Field names project ploughs ahead with fascinating insights

A field names project in Westmeath is ploughing ahead, collecting names from individuals in the county, as circumstances allow during the coronavirus outbreak, with an update published as part of Heritage Week.

The project began in the summer of 2018 with two community groups, Taghmon Women’s Group and Drumraney Heritage Society. Over 700 field names were collected in that first year, said Dr. Aengus Finnegan from University of Limerick (UL), co-ordinator of the project.

“Since 2019, we have worked with a further 11 groups from all over the county: Fore; Collinstown; Kinnegad; Mount Temple; Rochfortbridge; Ballymore; Loughnavalley; Multyfarnham; Tang; Coole; and Rosemount.”


Over 100 volunteers have been involved in the project since last year and 1,400 field names have been collected from 70 townlands. A further 80 field names have been transcribed from historic estate maps; the registry of deeds; local newspapers; and other sources.

The project is funded by the heritage council, Creative Ireland and Westmeath county council. County heritage officer Melanie McQuade has provided invaluable support which has ensured the project’s progress to date, said Aengus Finnegan, who is assisted by Michelle Dunne, Dublin City University (DCU) and Justin Ó Gliasáin, also DCU.

Local community groups or individuals interested in collecting field names in Westmeath can make contact with the county heritage officer or the project co‐ordinator.

“We are looking for names and pronunciations current in the oral tradition which may only be known to the landowner or a handful of individuals, and have not been recorded in written sources,” said Aengus.

Volunteers often start with their own farms, or the farms of neighbours and relatives and then broaden out to cover the field names in a whole townland or a couple of neighbouring townlands.

About 150 Irish language names, or names that contain an Irish element, were recorded in phase 2 and 3.

“The word ‘boreen’, a borrowing into English of Irish bóithrín ‘little road’ accounts for 11 of these. One example is Moran’s Boreen, in Dungolman, Ballymore,” said Aengus.

“Another example is Duff’s Kesh, in Lakill and Moortown, near Fore. Duff is a surname, and ceis is a fairly common word in placenames and means ‘wattled causeway’. In this case, it refers to a foot stick which crosses a drain between two townlands,” he said.

“The Irish for hedgehog, gráinneog, is a commonly used word in Westmeath, at least among the older generation. The Gráinneog Hill, Derrynagarragh, Collinstown, is a small round hill covered in furze which in contrast with the surrounding green pasture, resembles a hedgehog,” Aengus said.

Irish language nicknames

A number of Irish language nicknames were collected in Multyfarnham, which were used in the 1960s, with some still in evidence, suggesting a sufficient traditional knowledge of Irish vocabulary persisted at that time for oblique references to personal traits by using Irish words to be understood locally, the co-ordinator said.

Irish diminutive or pet forms of personal names were found, for example, Nansheen’s Garden, in Ballinlig Upper, Ballymore, from Neainsín ‘little Nancy’.

“Another name featuring a word probably borrowed from Irish is the Skelps in Mullaghcloe, called Skelps because it had small drains running across it similar to when they skelped potatoes for sowing,” said Aengus.

When field names which include borrowings of Irish words and personal names are excluded, about 8.5% of the names collected in 2019-20 are of Irish origin, he said. “These names are probably older and are carryovers from a time when Irish was a community language in many parts of Westmeath.”

An example of this kind of name, Aengus said, is Cluoun a Buí, in Ballymore, from Cluanach Buí ‘place of pastures’. “The majority of these names are topographical – they tell us something about the physical or natural features of the landscape.

“One interesting name of this type is Mullinagress Hill, in Derrynagarragh, Collinstown, collected by the late Billy Connell. It is the name of the highest hill in the townland.

“The name is also recorded in the Schools’ Folklore Collection of 1937/38 as Mullanagruss hill. It is the site of a mound barrow and the first part of the name seems to be mullán ‘elevated ground, hillock’. The full name may be Mullán na gCros ‘hillock of the crosses’,” said Aengus.

Other Irish topographical names recorded in 2019 and this year include: the Sceichín ‘little whitethorn’; the Currach, ‘the moor’; Móitín ‘little mound’; many examples of Móinín ‘little bog’: the Mullagh from An Mullach ‘the hilltop’; and Glannarinna, probably Gleann na Rinne, ‘valley of the promontory’.

“The Camóg, ‘the little crooked one’, is the name of a tiny stream, which has just a single bend in its course, near Coole. Another example is Shannonroe boreen, a small road which runs northwards down a steep hill from the village of Coole towards the townland of Mullagh,” Aengus said.

