A tale of two isthmuses

Townland tales

The Michael Davitt Bridge in Achill Sound – the Isthmus of Achill.


John O'Callaghan

Looking at a map of the world, the two most famous isthmuses (or isthmi) are the Isthmus of Panama, connecting North and South America, and the Isthmus of Suez, connecting Africa and Asia. Isthmus is of both Latin and Greek origin, from ‘isthmos’, meaning a ‘neck’ of land connecting two larger land masses.
In Mayo, the two most obvious isthmuses are found in Beál an Mhuirthead (Belmullet) and Gob an Choire (Achill Sound). There’s a world of difference between these places and a world of wonder in the two Mayo placenames in both their Irish and anglicised forms. In this article, we’ll put the words ‘mullet’, ‘Achill’, ‘muirthead’, ‘corr’ and ‘corrán’ under the microscope.

Diamond or fish?
In the Ordnance Survey Name Books of the 1830s, the original entry for Belmullet reads as follows:
“Contains 319a. 3r. 19p., of which 220a. are cultivated. The remainder is deep bog, mostly enclosed for cultivation. Bounded on the north by Tallagh in the parish of Killmore and by the western extremity of Broad Haven, east by Atteecunnaan and Curclough and south and west by the northern extremity of Blacksod Bay. It is the property of W.H. Carter Esq.
“The town of Belmullet is situated at its north west extremity through which the road from Binghams town [sic] to Killala and Castlebar passes. The bays of Blacksod and Broad Haven at the parish boundary immediately north of Belmullet are separated by a neck of land only 17 chains broad… the parish of Kilmore is [otherwise] completely surrounded by the sea and is commonly called ‘The Mullet’ or ‘inside Mullet’. Hence the town and townland name.”
In ‘Logainmneacha Mhaigh Eó’, the late scholar Fiachra MacGabhann adds:
“William Street and Barrack Street running west and east, respectively, from the central square, Carter Square, in the village, are shown on the first edition of the six-inch map. A glebe house is shown in the south of the district.”
The English word ‘mullet’ has been associated with both the diamond-shaped peninsula and the town since Major Bingham ‘lorded’ over the area from the 17th century. ‘Mullet’ may mean the fish of that name or the ‘diamond’ or ‘five-pointed star called by that name in heraldry, perhaps suggested by the shape of the peninsula, but this is uncertain’.
In 1838, placename historian John O’Donovan came along and translated the name as the ‘mouth of the isthmus’ and scholars have argued that the name may also be a corruption of Beál an Dá Mhuirí, ‘the mouth of the two tides.’

Lookout or eagle?
Moving south to Achill Sound, we read in the OS Name Books:
“This parish is situated on the Atlantic coast, in the west of the barony of Burrishoole, and contains 51,521 acres, statute measure… It is divided by Achill Sound into a mainland portion, generally known to the inhabitants as Currawn Achill, or the Hook of Achill, and an island portion, comprising the islands of Achill and Achillbeg...
“The Island of Achill is the largest off the Irish coast, with an area of 57 square miles. The sound, which separates it from the mainland, is narrow, and is fordable at low water in its southern part. South of Achill Island is the little island of Achillbeg, containing 330a. It is mostly rocky pasture.”
‘Achill’ may be derived from foichell/faichell, the Old Irish word for ‘look-out point or prospect’. That said, MacGabhann states that this theory does not hold up for ‘Achill’ and he gives a very detailed counter-argument in Logainmneacha Mhaigh Eó. Coincidentally, there is another townland called ‘Nakil’ or ‘Surgeview’ across the bay at the tip of the Mullet Peninsula, from which Achill is clearly visible.
O’Donovan suggests the theory that Aighle, i.e. Cruachán Aighle (Croagh Patrick) and ‘Achill’ my derive from the common origin of ‘aquila’ meaning ‘eagle’, but this is also refuted by MacGabhann and modern scholars. Perhaps we may never know for sure.

Achill Sound
Finally, there is also the puzzling name of ‘Gob a Choire’. Corrán is the Irish for ‘sickle’ and topographically, ‘cor’, ‘coire’, ‘corr’ and ‘corrán’, invariably refer to some crescent or sickle-shaped formation, in this case where the Corraun Peninsula or the ‘Hook of Corraun’ meets the island of Achill at the ‘sound’ or strait’ and ‘gob’ means a ‘mouth’ (beál) or a point (headland).
Mulranny Bay to Bellacragher Bay is another isthmus in Mayo, connecting the Corraun peninsula to the mainland. There are also two ‘water isthmi’ in Mayo – Cong, between Loughs Mask and Corrib, and Pontoon, between Loughs Conn and Cullin. These are for another day.

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’.