John Creedon: The outsiders who left their names in Ireland

The influence of foreigners is still seen across Ireland’s place names today

There's an old folk tale that dates from a time when the Russian-Finnish border was being redrawn. Some rather stern officials from Moscow knocked on the door of old Ivan's cabin, which was set in the woods of a disputed territory. They came to enquire whether Ivan and his few acres would be staying within Russia or if Ivan had opted to now give his address as Finland.

"Are you to stay with your old country or will you instead turn your back on us, comrade?" they pressed. "You know how much I love Mother Russia, my comrades," Ivan replied, "and it pains me to have my farm in Finland, but y'know, I am an old man and I fear that even one more Russian winter would kill me."

Therein lies a great truth. Lines on maps merely define territories; they’re geopolitical. They shift and change. Not unlike Ivan, we are all part of an endless continuum, a cultural energy that connects us with our nearest neighbour, irrespective of borders.

I guess relationships between next-door neighbours run deepest, for better and for worse. Over the millennia, Irish relations with our nearest neighbours have been mixed. When we stand back far enough, however, the stories of our two islands are so tightly interwoven, I expect they will never be fully untangled. The history, cultures, peoples, place names and DNA of our people are all so finely entwined they will never be completely unpicked.


It seems as though humans have been programmed to try to get the upper hand over one another since the time of Cain and Abel, and I don’t see an end to it in my lifetime. Indeed, as French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once said, “Hell is other people.”

Many of the place names of Ireland have implied the very same sentiment for years. The term an gall means "the foreigner" or "the other" and, generally speaking, it's not a term of endearment. I wonder if non-Irish-speaking members of the former RUC at Donegall Pass police station understood the irony of the place name. It translates as "the pass at the fortress of the foreigner".

Did Lord Donegall ever stop to consider his fine title and detect the reference to his being "a stranger in his own lands"? There is evidence of this term in many Irish place names: Donegal ("fortress of the foreigners") is not only in Co Donegal, but also in Tipperary and another in Cork. Moneygall, Co Tipperary ("thicket of the foreigners"), Ardnagall, Co Galway ("the hillock of the foreigners") and Baile na nGall, Co Kerry ("townland of the foreigners").

Presence of outsiders

Given the course of Irish history, the term gall (plural gaill) usually refers to outsiders from Britain, but not exclusively. Take Fingal in Co Dublin, for example. The Irish for Fingal is Fine Gall, meaning “the foreign tribe”. This is a reference to the Scandinavian foreigners who had settled there.

Here are a few more terms that indicate the presence of outsiders:

1 Uiging is the Gaelicised form of the Old Norse word "Vikingr". Dublin's Viking Road, for instance, becomes Bothar na nUigingeach in Irish.

2 The Old Irish word for "Dane" was Danar, and is the root of the Dublin place name Bothar na nDanar, which means "Dane Road," or "Road of the Danes". Danar can even be found in minor place names, such as the very exotic-sounding Timpeallan Chnoc na nDanar in Galway, which means, "Danes' Hill Roundabout".

3 In west Co Clare there is a coastal beauty spot with a name that instantly reveals its historical bounty: Spanish Point. In Irish, the name becomes Rinn na Spainneach, which means "headland of the Spaniards". This is said to refer to part of the Spanish Armada that was wrecked off the west coast of Ireland during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

In truth, there are many strands to the weave that is “Irishness”. It’s a fabric that is strengthened by its diverse threads. Celt, Dane, Norman and English have all left their mark on the surnames and place names of Ireland. So too have smaller groups.

The Huguenots, French Calvinist Protestants, fled persecution in their native France in the 17th and 18th centuries. They settled mainly in Dublin, Cork, Kilkenny, Waterford, Portarlington and Lisburn. Familiar surnames such as Cooper, Cox, White, Mullins, King, Britton and Boucher all entered the lexicon of Irish family names. In terms of place names, D'Olier Street in Dublin is named after Jeremiah D'Olier (1745-1817), who was a Huguenot goldsmith, a city sheriff and one of the founders of the Bank of Ireland. French Church Streets in Cork and Portarlington are a testament to the Huguenot presence there. Several Huguenot quarters in Irish towns (Galway, Cork, Mallow) boast a Bowling Green Street, which paints a pretty picture of how these French settlers spent their days off.

The Palatines

The Palatines were another Protestant group – Lutherans – who fled religious persecution in Germany in 1709. On the invitation of Queen Anne of England, some settled in Ireland, on lands at Adare and Rathkeale in Co Limerick, as well as in counties Kerry, Tipperary and Wexford.

