Two Mayo placename scholars

Townland tales

MAJOR CONTRIBUTION Professor Nollaig Ó Muraíle, whose contribution to the historical and cultural record of Mayo has been immense.

Part 1: Nollaig Ó Muraíle

County Mayo has been particularly endowed with toponymists, or placename specialists. A placename can be a townland, river or mountain. In this, the first of two articles, I profile Professor Nollaig Ó Muraíle, one of my principal sources for ‘Townland Tales’.
Professor Nollaig Ó Muraíle – named Mayo Person of the Year 2005 – was appointed Adjunct Professor of Modern Irish in Maynooth University in 2019. An expert in the field of Irish placenames and genealogy, he is a member of the current Placenames Committee, appointed on January 11, 2020.
The primary responsibility of the Placenames Committee is to advise the Minister for the Gaeltacht in relation to the Placenames of Ireland as defined in section 31 of the Official Languages Act, 2003.
Located in the Department of Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, the Placenames Branch undertakes research into the placenames of Ireland to provide authoritative Irish-language versions of those placenames for official and public use. The Irish versions determined by the Placenames Branch are given legal status by means of a placenames order, made by the Minister of State for Gaeltacht Affairs.
Prior to October 2012, the Placenames Committee, officially established on September 19, 2013, was known as the Placenames Commission, and Ó Muraíle previously served as a member of the Placenames Commission, beginning in 2003.

Magnum opus
Nollaig was born into the townland of Drum, An Droim, ‘The Ridge’, known locally as Wingfield, in Knock, Co Mayo, in 1948. In his own words: “The townland is popularly known as ‘Wingfield’, probably representing a part-translation of ‘Skeehane’ – Sciathán, ‘a Wing’, perhaps more correctly Sciachán, ‘a Whitethorn Bush’? – which occurs on Bald’s map of [circa] 1815’. He obtained an MA in Old- and Middle-Irish Language and Literature in 1971 and a PhD in Irish in 1991, at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth.
Nollaig worked in the Placenames Branch of the Ordnance Survey between 1972 and 1993; lectured in the Celtic Department, Queen’s University, Belfast, from 1993 to 2004, and in the Department of Irish, NUI Galway from 2004 to 2014. He has been a member of the Royal Irish Academy since 2009.
He spent 30 years editing the magnum opus of Dubhaltach Mac Fhir Bhisigh (c 1600-1671) – ‘Leabhar Mór na nGenealach: The Great Book of Irish Genealogies’, comprising five volumes and over 3,500 pages, published in 2004 by De Búrca, Dublin.
In 1985, Nollaig wrote ‘Mayo Places – Their Names & Origins’, published by Foilseacháin Náisiúnta Teoranta and printed by FNT/The Mayo News. A delightfully slim paperback, it was described as a ‘pioneering work by a young Mayo-born scholar (based on original research)’, taking ‘an exciting new look at the names of hundreds of Mayo places […] examining the origin, development and meaning of such placenames, going behind the meaningless Anglicised versions and also clarifying the Irish versions, which can sometimes puzzle even fluent Irish-speakers’.

Clare Island
In 1999, he contributed a chapter on The Placenames of Clare Island to the first volume of the New Survey of that island, ‘History and Cultural Landscape’, published by the Royal Irish Academy.
As well as writing numerous books and academic research papers on ‘matters onomastic’ and other matters (onomastics is the study of the history and origin of proper names, especially personal names), Nollaig co-edited, with Gerard Moran, the 2014 ‘Mayo ­– History and Society’, and contributed a chapter to this entitled ‘Scríbhneoirí Gaeilge de Bhunadh Mhaigh Eo’.
It was in this chapter, which translates as ‘Irish Writers since the Foundation of Mayo’, that Nollaig Ó Muraíle wrote, “The most accomplished and comprehensive work ever done on county names in Ireland has been completed by Dr Fiachra Mac Gabhann. The results of his painstaking research into the history and origins of the place names of County Mayo as a whole – every one of the 3,400+ townlands, over 70 parishes, nine baronies (along with bits of a few others), and several hundred minor names – have been added to [and] compiled by him in a series of volumes containing over 5,200 printed pages.
“The entire commentary is in Irish, which makes this the largest work in Irish ever written in County Mayo, or about County Mayo, or, indeed, the largest Irish work ever written by any one author.”
He was of course referring to ‘Logainmneacha Mhaigh Eo’ – the ten-volume masterwork of Dr Fiachra Mac Gabhann (RIP), published by Coiscéim in 2014.
I will profile Dr Mac Gabhann and look at ‘Logainmneacha Mhaigh Eo’ in more detail in my next 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’