From fairy tales to Lettermaglinskin

Townland tales

STONE AND SOIL  Signs of the past in Lettermaglinskin. Pic: John O’Callaghan

Water, water everywhere in the valley of two streams

John O'Callaghan

‘Rumpelstiltskin’ is a German fairy tale. It was collected by the Brothers Grimm in the 1812 edition of Children’s and Household Tales. The story is about a little imp who spins straw into gold in exchange for a girl’s firstborn child. Apart from sounding a little like Lettermaglinskin, that is where the similarity ends. Yet, some Mayo townland names are as obscure as fairy tales and we may never know their true origin. Let’s take a look at Lettermaglinskin’s curious placename a little closer.
The first time I heard the name I knew I would have to discover more about it and visit the townland at the earliest opportunity. The first chance came in early December as the light was fading in the afternoon. With a friend on board, we drove out to Drummin and made our way to Derrylea, ‘Doire Liath’, ‘Grey Thicket/Oakwood’. Michael and Carmel soon put us on the right track. We had to hurry to capture some photographs before darkness fell.
Many of you may have driven or cycled through Lettermaglinskin, but, unless it means something to you personally, the chances are you might never have heard of it. The first part derives from the Irish word leitir (pronounced ‘lecher’ or ‘litcher’), a hillside, frequently a wet or ‘spewy’ one, to quote John O’Donovan of the Ordnance Survey (1838).
But what does ‘maglinskin’ mean, you ask? Perhaps a surname like McGlinchey or McLynskey? This would give us ‘Mac Glinscín’s’ or ‘McLynskey’s Hillside’ as possible translations.
Or is it, as most scholars contend, something to do with ‘Glinsk’ – a common enough placename? I can think of at least three Glinsk/Glynsk that I have travelled through or become aware of over time. There is one in Connemara, on the way to Carna; another next to Liscarney as you turn right for Drummin; a third in Erris; and there are a few more in several counties, including Roscommon and east Galway.
According to PW Joyce, Glinsc is ‘a contraction of Glinsce or Glin-sceach’, meaning ‘glen of the bramble bushes’. Sometimes a lone sceach can carry so much superstition that builders and contractors will refuse to disturb or remove it, let alone cut it down. A case in point was the so-called ‘fairy tree’ growing beside the (then) new M18 motorway between Clarecastle and Newmarket-on-Fergus, not far from Dromoland in Co Clare. The motorway had to be re-routed around the tree as nobody was prepared to interfere with the fairy tree, believing it had special powers!
If Joyce is correct and Glinsc is a bramble bush, then Glinscín is the diminutive of this, a smaller bramble bush. But the connecting preposition is not ‘na’ meaning ‘of the’, but ‘ma’, sounding more like an abbreviated ‘mac’ or ‘son of’ as in most Irish surnames.

Happy valleys
But what other possible meanings are there for Glinsce?
Fiachra MacGabhann offers ‘(?)valley’ – putting in a question mark to signify an element of doubt or conjecture. He goes on to explain that glin or glean are in fact Irish synonyms for ‘glen’ or valley, and ‘It is therefore possible that the suffix is ​​valley plus [the] uncommon, and of uncertain meaning, -sce, is meant; cf. Tuilsce or Tulsk in Roscommon and Failsce or Falsk in Offaly’. No common or ordinary valley either, but generally, in most cases, one that lies between two streams or rivers, just like in Lettermaglinskin!
MacGabhann goes on to state: “It is possible that the Letter of Glinscín version is a late reinterpretation ‘hillside of the little valleys’ comparing it to Glinsk, located four miles away. There are several valleys in the area, particularly for example at Sruhauncloghagh (‘stony stream’) in the north-west of the townland and at Tullawee (‘yellow hill’) Stream in the southeast. Both streams are tributaries of the Owenmore River that separates Lettermaglinskin from Derryherbert, (?)Doire Thiobraide, ‘Tiobraide’s thicket’. The Owenmore feeds the Erriff River.”
Perhaps the ‘-sce’ derives from ‘uisce,’ water, in abundance here?
There was a tiny cluster of houses here in the 18th century and a McGuire family lived here in 1901 and 1911. But where is Lettermaglinskin situated?
Its southeastern boundary stretches for one kilometer along the N59 between Westport and Leenane, between two bridges constructed by Alexander Nimmo in 1827/8 – the Srahlea and Erriff bridges. It is bounded to the north by Derryherbert and to the west by Derrylea. Derrintin, (?)Doire an tSoinn, ‘Thicket of the Stake’ lies to the south and Aillebaun and Srahlea townlands border it to the east.
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’.