.

The voluntary Ulster Place-Name Society was set up by members of Queen's University department of Celtic and others in 1952, shortly followed by the official Place-Names Branch of the Ordnance Survey in the Republic of Ireland in 1956. The official address of the Society is still c/o Celtic Studies, School of Modern Languages, QUB, and there are currently over 100 members (subscription 10 in 1999). The society produces a journal, now called Ainm ("Name"), and there are public lectures in Belfast in May and November each year. The aim of the society is to undertake a survey of Ulster place-names and to share knowledge among its members.


 In 1987 the Department of the Environment in Northern Ireland gave money to Queen's University for a survey on local place-names. This unit, The Northern Ireland Place-Name Project, was to build up a computer database of information on all the place-names appearing on the Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland 1:50,000 scale map, thus fulfilling the aims of the Ulster Place-Name Society. Since most but not all of the names began in Irish Gaelic the research project was located in the Department of Celtic. In 1990 responsibility was passed to the Central Community Relations Unit, who asked for books to be published from the research. By 1997, when government funding ended, seven books had been produced in the Place-Names of Northern Ireland series, on parts of Counties Down, Antrim and Derry. 

Five people thus lost their jobs, and it was hard to find funding for such a large project from anywhere else. Two researchers found temporary support. Dr Patrick McKay got money from Iontaobhas Ultach and the Community Relations Council, to write his Dictionary of Ulster Place-Names, forthcoming in 1999. Dr Kay Muhr got a grant from the Millenium Lottery Fund, supported in kind by DOENI EHS, to produce this exhibition. We also acknowledge help from the Ultach Trust, Dungannon and Moyle Councils, and two smaller fellowships from CRC.

Finally in 1999 the Project secured a major research grant from the UK Arts and Humanities Research Board, for these two researchers, supported by secretary Mary A. Conway, to work for five years towards public release of the entire place-name database for Northern Ireland, including explanations of the names. The text of this exhibition was compiled from the database and is a foretaste of what is there. But we still need knowledge from each place to combine with what has been collected from documents. We hope that some of those who enjoyed the exhibition will volunteer, in good Ulster Place-Name Society tradition, to help make the picture whole.


Kay Muhr, Chairman, Ulster Place-Name Society, 1999