#412 Living your geography (30)

One of the first things I had to learn fairly quickly when I moved to Ireland was a whole new set of places and names. It’s quite amazing how much of such knowledge you take for granted growing up in one place even if you are never forced to learn your fifty states and state capitals by rote. Information seeps into you through every day interactions. In the absence of such context, you are often left in ignorance of the deeper shades of the conversation in which you are partaking. Talking to your colleagues you’re desperately trying to place in your frame of reference roughly what images and associations you should have when discussing a holiday trip to Schull versus a shopping trip to Newry. For starters, you’ll need to exchange some currency if you go to Newry but try not to start discussing whether it’s (technically) in another country or not. That’s not polite conversation. And is it Derry or Londonderry?

Fortunately, if perhaps slightly stressful for me, my employment quickly gave me a crash course in Irish place names. Four provinces, twenty six counties in the Republic, another six up north, twenty four post codes in Dublin… typing out correspondence for busy solicitors filled my head with names, even if I couldn’t place them on a map. Then there were the Irish equivalent names, and the initials of counties on vehicle registration plates. It is not an instant process, but the cultural references slowly seep into your subconsciousness. My second job, where I’ve now been for over a decade, deals with organisations big and small all over the country, from big cities, to blink-and-you-miss-it tiny villages in the countryside. Again though, I was quickly learning names without a geographical context until I started travelling more around Ireland.

And that’s where the fun began. All those place names began acquiring greater context. Kilmeaden was just a cheese until we took a holiday to Cork. Schull is actually pronounced “Skull” and not “Shuul”. Laois is a county and Portlaoise is a city and no, I don’t know why one needs an “e” at the end even though though they sound the same. Rathangan and Rathdangan are different villages in adjacent counties (the prefix “rath” coming from the Irish word for prehistoric ring forts liberally scattered throughout the country). There are a million and one names beginning with “Bally” as well, which you soon learn comes from the Irish “Baile na” meaning “place of”. So the town of Ballyjamesduff was literally “The Place of James Duff”. Who was James Duff? I don’t but clearly someone who at some point in the past was of local prominence. The English conversion of many Irish names to English also created a haven for confused spelling which is not ideal when you’re trying to use a 21st century database to keep track of clients but you can’t decide if it should be spelled as “Tyrrelstown”, “Tyrellstown”, or “Tyrrellstown” as you’ve seen all variations! There are place names with “Four Mile”, “Six Mile” and “Eight Mile” in their titles, so someone clearly had run out of ideas there. And then there are the funny names that are highly suggestive and make you want to find out their etymology. Burnchurch? Kilmacow? “Who dun it? Who killed mah damn cow???!”

I speak in jest of course, but when you don’t grow up with these names this is what goes through your mind as you absorb this knowledge as an adult. Now that I’m on holidays, I’m indulging in some uninterrupted time to put together a few jigsaw puzzles, and my newest one is a “vintage” map of Ireland. I haven’t dated it yet, though I can tell at least pre-dates Irish independence as there’s no sign of Counties Laois and Offaly, having been previously known as King’s and Queen’s Counties. Many of the towns and villages that are named are as they are now and poring over the image of the map with individual pieces trying to locate a specific name has been bringing up all the associations I have accumulated over the last thirteen or fourteen years living here. I can’t hear the word “Kilmeaden” without hearing “the fillet of cheese” in my mind thanks to their advertising slogan. Spiddal is forever associated in my mind with Brendan Gleeson and Don Cheadle in The Guard. “Castleisland” is a legal precedent. I can’t even hear the name “Burgess” (a town in Tipperary) without thinking of The Snapper and Colm Meany saying it in my head over and over.

Carbury, Mountmellick, Glanmire, Borris-in-Ossory, Liscarroll, Ratoath, Foxford… My eye glides over the names and each one instantly connects to some piece of professional work or client I’ve encountered over the last number of years. Some are more memorable than others, but because those memories were formed before I ever heard of the places, the associations are permanent and immediate. I cannot pore over a map of Ireland without thinking of work.

It’s time to go to bed so the incomplete puzzle will be wrapped up carefully and stored until I can come back to it another day. I of course can’t resist putting down just one more piece. It’s highly addictive. In my mind thoughts flow one after another – the coastline of Kerry is simply teeming with labels, while the northern counties have a noticeable amount of space around the names. While towns around Dublin are all in small letters to make as many of them fit as possible, the names in Connaught and Ulster have definitely been enlarged somewhat to try and occupy more empty space. Not quite “here be dragons” territory, but The Mister’s voice springs to mind from when he first brought me over to visit family in Manorhamilton back when his parents were living there: “Leitrim has the highest number of pubs per capita in all of Ireland. You can literally fit the entire population of Leitrim into all of its pubs.” I have never sought to very this piece of information but I would well believe it.


This brings to an end my 30 days of literary advent. I am working on a plan to continue the momentum two or three times a week in the new year. Stay tuned!

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