Roots of the mighty oak

Townland tales

Gráinne Uaile Loop Walk view.  Pic: John O’Callaghan

The national tree gives rise to many Mayo placenames

John O'Callaghan

‘Dair’, the Irish for oak and ‘doire’, an oak-wood, or simply, a wood or thicket, are among the most common root words in Irish Placenames. Here in Mayo, there are 140 logainmneacha with ‘Darr-’, ‘Derr-’ or ‘Derry-’ in the name.
The oak symbolises strength and longevity, and that is why forms of this Irish word are very popular as Christian names, with Dara, Daire, Daragh, Doireann and Darach, being the most common.
The native Irish oak tree, Dair Ghaelach, or Quercus Petraea to use its botanical name, is the sessile oak. It is the principal species found in our few remaining woodlands. It was unfortunately harvested almost to extinction over the centuries in much the same way that our peat continues to be harvested in some parts of the country today. (This is despite the overwhelming scientific research that shows our bogs are one of our best natural reserves of sequestered carbon – a key factor in the fight against climate change and global warming.)
Because of its strength and durability as a timber product, Irish oakwood was a prized commodity for house building and furniture making, and was exported in vast quantities from Ireland, prior to our independence as a nation.
Oak woods were already so decimated by medieval times that woodpeckers, dependent on the oaks for survival, became extinct. On a positive note, in recent years woodpeckers have returned to breed again and have become a wonderful symbol of renewal and regeneration as the planting of broadleaf trees expands.
I should credit a wonderful book called ‘Heritage Trees of Ireland’ (2013) by Aubrey Fennell, for much of my information here. The oldest oak in Ireland, somewhere between 500 and 700 years old is a pedunculate oak, Quercus robur, found on the privately owned Abbey Leix Estate in Co Laois. The sessile oak was designated Ireland’s National Tree in 1990.

Mayo’s ‘Derrys’
Nationwide, over 1,300 placenames contain a root-word that refers to oak and more than 10 percent of these are in Mayo.
Some ‘Derrys’ commemorate certain personal names, for example, Derrartan, Doire Artáin, Artan’s thicket, and Derryribbeen, Roibín’s thicket, in Burrishoole, and Derreenmanus, Manus’s thicket, in Carra.
Others such as Derrylahan, Derradda and Derrylea, from the Irish words ‘leathan’, ‘fada’ and ‘liath’, meaning broad, long and grey, respectively, are common qualifiers. Derreendaffderg, between Killawalla and Partry means ‘the little oakwood of the red ox’. There’s a ‘new’ Derreen, Doirín Oisín, created in 2019 in Letterkeen, Shramore, in the national park.
I have a particular fondness for two ‘Derreens’ (An Doirín, ‘little thicket’). The first that resonates with me is not a townland at all but a village or cluster of houses near Louisburgh, in the townland of Ballyhip (sometimes ‘Bellakip’), Béal Átha Chip, ‘mouth of the ford of the (?)plot’. This particular townland name defies accurate translation, as it is not known for sure if the root word is ‘Bally’ / ‘Baile’ or ‘Béal Átha’.
A small river, the Ballyhip, a tributary of the Bunowen, flows through, so the name may echo a ford on this, where there is now a footbridge. In early accounts (Ordnance Survey Letters, 1838) there is a mention of a Derreennaneel in this townland, but nobody I have asked has heard of this version of the name, and it has been called Derreen in living memory.
The other Derreen is on Achill Island. Also known as Derreens, you know you’re in it when you park at Johnny Patten’s pub on the Atlantic Drive. This is the ‘trailhead’ for a lovely looped walk – appropriately called the Gráinne Mhaol Loop, in deference to Kildownet Castle located nearby and one of Gráinne’s former strongholds around Clew Bay.
The walk is just under 7km in length and involves 334 metres of ascent. At the start your eye is drawn across the Sound to the Curraun Hills and Belfarsad, which featured in this column recently. The highest point on the route, ‘Bealach na Sochraide’, ‘funeral way’, denotes the path used long ago when people were brought from Dooega/Ashleam to the graveyard in Cill Damhnait, near Cloghmore, for burial.
The views on the route are constantly changing, and there’s a perfectly-positioned picnic table with bench seats at the half-way mark where you can breathe in pure Atlantic air while enjoying your snack. The views of Ashleam Bay and the serpentine Atlantic Drive Road are particularly fine from here.

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’.