Of Blanes and Bleans

Townland tales

Lough Naweela picnic area in Blanemore.

John O'Callaghan

On my recent visit to Straide, I happened upon another curious sign, just as you leave the village, heading to Foxford. There is a side road to the left at the Davitt Lounge signposted Bleanmore, An Bhleán Mhór, L1715, and Straide NS, for national school. As I wondered what ‘bléan’ might mean in Irish, I remembered another Blanemore near Moygownagh village, north of Crossmolina, on the road to Ballycastle. This one is spelt Blanemore and is a Forest Park, an amenity area managed by Coillte. There is also an archaeological trail in the forest and Liam Alex Heffron has a series of videos about it on the internet.
In Erris, there is a townland called Bleanmore Island and Achill is dotted with bléinte, the plural for the Irish word bléin, which means groin, cavity, or cove. Volume 2 of Irish Names of Places by PW Joyce, says that ‘in a secondary sense it is applied to a creek, branching off either from the sea or from a lake, or formed by the mouth of a river; sometimes it means any hollow or curved place.’
He goes on to state ‘it is much used in local names, and it is found all over Ireland, especially in the northern half. Blean and Blane are the names of some places in Wicklow, Clare, Galway, and Tipperary.’ To which we can now also add Mayo. He doesn’t allude at all to Castleblaney (in Irish, Baile na Lorgan, ‘townland of long, low ridge’) in Co Monaghan, but he does mention that ‘Blaney, the plural form of bléan, is the name of a little bay on the southern side of Lower Lough Erne, near Derrygonnelly, so called because it is formed of several smaller bays: Blaney, literally creeks.’ But back to Mayo.
Of the two examples I have given in the opening paragraph, you may have observed that neither is a townland, but the former one, near Straide, Bleanmore, is a ‘village’ or group of houses in the townland of Tawnybeg, which regular readers of this page will know translates (from tawnagh) to the ‘small mountain field’ or ‘small arable area on an otherwise barren mountainside.’ Unlike Barrowsfield Village in Ummoon, which no longer exists today, Bleanmore contains at least two farms that I am aware of, i.e., Rainey’s and McHugh’s. It is somewhat bewildering to apply any of the accepted translations of ‘blean’ to this place, as it is neither a hollow nor a creek. This just goes to show how placenames may not always be evocative of their titles! Or perhaps it explains why Fiachra Mac Gabhann puts in a question mark before the translation.
The other Blanemore is unusual in that it is a local name applied to a forest park in another ‘tawnagh’ townland, Tawnywaddyduff, a transmogrification of Tamhnach an Mhadra Dubh, or Tamhnaigh an Mhadaidh Dhuibh, ‘the mountain field of the black dog.’ It is a shame that we continue to tolerate meaningless renditions of Irish words like ‘Tawnywaddyduff’, simply because phonetically the word sounds like the original Irish. Would it not make sense for the Ordnance Survey to be content with the proper Irish form of the logainm and start to phase out these ridiculous anglicised words for once and for all? Tamhnaigh an Mhadaidh Dhuibh is a big townland of 1,352 acres, the 160th largest within Co Mayo.
According to the very detailed leaflet published to accompany visitors to Blanemore, locals always named the smaller constituents of the townland: field names, lakes, etc. Therefore ‘Blanemore became the name of the gravel ridge which rose like an island out of the surrounding bogland and where the forest now stands. Blanemore itself was rough pasture in living memory where cattle and especially horses were grazed – thriving on the grass of the sandy soils. Blanemore is ‘Bléan Mór’ or the large nook, referring to some forgotten, landscape feature.’ This sounds plausible.
The leaflet goes on to describe Tawnywaddyduff itself: “It is first found translated in the 1838 Ordnance Survey as ‘The Field of the Black Dog’ or ‘Tamhnach an Mhadaidh Dhuibh’, without any further explanation. […] ‘Tamhnach’ is a particular type of field rendered as ‘an island of firm (green grassy) land in the midst of a surrounding bog’ (precisely!) and the author concludes that ‘This can describe Blanemore, as an oasis in a ‘barren’ bog landscape’.” I agree. It is a very quiet area and when I visited recently, I almost had the whole place to myself.

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’.