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A tour of Ireland’s stridently miserable placenames

Field of lepers? Deceitful strand? Town of thieves? Our ancestors clearly didn’t want visitors

John Creedon’s new TV show wanders without obvious purpose. Photograph: Rory Cobbe

It is late summer, that time when dreams of family togetherness fall quickly into the yawning chasm of boredom and impatience. Similarly, the long, rolling hours of the television schedule, empty as July’s picnic hampers, must be filled by any means necessary.

Thus, with sunny spirit, the enthusiasm of a hobbyist, and the sincerest belief that you will actually find this quite interesting, broadcaster Creedon’s Atlas of Ireland (RTÉ One, Sunday, 6.30pm) packs up the car (or, for reasons that continuity never make clear, several cars) to bring us on a road trip into Irish history.

Following in the unhappy footsteps of John O’Donovan – the fastidious map-maker, scrupulous translator and (several period-costume sequences suggest) all-weather top-hat wearer – Creedon revisits the fraught Anglicisation of Irish place names during the 1829 Ordnance Survey of Ireland.

Across three episodes, we will get out into the fresh air and inspiring landscape, learn something important about our cultural heritage, and – so help me God – if you don’t stop hitting your sister we’ll turn around and there’ll be no historical cartography entertainment for anyone.

Nobody could doubt Creedon’s passion for his subject, entranced from boyhood by “the evocative place names that surrounded my father’s beloved Inchigeelagh”.

That name, said aloud, evokes nothing more vivid than the consequences of bronchitis, but it actually derives from Inse Geimhleach, or “Island of the hostages”. It might also have made an alternate title for the show, which, almost unwittingly, becomes surrounded by such names of dispirit, discomfort and disease.

Take Gort na Lobhar (“Field of the lepers”) or Baile an Ghadaí (“Town of the thieves”), or Drumshambo, known to O’Donovan as “the back of the old cow”.

Later, we hear writer Michael Harding’s own happily downbeat explanation of the meaning behind his native Cavan, signalling “a hurt mind, a wound to the mind.” Perish the thought.

Creedon finds these place names as incantatory as informative: “The magic,” he enthuses. “There’s information contained in it.”

What does it say, then, that the information is so stridently miserable?

Creedon prefers to emphasise O’Donovan’s reported good humour and penchant for wordplay over a steadily emerging portrait of bitter unhappiness. O’Donovan was “a small man [who] suffered from poor health all through his life,” one historian puts it, complaining voluminously about his poor pay and flea-ridden lodgings, before this project “sent him to an early grave”.

Creedon, needless to say, prefers the romance. “This is like stepping back in time,” he marvels, more than once, when surveying the rusted remnants of yesteryear: a museum of decommissioned road signs (“Quite interesting?!” he pshaws the proprietor. “I luurve this stuff. This is my quest.”); a functioning steam train called Nancy (“There are three things you want to know about the shovel…”); or Derry band, the Undertones.

This journey, unlike O’Donovan’s, tends to wander without obvious purpose.

Still, the show has a point worth making: that our understanding of this land can be erased by, as Translations puts it, “a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape of fact”.

As Creedon puts it, “Listen to the landscape and what our ancestors are trying to tell us.”

Town of thieves? Field of lepers? Deceitful strand? I think our ancestors are telling us to move on.