Not agreeing to disagree over spelling…

It may seem petty to those outside the areas concerned, but even the spelling of place names in English can led to low level disputes. Linda McKee looks at some cases in Fermanagh.

  • Things aren’t too bad if all they’re agruing about is spelling.

    Eventually dem onionists will see the light and spell de places properly.

  • The blow in unionist population tends to go with what the colonial English authorities would have said, while the native nationalists would have used the alternative spelling.

    Enough said.

  • Hope this clears the strike through. Gotta go to the optomotrist so I can see Sweden score. Personally, I find the UK very offensive.
    Kevin Myers is in good form in today’s Indo. Blames Haughey for it all.

  • dodrade

    Another good example is Donemana/Dunamanagh In Tyrone. There are at least another two varations but I can’t remember them. The short version is the most popular.

  • Nevin

    Cloughmills Post Office is in Clogh Mills. It seems the locals ignore the official spelling and carry on using the form that’s been used for generations.

    Those who produced an Irish form for Bushmills have ignored the plural – as well as earlier names for the small town on the River Bush.

  • How about Cullaville/ Culloville?

    Another issue is that the names of areas and roads have emerged organically at a local level for years, but when the authorities find themselves attempting to erect signposts etc., there may not be any definitive spelling for said road/ area, especially where the name has been Anglicised over the years from an original Gaelic moniker.

    I would have thought the local community would be the best arbiter on the spelling of local places, rather than some deskbound fellow at the DoE.

  • Stephen Copeland

    El Matador,

    I wish you were right, but you’re not. In my part of the world the ‘local community’ got European Funding (Leader Programme, I think) to put up townland name signs. They were chisseled out of stone, so will last for hundreds of years. But they’re wrong in many cases! They are wrong according to the map, according to their linguistic origins, and even in terms of local pronunciation. The twit who carved them simply noted down on the back of an envelope the names read out over the phone, never checked them, and carved what he thought was right. It is a mess. Most local people, being mostly farmers with a lowish level of education, don’t seem to really notice or care. As a linguistically and historically aware person, though, it annoys me. Some dark night I will take out my sledge-haammer ….

  • Rory

    Whatever of place names I should be very sad if that moment, when a frustrated contributor to this site is reduced to traducing his opponent’s arguments by casting doubt on his intellect because of his spelling, is ever to cease.

    The recent “has went/has gone/ have gone” kerfaddle on the “bonefires” thread kept me chuckling all morning. Herself thought I’d gone mad. So nothing new there then.

  • Sam

    They should put up the orignal Irish Gaelic placename spelling alongside the English renditions on roadsigns, just like they do with Welsh all throughout Wales and Scots Gaelic in the western parts of Scotland. It’s a part of our culture WE ALL share. Welsh, Scots, Irish, and Manx.

    But alas, some people can be so ignorant of the fact! :o(

  • idunnomeself

    I doubt that there was originally a Unionist/ Nationalist perspective to this, but perhaps it has become entwined through time.

    The OS recorded the names (using an English phonetic system) over 150 years ago. Often before then there was no ‘official’ or agreed spelling. Often they picked one of many options. These were transferred to the maps. locals continued to use local spellings and in many cases I have no doubt the spellings changed more as local knowledge of Irish eroded.

    There are villages in Ireland where the sign at one end of the village is spelt differently than the sign at the other. Where everyone spells a townland differently than the way it is on the map (more often than not the OS version is ‘more correct’ linguistically than the local version, because the OS employed Irish speaking academics to record the names and they tended to ‘correct’ the spellings used locally)

    And they definately looked for Irish origins for unusual names, so ‘Kirk’ names were recorded as ‘Kil’ because this was Ireland so they assumed placenames would be from Irish, rather than Scots.

    So there you go, the OS saved the Irish names, and local versions are more likely to be ‘less accurate’ (academically speaking) than official ones

  • My all time favorite English cartography fuckup is not even in Northern Ireland. It is Poison Valley in Donegal over by Mount Errigal.

    The next best is one of our puritanical coverups. Puta Creek over north of Vacaville in Solano County was renamed Putah Creek. Just whoring for phonics.

