Two Mayo placename scholars

Townland tales

STEEPED IN TRADITION The late Dr Fiachra Mac Gabhann was not only a highly respected placename scholar, he was also an accomplished traditional musician.

Part 2: Fiachra Mac Gabhann

John O'Callaghan

In the first of these two articles on Mayo placename scholars, published on February 28, I profiled Professor Nollaig Ó Muraíle, expert in the field of Irish placenames and genealogy, and member of the National Placenames Committee.
This week I pay tribute to the late Dr Fiachra Mac Gabhann, a protégé of Dr Ó Muraíle’s and author of ‘Logainmneacha Mhaigh Eo’ – a ten-volume magnum opus, published by Coiscéim in 2014, in both book and CD format.
With the entire commentary in Irish, this is the largest work in the Irish language ever written in and about County Mayo. Indeed, it remains the largest Irish work ever written by any one author.

Magnum opus
The results of his painstaking research into the history and origins of the placenames of County Mayo as a whole – every one of the 3,400-plus townlands, over 70 parishes, nine baronies and several hundred minor names – have been added to and compiled in a series of volumes containing over 7,200 printed pages. I feel privileged to own a copy of this wonderful ‘encyclopedia’ of Mayo placenames. It is my first port-of-call when researching the meaning of the various townland names that appear here every fortnight.
The titles of the volumes are spread across all the baronies, or parts thereof, that lie within the county of Mayo. One volume covers the placenames in the parish of Achill. The volumes, in English translation, are Burrishoole, Murrisk, Achill, Erris, Carra, Kilmaine and Ross, Clanmorris, Tirawley, Gallen and Tireragh, and Costello.
Under the Local Government Act of 1898, part of Costello barony was transferred to Co Roscommon, while portions of two other baronies, Ross in Galway and Tireragh in Co Sligo, were transferred to Co Mayo.
Every townland in the county is covered in the series, and depending on which source you consult, there are 3,422 (, 3,424 (Wikipedia) or 3,446 (‘Logainmneacha Mhaigh Eo’, which includes islands) townlands in Mayo. In ‘Logainmneacha Mhaigh Eo’, subtownlands and other topographical features are also listed and explained. Dr Fiachra Mac Gabhann was born in Blackrock, Co Louth, in 1971. He obtained a BA in Folklore (1992) from what was then the Department of Folklore at UCD, and progressed to complete his MA in Celtic Studies by thesis (1994) with first-class honours, and his PhD in Onomastics under the direction of Nollaig Ó Muraíle and Micheál Ó Mainnín in the Department of Celtic Studies at Queen’s University, Belfast (2005).
Fiachra also completed a Higher Diploma in Education in NUI Galway in 1999, through the medium of Irish, after this course was revived after many years. He subsequently worked as a lecturer at Castlebar College of Further Education.

Angels and saints
He started working on ‘Logainmneacha Mhaigh Eo’ when he moved to the Partry area of Co Mayo in 2001.
In his early 20s, Fiachra wrote the chapter ‘Vol. 7: County Antrim II. Ballycastle and North-East Antrim’ in ‘Place-names of Northern Ireland’. As well as several research papers on early Patrician placenames and places cited in the epic ‘Táin Bó Fliodhaise’, Fiachra wrote Chapter 6, ‘The Placenames of Mayo’ in ‘Mayo – History and Society’ (2014).
Prior to his untimely death in 2018, he had completed a comprehensive study of placenames in Mayo associated with angels and saints, including an appendix of the blessed wells of the county.
He was also an accomplished singer, musician and multi-instrumentalist and a member of several traditional groups throughout his life. In the words of a fellow-musician friend: “He listened widely, but discriminately, and seamlessly integrated the nuances of what he heard into his own musical practice. Primarily an accompanist, his insider knowledge of tunes could only belong to an equally competent melody player. It was the harmonic and rhythmic sensibility of his bouzouki playing that was most notable, adding depth and lift to any session he played in.”
He served on the editorial board of the journal ‘Béaloideas’ (Folklore), that is published annually. In the 2018 edition, the then editor, Professor Ríonach uí Ógáin, paid this tribute to him: “Fiachra did not hide his expertise and shared it generously. He has given many lectures, seminars and talks all over the country, at local associations, in student institutions and centres abroad. Fiachra used to encourage and promote his students. It was also the case with his colleagues and friends.”
The combined breadth of research completed by the two scholars, Ó Muraíle and Mac Gabhann, is a resource for which anyone with an interest in placenames, especially in Mayo, should be very grateful.

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’