In the Name of Progress: The Last Post

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Image: insert_token (CC BY-NC 2.0)

I note news today of the formal signing of contracts on behalf of the Irish government and the relevant company concerning the rollout and implementation of a new National Postcode System. This will involve the adoption of a 7-character code in alpha numeric format for every individual address in the country – which will presumably, in time, replace the need to know or include the local townland or area name of an address.

“Ireland has inherited a rich  tapestry of geographical names dating from all periods of the last two millennia at least. The whole country, including Northern Ireland, is divided into some 67,000 administrative units, in an historical, hierarchical structure of four provinces, 32 counties, 327 baronies, 2,428 civil parishes and some 60,462 townlands, all bearing their own names.

The vast majority of the place names of Ireland have their origin in the Irish language, particularly the names of the administrative units and those of major geographical features. Most of these names were coined before the 17th century and a significant number are at least a thousand years older. Literary and historical sources in Irish from the 8th century onwards contain many thousands of place names, many of which can be identified with present-day names”

- Mac Giolla Easpaig, The historical corpus of Ireland’s place names, 2009

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Image: Sean MacEntee/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

One cannot stop the advance of modernity – and I have no doubt that the new system will being much greater efficiency and exactness in terms of public services and communication. But…

Just. But.

Use it or Lose it

While the majority of people using such placenames probably have little interest or inclination toward their antiquity, there is nevertheless something uniquely wonderful and apt about their continued survival and transmission by virtue of use. Even when corrupted, anglicized or clouded in an obscure language no longer spoken in the locality, many such names (and their underlying cultural sub components) have been continually maintained – on maps, in local tongues and in social memory – and hence retrievable in part for those that have an interest in tracing or placing such names in historical and archaeological contexts. The introduction of a system that negates the awareness of same must surely herald the beginning of the end of widespread local use and direct knowledge of placenames and their landscape parameters & attributes. The eventual loss of much local use/knowledge is surely inevitable within the coming generations.

Losing Ones Place

I can’t help but be reminded of the numerous times in the last few years that an obliging informant has dragged from their memory a half forgotten local name – the vocalisation of which contained echo’s of older Irish linguistic components of enshrined past land use and settlement. I remember the time when I crashed through a hedgerow in spectacular fashion, surprising a passing farmer, who – on establishing that I wasn’t an escaped madman and was looking at landscape archaeology – proceeded to correct me as to my error. I was in a completely different townland to that I was looking for – the boundary being the very hedge I had just ingloriously rolled through.

I remember  being given verbal directions to a prehistoric tomb over a large area of upland bog – the local townland boundary – which was articulated to me in terms of bumps, streams, tombs and rocks. I remember elsewhere, a gentleman nonchalantly informing me of an almost forgotten local name of an unidentified archaeological feature – the name of which was a direct English translation of the Irish, first recorded over a millennia ago. And then there’s the time when a frowning unwelcoming landowner – who was about to tell me to where I could stuff my enquiries – stopped and warmed to me instantly, upon hearing a local placename he had not heard since childhood.

In Memoria

And so, to mark the passing of what will eventually be another melancholic milestone in Irish local history, I thought I would share a few examples of local placenames – names which go back over a millennia and are still in use today – in order to illustrate the depth of antiquity the new postcode system will replace. In the grand scheme of ailments afflicting modern Ireland, this is nowhere near as important as many others – but it will be a sad loss, nonetheless, when it comes. The following placenames are all recorded in Tírechán’s Collectanea, a seventh century text and one of the earliest contemporary documents which contains vernacular placenames from Early Medieval Ireland:

 uadum segi (Latin & Old Irish) – ‘The Ford of the Hawk/Bird (?)’

  •  Áth Sigh/ Ath Síghe (Irish)  - ‘Sighe’s ford’, or  ‘The Ford of Síghe’
  • Assey, Co. Meath

assey

OSI Mapviewer – maps.osi.ie/publicviewer

imbliuch hornon (Old Irish) – ‘The Border Marsh/Wetlands of Hornon’ (Adjacent Elphin)

  • Imlech/Imleach (Irish) -’ Land bordering a lake/marsh’
  • Emlagh, Co. Roscommon (‘the southern part is subject to floods’)

emlagh

OSI Mapviewer – maps.osi.ie/publicviewer

echenach (Old Irish)

agha

OSI Mapviewer – maps.osi.ie/publicviewer

senchuae (Irish) ‘Old Cave/Hollow’

