The townland is a unique feature of the Irish landscape and is one of the most ancient divisions in the country. They predate the Norman Invasion of the 12th century.
The size of the townland was generally related to the quality of the land, areas of good land having more townland divisions than areas of poor land. There are over 60,000 townlands in Ireland and anything from around five to thirty can be grouped together to form a parish. In the past, the value of land was often measured in terms of how it would support cattle, so people talked about having “a cow’s grass”, that is being able to feed one cow for a year. Upland areas were used for common pasturage and the movement of cattle onto higher ground in the summer was known as ‘booleying’ – from the Irish word buaile ‘summer pasture’. It was still practised in parts of Ireland until the 1940s. The word ‘townland’ was coined to translate the Irish term baile fearainn. It is a combination of the word baile, which originally meant a ‘farmstead or settlement’ but has now come to mean ‘a town or village’ and the term fearainn which means ‘land, territory, quarter’.
Naming our Hills
The source of many of our placenames lies in our Gaelic past. Divis, Carnmoney, Colin and Slievenacloy have retained versions of their older Gaelic names. The ridge behind Collin mountain is called Slievenagravery ~ Sliabh na gCreabhairí ‘the mountain of the woodcocks’, birds which thrive in moist woodlands and bogs. Older names for some of the other hills have also survived; Mullaghglass ~An Mullach Glas ‘the green hill top’ became Boomer’s Hill; Altnakey~Alt na Cuaiche ‘the valley of the cuckoo’ became Armstrong’s Hill. Cuckoos can still be heard amongst its scrub and hedgerows as they scan for meadow pipit nests across the mosses and heather of Divis and Standing Stones Hill.
Wolf Hill gets its name from the tradition that the last wolf in Ireland was killed there in 1692. However, 17th century documentation offers us a number of earlier names such as Sleughtinermore ~ Sleacht an Fhir Mhóir ‘the cairn of the big man or giant’ which got its name from a standing stone or commemorative cairn on its slopes. According to Irish folklore bad luck and misfortune followed those who tampered with these stones.
The striking landscape of the hills inevitably features in their townland names. Some describe the physical characteristics, including the very rock that makes the hills, while other reflect mankind’s influence on the landscape. The dark basalt of the hills and the contrasting chalk is reflected in the English names Black Mountain and (the much later) Whiterock, and also in the Irish names Divis ~ Dubhais ‘black ridge’ and Ligoniel ~ Lag an Aoil ‘the hollow of the limestone’.
|achadh||field||garraí||garden or small field|
|alt||steep valley or hill||lag||hollow|
|cloch||castle||mullach||hill (usually rounded)|
|collann||mountain, hill, slope||poll||hole or hollow|
|dún||fort||tor||height or rocky hill|
The range of trees in the foothills are evident in the townlands names which include references to trees such as saileán ‘willows or ‘sallies’, fearn ‘alder’, doire ‘oak’, coll ‘hazel’ and muine ‘thicket or scrub wood’. Trees have been important to the Irish from earliest times. In the fifth century, the creators of the first Irish alphabet, called Ogham, even named their letters after trees.
|FearnAlderCloghfern||The alder was associated with war and death. This may be because its white wood turns red when cut. It was traditionally used to make shields. Other uses included the making of containers and charcoal and the use of the bark and catkins to make dye.|
|CollHazelCollinward||The hazel is associated with fertility, wisdom, and mystical knowledge. It was noted for its powers to protect against evil. Its nuts were used as a source of food and its wood for making furniture, fencing and wickerwork.|
|DairOakBudore||The oak is a symbol of strength, fertility, kingship and endurance. It was also associated with magic and the otherworld: a circle drawn with an oak sapling was thought to protect a person from the fairies. Its wood was used for many purposes from the making of ships to barrels while its bark was used for tanning leather and making black dye.|
|SaileánWillowBallysillan||The willow was associated with fertility and life, and with celebrations at St. Patrick’s Day and Palm Sunday. The Irish harp was traditionally made from willow and its wood was also used for wickerwork and to make household implements.|
The name of the large Iron Age rath of Dunnaney Fort, or Nancy’s Fort, is probably from the Irish Dún Áine meaning ‘the fort of Áine’. She was an ancient Irish sun-goddess who was associated with summer, love and fertility. Her name means brightness or radiance. Fire rituals were performed in her honour on hilltops up until the late 19th century. In some parts of Ireland she was thought to have been the Queen of the Fairies.
Some names reflect the Christian heritage of the hills such as Templepatrick (the church of St Patrick) and Shankill (the old church), two of the five civil parishes which converge on the Belfast hills. It is also likely that Budore ‘hut or cell of oak’ refers to the site of an early Christian hermitage and that Bolgan Well at Slievenacloy and the townland of Bovolgan ~Both Bholgáin ‘the hut of Bolgán’ also echo Christian traditions. Some scholars have suggested that the latter are named after St Olcan, a contemporary of St Patrick normally associated with the Dál Riata of north Antrim.
Although a 15th century Irish source calls it Beann Uamha ‘the hill of the cave’, its more common name was Beann Mhadagáin, and Mac Art’s Fort was Dún Mhadagáin. They were both named after Matudán (†857 AD), a king of the Ulaidh (Ull-ee), the tribe which gave its name to Ulster.