  • páid

    This phenomenon of having an “English” Anglicized official version and an “Irish” Anglicized version is found outside of Fermanagh.

    Ennistymon and Ennistimon, Lahinch and Lehinch, Cahirciveen and Cahirsiveen.

    I detect a pattern.

    The “Irish” version is usually closer to the local pronunciation, and the Irish spelling.

    I think it is a Nationalist nod to the original name, but the underminers haven’t the moral courage, or indeed the linguistic ability, to go the whole hog and call it and spell it by it’s Irish name.

    Níl fós ar aon chaoi.

  • Donnacha

    My own favourite re-naming is Vinegar Hill in Enniscorthy. Originally Cnoc Fiodh na gCaor (Hill of the wild berries) it was anglicised into something that wound up the opposite on the taste spectrum from the original. Mind you, I remeber the Gaelic version of Enniscorthy itself being spelt differently on at least three town signposts, so it’s hardly a problem unique to Norn Iron.

  • Rory

    Brian Friel’s play Translations is situated during the period of the first ordnance survey in Donegal and deals beautifully with this topic. I swear that after only The Playboy of the Western World it is the greatest Irish play ever written and as Synge’s masterpiece is regarded by a strong section of the theatre world as the greatest play ever yet written in the English language (yes! Including Lear and Hamlet) that is a hell of a compliment. But, if you have not, please try and see it for yourself and then judge.

  • idunnomeself


    Friel might have written a good play about relationships, but the historical background is rubbish.

    The placenames weren’t recorded by English soldiers, but by Irish speakers (academic antiqitarians), who were accused of being Nationalist at the time. Friel’s play caused uproar and consternation among Irish placename academics because it is so totally inaccurate and has lead to widespread public misunderstanding of their subject.

    As I have said nothing to do with Nationalist undermining, everything to do with trying to set in stone in 1840 something that until then had been fluid. If it helps the same thing has happened in ‘unionist’ areas

  • Rory


    My take on Friel’s play was that he uses the background of the recording and catalogueing of place names to develop themes of misunderstanding in human communication and, through the ensuing tragedy that results, reinforces the importance of overcoming such misunderstanding.

    The hedge school master, consulted by the English ordnance officer in charge of the exercise, surely represents your ” antiquarian academics” just as the officer represents the figure of the outside academic translator and the footsoldiers, who comically get things wrong, illustrate how sloppiness can creep in. Such dramatic devices are a mainstay of theatrical writing since the hey-day of the dramatists of ancient Greece.

    If the academics were driven to “uproar and consternation” I can only suggest that they try and get out a wee bit more or perhaps intersperse their chosen academic efforts with the odd foray into literature.

    But then Friel is in good company, Synge seemed to cause similar fury among the antiquarian academics and his reputation remains, not only intact but, internationally acclaimed.

  • Nevin
  • idunnomeself


    As Nevin points out the names WERE NOT collected by English soldiers, rather by Irish academics. IE the men who worked for the Survey spoke Irish, and collected names by talking to local knowledgable people. The whole line of thought visible on this thread that the Survey and naming process was part of some English plot to de-Gaelisice Ireland is totally untrue.

    As Nolan says ‘we remember the heroic rescue work accomplished by O’Curry and O’Donovan some one hundred and fifty eight years ago’

    The Surveyors saved the Irish names, they didn’t remove them.

    I don’t think Friel used this as a literary device, I think he was a Derry man and the play tells you more about present day politics and what people today WANT history to be.

    And also his play is regularly cited (not just on this thread) as evidence about what happened, when it is blatently untrue.

  • Sam

    “The Surveyors saved the Irish names, they didn’t remove them.” idunnomyself

    Then why didn’t they keep them in their original Irish spelling? If the map makers were Irish speakers themselves then surely there was no need to Anglicise them and write them down phonetically!

  • idunnomeself

    cecause the language of teh maps was english

    and the Irish system used at the time wasn’t like it is now, it was totally different. The one now is reasonably similair, the one then wasn’t