“Irish names which indicate old settlements or house clusters are also fairly common, for example Ballinamona Bog ‘townland of the bogland’, Bliary, Athlone. There are numerous fields called Caltra from cealtrach ‘old burial ground’. Some of these may have been used in the past as burial places for unbaptised children,” said Aengus.

Farm animals

“Some field names make reference to the farm animals kept in them such as High Ard na mBó ‘height/hillock of the cows’, and Little Ard na mBó ‘height/hillock of the cows’, in Cummerstown [Collinstown], though most of these kind of names are English, for example, the Bull Paddock, Derrynagarragh.

“Others reference local wildlife, such as Cluain na gCoinín ‘pasture of the rabbits’ also in Cummerstown. Páircín which simply means ‘little field’ is a fairly common name,” said the co-ordinator.

“A few other interesting Irish names which relate to soils and the use of the land are: Durb Buidhe, Ballinlig Upper, Ballymore, perhaps from Dáb Buí ‘yellow daub or subsoil’; the Bogán ‘soft ground’ in Noughaval, Tang – the soil is peaty – and Big Pull‐in-Ear and Little Pull‐in‐Ear in Snimnagorta, Ballymore, perhaps from Poll an Aoil ‘hole/pit of the lime‘. Lime for manuring was often produced locally in the past,” Aengus said.

Four fields called the Slang – a long narrow strip of land – were recorded this year, three in the Ballymore area and one near Multyfarnham.

Beating, another English dialect word, is found in ‘the Baten Field’, Knockacurra, near Horseleap, Aengus said.

Beating refers to the practice of paring off the scraw or top surface of the land and burning it to enrich the soil before tilling. This was a common, if frowned upon, practice in the days before the availability of artificial manures. This word was also borrowed into Irish as béitín, with the same meaning.

“The Bleach is a field in Templepatrick, Ballymore. A bleach or bleach green was a dry sunny field used to bleach linen produced from locally grown flax in the sun. The same word occurs in the Bleach Yard, in nearby Harrystown,” Aengus said.

“In Milltown, also in the Ballymore area, there is a steep‐sided pit called the Flax Hole. Retting involved the steeping of flax in such places for a period of time to separate the fibres through decomposition. The Flax Field was recorded in Rathcam or Lemonfield, near Rochfortbridge.

“A slough is an area of churned up ground or a swamp – just one example has been recorded so far, the Black Slough, in Knockacurra. The Beech Quick, Ballymacallen, is ‘a raised ditch with a stony surface and flanked by beech trees’. Quicks are young trees/plants for setting a hedge – again this is a word which is less used than heretofore,” Aengus said.

“Furze – Ulex – the striking yellow flowers of which can often be seen on steep hill slopes, is found in field names collected all over the county such as: the Furze, Coleman’s Furze and Furry Hill. In one case, a field has two names, Whins Field and the Furze. Whin is a common name of Ulex in the northern half of the country, but furze is the usual word in Westmeath,” said the co-ordinator.

Preserving beer

“A very common name is the Bottoms, referring to low‐lying land. Two examples of the Hopyard were recorded. The flowers of the hop plant are an important agent for flavouring and preserving beer. There must have been a tradition of brewing in the county in the relatively recent past,” Aengus said.

“Other common names relating to local industries include the Forge Field, Sawpit, Sandhole. A field called Marble Hole is named after the marl or white clay found in the area, also used as a manuring agent in the past.

“The Track of the Iron or the Smoothing Iron is a field in Keenoge, near Ballymore, referring to the shape of the field and seems to be a common field name in many parts of Ireland. There are also numerous examples of three corner fields and other names relating to the shape of fields such as the Long Field in Clogher, Tang,” said Aengus.

A wide range of crops are referenced in Cabbage Garden, Black Oats Field, Barley Garden, Wheat Field and the Beet Field. A few examples of The Hanging Field were collected – usually steeply sloping or overhanging fields though later traditions of gallows have often developed,” the co-ordinator said.

“Wild fruit and berries common in field boundary ditches are mentioned in Sloe Hill and the Crab Tree.

“The Dog’s Hollow is a dip on the road near Ballymore, said to be haunted by the spectre of a black dog. An unusual field name from the same area is ‘The auld lassie’s house’ in Dungolman, with the ruins of a house in this small three-corner field,” said Aengus.