However, within a few years, two-thirds of the community had returned either to Germany or to England. In that short time, the Palatines made their mark on the culture of Ireland forever. Family names that were introduced to Ireland include Fyffe, Glazier, Ruttle and Switzer. They also left their mark on place names. In Co Carlow, for example, there is the village of Palatine (formerly Palatinetown). There are also several references to the group in Co Limerick, such as Palatine Bridge near Rathkeale and Rathpalatine a few miles away at Broadford. Dublin, meanwhile, boasts a Palatine Square.

More recently, the Georgian period lasted a little over 100 years, and was so named because it spanned the reign of four English kings named George from 1714 to 1830. The period is characterised by classical lines in art and architecture, and it gave us those wonderfully symmetrical rows of terraced houses and posh place names that still survive in our large towns and cities, particularly Dublin.

The community may have dwindled, but our Jewish heritage is safely on the place-names map of Ireland

Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, the Earl of Ormonde (later made Duke of Ormonde), presided over the development of what was a medieval town, with narrow, winding streets and poor sanitation. Over the centuries the Liffey had developed into little more than an open sewer. Houses backed on to the river, and household waste was simply dumped over the wall into this ready-made system that was "flushed" twice a day by the tide. Ormonde developed the quays that still run along the banks of the river, and he insisted that house-fronts, not rears, should face the river. With the swirl of his quill, Ormonde signed his vision into law and changed the face of Dublin forever.

Luke Gardiner designed some of Dublin's finest new streets and squares along Dublin's north city, and gave his name to one of the most prominent streets in the area, Gardiner Street. The north side of the city was originally considered far more fashionable than the south side by Dublin Georgians. That was, until the Earl of Kildare decided to build his palatial "Kildare House" across the city. "But what about society?" a friend enquired of the earl. "Where I go, society will follow," he correctly predicted. Soon, beautiful Georgian squares were springing up around St Stephen's Green. Kildare Street still bears the earl's name, and Kildare House has since been renamed Leinster House.

Social currency

Today, Ormond Quay still bears the name of the man who got the whole ball rolling, the Duke of Ormonde. Grandeur and position were strong social currency, as wealthy Georgians tried to outdo each other. One of the highest compliments was to have a terrace or even an entire street named after you.

And so Ireland's elite sprinkled their names around the capital like powder and paint in a Henrietta Street dressing room. The most remarkable example of this vanity goes to Earl Henry Moore of Drogheda, who managed to shoehorn his name into five different Dublin street names – Earl Street, Henry Street, Moore Street, Of Lane and Drogheda Street (later renamed Sackville Street, and then O'Connell Street). But, "Of Lane" – I jest you not! Yes, he managed to commemorate himself in five separate addresses. My inner Georgian is swooning at the thought! As a modest man myself, I'd have settled for a simple "Creedon Close".

Later, Ireland experienced the inward migration of Jewish refugees, the majority of whom arrived in Dublin in the late 1800s. They were fleeing an anti-Semitic pogrom in Europe, and many settled around Portobello and Camden Street, earning the area the moniker “Little Jerusalem”. At one stage the area around Clanbrassil Street boasted a large Jewish population, with many kosher shops and bakeries.

In more recent years, the Jewish community has for the most part moved to the suburbs or emigrated. Similarly, Cork city has an area that is still affectionately referred to as Jewtown, and the sign on the local playground reads “Shalom Park”. Goldsmith and Goldberg still appear in the street names of the city. The community may have dwindled, but our Jewish heritage is safely on the place-names map of Ireland, and through Leopold Bloom in Joyce’s Ulysses it also features prominently in Irish literature.

British connection

Many wealthy Victorians loved to maintain a British connection in their Irish address, so names such as Waterloo, Trafalgar, Windsor and Belgrave all appear on Victorian street names. Native Irish names were considered common by the middle classes, and were often replaced with “exotic names”.

Italian, French and Spanish place names were supplanted to Ireland as the Dublin middle classes returned from their "grand tours". They named Sorrento Road and Vico Road in Dalkey after Italian beauty spots. The Cork bourgeoisie favoured Tivoli and Montenotte. Dublin's Portobello was so named to mark a British victory over the Spanish at the Battle of Portobello in Panama. Bellevue, Belleview, Bella Vista and Belvedere all proclaimed the beauty of the view from Irish mansions in a variety of European languages. As John O'Donovan might have been moved to remark, "I suppose Áit an Tí Móir wouldn't be grand enough for some of them."

That Place We Call Home by John Creedon is published by Gill Books and available now from bookshops and online