The plague-lands of Erris

Townland tales

FORESTED VALLEY Slieve Fyagh, or Sliabh Fíoch, overlooking Srahnaplaia. Pic: John O’Callaghan

John O'Callaghan

‘Srah-’ is the 15th most-common ‘root element’ in townland names in Mayo; a full 42 of our townlands start with this word. In fact, there are four townlands that are simply called Srah – and I am familiar with one near Tourmakeady and another outside Louisburgh. ‘Srah’ means a ‘strath or holm’ or, in plain terms, it evokes ‘a grassy sward near a river’, the riparian.
Srahnaplaia, Sraith na Pláighe, ‘Strath (or Holm) of the Plague’, is a remote, sparsely populated townland in the east of Kilcommon Parish in Erris. It could be a ‘companion-piece’ to Knocknalower, Cnoc na Lobhar, ‘Hill of the Lepers’, discussed previously in this series. Or perhaps with Knockanaplawy, Cnocán na Pláighe, ‘Little Hill of the Plague’, now known as Gortjordan, found equidistant from Cross, Kilmaine and Shrule.
These are three townland names associated with diseases and epidemics found in Mayo. Joyce was of the opinion that the ‘plague’ element indicated the place was depopulated at one time in the distant past by some pandemic or pestilence, frequently mentioned in the annals. Either that, or it marked a spot where victims of an epidemic were interred in a mass grave.
He cites three other locations, two in Cork called Carrigaplau, Carraig-a’-phlaigh, ‘the Rock of the Plague’, and Commeenaplau, ‘the Little Coum or Valley’ and one in Co Tipperary called Templeplau – the ‘Plague Church’, near Clonmel.
Srahnaplaia is in the Barroosky River valley – a feeder tributary of the Glenamoy River. Premises on the banks of these two rivers are shown on the first edition of the six-inch map, and nowadays there are about eight or ten houses here as people settled in the more fertile areas.
Fíoch conundrum
To access the townland, take the R314 from Glenamoy Church towards Belderg for one kilometer and then take a right south and you’re in Sraith na Pláighe.
The townland stretches for 3km north to south along this side-road and extends roughly 2.2 km west to east in width. There is an additional two square kilometre further southeast, making a total area of 8.8 square kilometres. After 3km of gentle uphill driving, the quality of the side road improves, marking the transition from Srahnaplaia to Barroosky (Barr Rúscaí, or ‘Top of the Marshy Place’). It is a stark landscape eastward, greener to the west towards the river.
I went there recently to get my own sense of the place and to check out Slieve Fyagh, Sliabh Fíoch (331m), which may mean ‘Wooded Mountain’ or ‘Mountain of the Rushes’, depending on whose translation you accept. This is the highest point in Barroosky, and the most obvious feature rising above this forested valley landscape.
The Fíoch element in the name may also derive from the Irish word for fight or feud, fíoch. However, ‘fiach’ is a raven and ‘lá fiaigh’ is a day’s hunting, while ‘fia’ is a deer – and these are all highly plausible, similar-sounding translations.
TH White liked to think that Slieve Fyagh, which stretches across from Srahnaplaia/Barroosky to Sheskin Lodge, was where Aillilbanda, King of Connaught, had fallen in the sixth century, at the battle of Cuilconaire. He based his theory on the ‘interchangeability’ of the placenames in Carra and Erris, and quoted the Book of Leinster, which mentions the fight against Clann Fhiachrach – from which the Barony of Tireragh (Tír Fhiachrach) takes its name.
Glenamoy is often generally applied to the two townlands of Srahnaplaia and Barroosky, along with Bellagelly North and South, Baralty, Bunalty, Gortleatilla, Polboy and Lenarevagh. The Glenamoy River rises east of Glencalry, in the barony of Tyrawley, and flows for over 12 kilometers before reaching the sea. The Owenmore River rises only a few hundred metres from the source of the Glenamoy. The latter flows into Broadhaven Bay, while the Owenmore flows into Blacksod Bay.  
I thought about climbing Slieve Fyagh, in order to get a bird’s-eye-view of the area from the trigonometric pillar on its summit, 331 metres above sea-level, but decided to leave it for another day! I spoke with some local residents I encountered and asked them what it meant to them to be living in this place. Nobody could shed any light as to how the townland acquired its name. Perhaps we may never know. One man who farms in Barroosky informed me that Muingingaun, Moing Iongáin, on the Bellanaboy Forest Trail, means ‘Maiden Stream’ but the ‘Muings’ are for another article….

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’.