Republican News · Thursday 20 July 2000

[An Phoblacht]

Restoring our Gaelic placenames


There's a beautiful bay near the tip of Mizen Head in West Cork called Barley Cove. Signposts in the area give its Gaelic version as Baigh Na Heornan, and for me this illustrates perfectly the absurdity of the official so-called bilingual approach to placenames in the 26 Counties.

I don't know who churns out these signs, but if the bureaucrats involved had bothered to consult with Irish language and cultural enthusiasts in the area, they wouldn't have made the mistake of assuming that the `Barley' concerned was the English version of an agricultural crop, which they then translated accordingly. What we have here is actually a bizarre double corruption of the Gaelic placenames Cobh Barr Liath - The Bay of the Grey Headland.

The official approach to placenames in the 26 Counties has little or nothing to do with bilingualism. If we had `The Fort of the Foreigners' and `Two Lake Valley' alongside `Dún na nGall' and `Gleann dá Locha' now that would be bilingual; but the current `Donegal' and `Glendalough' are merely gibberish. These are English phonetic renditions of the original Irish and might just as easily have ended up as `Tonnycal' and `Glendilock', depending on the disposition of the English military surveyor of the time.

To put it in another perspective, `der Kaffen' and `Majau' might be good German renditions of `An Cabhán' and `Maigh Eo', but linguistically they are just as meaningless as Cavan and Mayo, and equally insulting to the original Gaelic.

At the last Ard Fheis, the Trinity College Sinn Féin cumann forwarded a motion to the effect that a future Sinn Féin government would commit itself to a root and branch Gaelicisation of all placenames in the country and, by extension, the dumping of all foreign renditions. In other words, why bother with Mallow and Enniskillen when we can just as easily say and use Maigh Ealla and Inis Caitlín? Apart from the satisfaction of undoing the English colonial legacy, the implementation of this policy would ensure a deep, long-term effect on the psyche of this nation. Not only could we inculcate a sense of national pride in the overt reclaiming of our territorial culture, but we would also create a general climate favourable to the overall promotion of Gaelic culture in all its forms.

It was interesting to note that some of the West Brit press tried to ridicule our motion, and for me this was very encouraging. These are the people who are continuously trying to undermine and eradicate Irish-Ireland and all manifestations of republicanism and nationalism, and they know a threat when they see one.

Again, though, our greatest obstacle is indifference, and many people might be inclined to ask if such a project were feasible. Happily, we can point to tangible examples. In the 1920s, it was the norm to speak of Kingstown and Queenstown and places like Queen's County. Yet within a generation, people were comfortable with the original Gaelic of Dún Laoghaire, Cobh and Laois. Who in their right mind would send a letter to Queen's County nowadays and expect it to get there? Had the powers that were simply Gaelicised every placename in the country at the time, they would now roll off our tongues effortlessly.

Still, it's never too late and this is yet another area where Sinn Féin can set the train in motion.

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