The jackdaw’s high ground

Townland tales

VIEW FROM THE TOP Knock airport’s runway.

The meaning behind Knock airport’s townlands is far from straight forward


John O'Callaghan

Connacht Regional Airport (popularly known as ‘Knock Airport’, the brainchild of the celebrated parish priest of Knock, Monsignor James Horan, is located in and around the townlands of Barnacahoge and Barnalyra. The former name … is now generally pronounced as if it were Barr na Cúige and interpreted accordingly – but mistakenly – as ‘top of the province’.
— Ó Muraíle: Nótaí (1990).

Irish words for subdivisions and fractions of land such as ‘leath’ (half), ‘trian’ (third), ‘ceathrú’ (quarter) and ‘cúige’ (fifth) survive in many townland names. In Mayo, we have nearly two hundred townlands with ‘Ceathrú’, anglicised to ‘Carrow’ or ‘Carra’, in the name. There are several ‘Trean’ names also such as Treanlaur and there are three townlands in Mayo called Coogue (from cúige). We even have a ‘dhá-dTrian’, Dadreen, near Thallabawn at the foot of Mweelrea.
The Irish word ‘cúige’ has two meanings. It can mean a ‘fifth’ or a ‘province’. The two words are intrinsically linked in Ireland because at one time there were five provinces: Munster, Ulster, Leinster, Connacht and Meath. In a sixth-century folktale, set in Tara, ‘Trefuilgnid’, the ‘triple-bearer of the three keys’, maintained ‘learning belonged to Connacht, war in Ulster, wealth in Leinster, the arts in Munster and royalty in Meath’ – hence to this day Meath is called ‘the Royal County’, although it is no longer a province.    
The original name for what is now Ireland West Airport – Knock was Connaught Regional Airport. Two other names, Knock International Airport (KIA) and Horan International, were used briefly in the past, but nowadays the airport we all call ‘Knock’ (NOC is the international abbreviation) is officially known as Ireland West Airport.
During the construction of the airport in the early 1980s, the canny and astute Monsignor James Horan (1911-1986), whose brainchild it was, made it widely known that the airport terminal and main runway were located in the townland of Barrnacúige. Adopting the maxim of not letting the truth get in the way of a good marketing story, it suited him perfectly that the airport was at ‘the top of the province’ and everyone in the locality maintained that on a clear day you ‘could see five counties from it’.
In actual fact the airport is situated in the townland of Kilgarriff West, An Choill Gharbh Thiar, meaning ‘The Rough Wood, West’. The adjacent townland, directly to the west of the airport, is Barrnalyra, Barr na Laidhre, ‘The High Ground of The Fork’ (i.e. the place between two prongs of a stream/river.
A larger townland that borders Barrnalyra and slightly further west again is called Barrnacahoge, Barr na Cáóige, or ‘The High Ground of the Jackdaw’. It is this latter name that became associated with and interpreted as ‘Barr na Cúige’ – and of course the corresponding translation of ‘province’ became far more acceptable than the rather mundane ‘jackdaw’ or ‘fork’, or ‘rough wood’ for that matter.
The late Desmond Fennel, in his 1987 book, ‘A Connacht Journey’, describes how he flew from Manchester to Connaught Regional Airport in July 1986, with his bicycle in the hold, to begin a cycling tour of the province. He got great mileage out of this topic, trying to pinpoint the airport to a specific townland in the locality. He even came up with his own meanings of Barr na Cathóige.
Believing Cathóg [to be an] Ulster word, he took it to mean the cross-piece on the handle of a spade or large shovel, which makes a T-shape with the handle –  and so translated Barr na Cathóige as ‘The ridge of the cathóg’ or ‘the T-shaped ridge’.
Fennel looked around to see if he could discern anything resembling this in the landscape, and he interviewed several local residents about his theory. He finally concluded, having read ‘Barr na Cáthóige’ on a plaque on a local school wall, that ‘as often happens with placenames, but especially when there is a language change, ‘na Cathóige’ had been slurred with time into na C’óige, and had later become na Cúige.
In 1838, John O’Donovan offered ‘the Summit or Top of the Battle’ as a possible meaning because the Irish word ‘cath’ does mean battle, and yet another word, ‘cabhóg’ can translate to ‘havoc’ or plundering, pillaging or ransacking.
Finally, Fiachra Mac Gabhann quotes Nollaig Ó Muraíle, the leading Irish Language scholar, who, in 1990, in his ‘Notes’ (to Mayo placenames), suggested ‘cáóg’ or jackdaw as the meaning and ‘the High Ground of the Jackdaw’ as the placename.
This is one good illustration of how contentious deciphering placenames can be!   
‘It suited [the monsignor] perfectly that the airport was at ‘the top of the province’        
Dr John O’Callaghan is a mountain walk leader who has organised and led expeditions both at home and abroad. He has served on the board of Mountaineering Ireland and is currently on the Irish Uplands Forum board. In 2012, he wrote the winning article that secured Westport’s accolade as the Irish Times’ ‘Best Place to Live in Ireland’.