  • Sean chuach (Irish) ‘Old Hollow’
  • Shancough, Co. Sligo

shan

OSI Mapviewer – maps.osi.ie/publicviewer

(ros) dregnige (Old Irish) ‘The Wood of Blackthorn Bushes’

  • Draighneachán (Irish) ‘Sloe bushes’
  • Drinaghan, Co. Sligo

drin

OSI Mapviewer – maps.osi.ie/publicviewer

The modern townland names above are direct descendants or close variants of placenames that were being used by people living in the same landscape over 1300 years ago. To use them and other placenames like them -  even without thought or interest – keeps a little something of the past alive. They live on, quietly and undisturbed, in verbal and aural form – beyond that written in maps, archives and dusty medieval tomes. When addresses within them, and others, are replaced by a series of letters and numbers, there will be  much less use of them and no day-to-day reason to even remember. Afterall, before mobile phones came along, we memorised our most used phone numbers.

Daily life – just getting a little bit more plastic and synthetic than it already is.

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NB. For everything you ever wanted to know about historical Irish placenames (and probably some things you didn’t), see the wonderful Placenames Database of Ireland.
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16 thoughts on “In the Name of Progress: The Last Post

  1. Agreed in total. I also dislike discussion of the removal of History from the National School Curriculum. Easier to manage if people don’t have an opinion on identity.
    Nevertheless, the light has to shine bright on dark days – keep posting.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing the historical, linguistic information – love learning about this kind of thing! Although I am usually bemoaning the ravages of “progress” myself, I can offer a small bit of reassurance from my corner of the States. Shorter historical context notwithstanding, here in Philadelphia, PA, residents take enormous pride of place from their individual neighborhoods (and there are MANY). Despite modern postal codes, and even the renaming of streets and boroughs, folks seem to tenaciously persist in identifying with specific place names that have been used since the city was founded, and even before. Perhaps you will find that the Irish citizens will prevail over bureaucracy (don’t they usually?) and keep all those lovely bits of history and culture alive and well. Here’s hoping :)

  3. If we’re erasing history in the curriculum and everywhere we can physically (unchecked development, addresses…) all we’re doing is preparing people for emigration. A people with no identity other than we’ll go where the work is. A tragic state of affairs.

  4. We have already lost thousands of minor names (place-names within a townland). I have noticed of late that many younger people know few townland names outside their own. A place-name is a window to the past, often the only window for some townland history. We have only 4.5 million people, we do not need postcodes. Just because everyone else has them does not necessary mean we should have them. We need to get away from the ‘sheep’ mentality!

  5. Agree with you Jerome. Why these bureaucrats want to become our shepherds I can only guess at. But who, and why, we’re they guilty of ditching our beautiful old Gaelic script with its simple diacritical marks and logical spelling in favour of the ugly hodge-podge we have to now use. Although it is well over half a century since I studied Irish at school I can still read and pronounce from the old script but am baffled and irritated by its replacement.

  6. I am instantly reminded – and not for the first time in the 21st century – of Ogden Nash’s “Progress may have been all right once, but it went on too long.”

  7. I think you’re being overly gloomy. I live in a city, and have no idea what townland I’m in, to be honest, the postcodes will be no great change. However, I’m originally from the country, and I’m pretty sure that people will retain a knowledge and use of their local placenames – I don’t think a sense of place is actually down to the postman.

    • I hope I am just gloomy.

      Just wanted to mark the occasion. Throwing away a late medieval system (with enshrined early medieval placenames) which has managed to survive & work for centuries through famine, wars, pestilence and successive waves of emmigration – all the while inadvertently keeping such names alive through use, whether concious or not in the local imagination – seemed worthy of being noted.

      They’ll always be there in records. Its the potential of not being on the tips of local peoples tongues that seems a shame. Alas, there will probably be more people getting angry over how much they’re paying private consultants to do it. And then there’s the 150,000+ (and counting) younger people who won’t get much of a chance to even try.

      Now there’s gloomy for ye ;)

  8. Some time ago, I waged with friends the possibility that some smart government here would erase History from the curri. They all chuckled at my bet. “Oh, no never, it’s sooo important”.
    Now is the day when I see History out of the curri in Ireland (my god!) but here as well… but here in the name of the identity of some of us which don’t want to be “us”. Funny modern times, Vox. Hedonism and ignorance, yes. Everywhere.

    • I feel the need to clarify, mate: history isn’t off the school cirriculum just yet. Its under threat, but still here for time being. I was commenting earlier on the UK school system, where its being somewhat eroded. Fingers crossed.

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