Irish Genealogy and Finding Places.

Cloyne Cathedral

Cloyne Cathedral

Since my last post the autumn has hit us with a bang!  Literally!  We had a thunderstorm on Wednesday of last week (8th October). The storm lasted the whole afternoon and our internet connection went!  (Doh!) Finally, eight days later, we’re back online!  The thunderstorm was the latest in a series of downpours and delayed equinoxal storms that make us appreciate any calm, warm, sunny weather we get from now until winter sets in.  Really, we were spoiled by the long, warm, dry summer this year.  And the plants are still growing!  In the middle of October!  We’ll have a splendid leaf show in the next couple of weeks – if any gales don’t blow  the leaves away.

The Family History Course that I am presenting is going well – I’m trying to keep it practical, with a workshop and case study element.  This is, I believe, what people doing family history/genealogy really want.  It can be a lonely business when tracking your ancestors and I would encourage people to join organisations like the Cork Genealogical Society (of which I’m a member).

Last Friday (10th October) I visited Cloyne Cathedral to examine something there at the invitation of a member of the Cathedral Vestry.  This is a lovely, small, cathedral set in a pleasant little town or village in lovely countryside.  Most medieval Irish cathedrals were small – we had too many dioceses with too few resources to build on the scale of English or Continental cathedrals.   The charm of St Colman’s Cathedral is that is looks like a large parish church, but does not soar above the small town of Cloyne – that is the privilege of the older round tower, situated just across the road from the cathedral.   I hadn’t been to the cathedral for some years and had actually forgotten its homely and charming atmosphere.  The very small Church of Ireland (Anglican/Episcopalian) congregation and the Friends of Cloyne Cathedral struggle manfully to keep this gem intact.  The philosopher George Berkeley was the bishop here in the eighteenth century, and his memory is still cherished locally because of his generosity to the poor.  Berkeley College in California is named for him, as are a number of other US educational institions.

Cloyne Cathedral from the north

Cloyne Cathedral from the north

Cloyne is nowadays given the Irish name Cluain on road signs, but it should really be Cluain Uamha – the ‘meadow of the caves,’ a name it had long before modern road signs came into use. Cluain Uamha refers to the caves that penetrate the limestone on which the town stands.  Near Dublin is a place called Clontarf where exactly a millennium ago an army of Irish (mostly from Munster) with Viking allies crushed an army of Vikings (Dublin, Isle of Man and Norway with some from Denmark) with their Irish allies (from Leinster).  The battle was fought on Good Friday 1014 and that date is, like 1690, 1798 and 1916, one of the more popularly remembered dates in Irish history.  Clontarf, is derived from Cluain Tarbh, appropriately, ‘the meadow of bulls.’

One of the questions raised by those researching their Irish ancestors is this subject of place-names.  In Ireland this seems tricky, but when I eventually explain it, believe me it will seem very clear.  Let me give you an example from my tour of Midleton during Heritage Week in August.  There is a street in Midleton called Brodrick Street (the street sign says Broderick – but that’s wrong!  There is no ‘e‘ in Brodrick!)  Yet in Midleton, the locals refer to ithis street as the Coolbawn!  Until very recently this latter name did not appear on any map – but the building of Coolbawn Court (a square of houses at the end of the street) put it on the map.  What’s going on?   Coolbawn is derived from two Irish words cul meaning ‘back’ and ban meaning ‘white’ or ‘meadow between two streams’ (perhaps the latter meaning is derived from the white flowers of the meadowsweet herb?).  But culbhain can also mean, more precisely, a watermeadow.  And the Coolbawn in Midleton is indeed located between the Roxborough or Dungourney River on the south and the Owenacurra River (abhainn na corra – river of the weir) on the west.  The other boundaries are the Main Street on the east and the south wall of St John the Baptist’s churchyard on the north.  As you can imagine, the group was intrigued by my explanation that Brodrick Street was a street built in an area called the Cooibawn but it was not actually the Coolbawn itself. Attempts some years ago to change the name of the street to ‘Coolbawn’ were simply incorrect.  Note that I used the definite article when discussing the Coolbawn – because the name is also a description of a place and the area does flood in very high tides when the wind is blowing from the wrong direction!

And before anybody gets too excited – the Coolbawn is NOT a townland (in Midleton, at least!)…..which will bring on the subject of our next post!    To keep you amused until then you may wish to consider the following terms: ploughland, townland, civil parish, parish (and no, they are not exactly the same!), union (as in Poor Law Union), district electoral division (DED), barony, riding (those from Yorkshire should get that one!), county, diocese, province, and (for good measure) we’ll add in: borough (with its appendage corporation) and manor.  All of the above were ways of dividing up the land of Ireland and locating a place very precisely within it.

The system had its charms but it worked – you really couldn’t get lost, at least not until the advent of the late, and unlamented, Celtic Tiger, which unloosed a rash of ‘development’ in the country.  I blame the property developers. They had us bamboozled with very strange placenames and addresses!  Sadly the Irish government is now compounding the problem by spending about 25 million Euro on introducing a nationwide postcode system that apparently doesn’t work!  Not very charming, in my opinion.

More soon – if I don’t get lost in the post!

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2 thoughts on “Irish Genealogy and Finding Places.

  1. Tony, it is great that the name Coolbawn was chosen for that townhouse development, the last decade say a lot of estates given pleasant irish names but not neccessarily with any local relevance.

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    • Carol,the trouble with the names of new housing developments in Ireland goes back earlier – and has a tint of snobbery about it. In Midleton we have ‘Midleton Downes.’ Apart from the misspelling of ‘Downes,’the term is actually an exclusively English term which has never been used in Ireland. The only detail of ‘Midleton Downes’ the developer got right was its location – it’s on the slope of a hill overlooking Midleton. My other pet hate is ‘The Cotswolds’ in Castleredmond, Midleton. It looks nothing like any part of the Cotswolds, and I am convinced the name was chosen by the developer as a marketing device – with snobbery packaged into it. Why not call it Lake View, from the late Georgian house that stands nearby? Of course the planning office of the local authority should have put their foot down before it was too late! At least Coolbawn Court is a courtyard of houses!

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