Ben Madigan has long been associated with The O’Neills of Clandeboy who controlled the area from the 14th century until Elizabethan times. In 1556 the Earl of Sussex was told that in Ben Vadagan … there ‘is a great cave where is the treasure of the country of Clandeboy’. The O’Neills of northern Clandeboy were inaugurated at McArt’s Fort which lies in the townland of Ballyaghagan. This townland is named after the Ó hEachaidhín family, who for several hundred years acted as hereditary bards to the O’Neills. As their patrons disappeared or lost their land, these bards descended into obscurity, and most of them changed their name to Hagan or Hawkins. A few became clergymen, others became highwaymen. The most famous of these was Neece O’Haughian, who haunted the hills of Antrim from the Braid to Colin Mountain until he was caught and hanged at Carrickfergus in 1720. His treasure is said to be buried in the Belfast Hills, five jumps to the east of a spot where you can see five castles, five loughs and five counties.
|Altigarron||Alt na nGearrán||‘glen of the horses or geldings’|
|Ballyaghagan||Baile Uí Eachaidhin||‘O’Haughian’s townland’|
|Ballybought||An Baile Bocht||‘the poor townland’|
|Ballycollin||Baile Collann||‘townland of Collann (hill)’|
|Ballycullo||Baile Cú Uladh||‘Cú Uladh’stownland’|
|Ballydownfine||Baile Dhún Fionn||‘townland of the white fort‘|
|Ballyduff||Baile Mhic Giolla Dhuibh||‘MacIlduff’s townland’|
|Ballygolan||Baile an Ghabhláin||‘townland of the fork’|
|Ballygomartin||Baile Gharraí Mháirtín||‘townland of Martin’s garden or enclosed field’|
|Ballymagarry||Baile an Gharraí||‘townland of the garden or enclosed field’|
|Ballymoney||Baile Maighe Muine||‘townland of the plain of the thicket’|
|Ballymurphy||Baile Uí Mhurchú||‘(O’) Murphy’s townland’|
|Ballysillan||Baile na Saileán||‘townland of the willow groves’|
|Ballyutoag||Baile Uchtóg||‘townland of the slopes’|
|Ballyvaston||Baile Bhastúin||‘Weston’s townland’|
|Black Mountain||An Sliabh Dubh||‘black mountain’|
|Budore||Both Dara||‘hut or cell of oak’|
|Carnmoney||Carn Monaidh||‘cairn hill’|
|Carnmoney||Gléib Charn Monaidh||‘Glebe of cairn hill’, glebe refers to land set aside for the upkeep of the clergy|
|Collinward||Coll an Bhaird||‘hazel of the bard’|
|Croghfern||Currach Fearna||‘moor or bog of elder’|
|Drumnadrough||Droim na gCruach||‘ridge of the stacks’|
|Dunanney||Dún Áine||‘Áine’s fort’|
|Englishtown||may have been named in contrast to Hannahstown which was thought to be ‘Scottish’|
|Glengormley||Gleann Ghormlaithe||‘the descendants of Gormlaith’, ‘clann was corrupted to glen at some point|
|Greencastle||Cloch Mhic Coisteala in Irish||‘Costello’s stone castle’|
|Hannahstown||Baile Haine||‘Hannah’s townland’|
|Lagmore||An Lag Mór||‘the great hollow’|
|Legoniel||Lag an Aoil||‘hollow of the lime’|
|Low Wood||Lios Tulaí Airde||‘fort of the high mound’|
|Mullaghglass||An Mullach Glas||‘the green hill top’|
|Poleglass||An Poll Glas||‘the green hole or hollow’|
|Slievenacloy||Sliabh na Cloiche||‘townland of the stone’|
|Slievenagravery||Sliabh na gCreabhairí||‘townland of the woodcocks’|
|Tom of the Tae-End||From Scots||‘a large haggis or the skin in which it is stuffed’|
|Tornagrough||Tor na gCruach||‘rocky hill of the stacks/peaks’|
|Tornaroy||Tor na Rua||‘rocky hill of the red animals’ (possibly deer or squirrels)|
Non Townland names
|Altcomynow obsolete||Alt Coma||‘glen of the hollow or valley’|
|Altnakey||Alt na Cuaiche||‘glen of the cuckoo’|
|Aughnabrack||Achadh na mBréach orAchadh na mBreac||‘field of the wolves’ or ‘field of rocky outcrops’|
|Bulgan Well||Tobar Bholgáin||‘Bolgan’s well’, a well dedicated to St. Olcan|
|Drumacloghan||Droim an Chlocháin||‘ridge of the stepping stones’|
|Levogan bog||An Bogán||‘the wet, marshy place’|
|Slewrageuragh Mountain||Sliabh na gCaorach||‘sheep mountain’|
|Sleughtinermore||Sleacht an Fhir Mhóir||‘memorial cairn of the big man or giant’|
|Stonyford River||English placename|
|White Mountain||English name||Varestoy was also used and may be a version of Carn Tuaidh ‘north cairn’|
|Yellow Jack’s Cairn||Carn Sheáin Bhuí||‘the cairn of yellow-haired Shane’|