THE POETIC place-names of Ireland have a wide variety of origins, as noted here recently. But crossing Dublin’s Rialto Bridge the other day, I wondered if sarcasm was sometimes one of them.
According to the archives, this is an unusual example of a bridge giving its name to the surrounding area (Rialto itself), rather than vice versa, which would be the norm. The question, however, is (a) how did anybody ever see a resemblance between this bridge and the famous one in Venice? And (b) what were they on at the time? Even standing well back and scrunching your eyes up – as you might do when viewing an impressionist painting – doesn’t help much. Try as you may, you just cannot imagine a gondola passing underneath: although such a thing would be problematical, anyway, due to the complete absence beneath the bridge these days of water.
The extension of the Grand Canal that once ran through here was drained in the 1970s. So the most romantic thing that passes under the arch now – other than the occasional pair of young lovers – is the Luas, en route between Tallaght and the Point.
It must also be admitted that the current, rather functional bridge was not the one that earned the name. Replaced in 1931, that was a curvier and narrower structure. But while regretting its demise, a commentator writing in The Irish Timesthe same year suggested that any comparison between even the old bridge and the Venetian one had been extremely fanciful.
The only things they had in common was that they were both bridges and they both had a Grand Canal underneath. The rest of the comparison, he suggested, was a product of Dubliners’ caustic sense of humour. The commentator in question, incidentally, was the Irishman’s diarist, so we can assume his authority on all subjects to have been unimpeachable.
STILL ONthe subject of exotic place-names, exiled Sligonian Declan Foley tells me that his home county contains townlands called "Siberia", "Gibraltar", and "Coney Island". Whether the first of these in any way resembles the vast area of northern Russia, synonymous with salt-mines and cold weather, he doesn't say. Apparently, it (the Sligo townland, not Russian Siberia) is also known as Slieveroe, and other than this being a bad case of corrupted pronunciation, the English name is a bit of a mystery.
Coney Island is much less so. Whether in Irish, English, or New York Dutch, the name derives from the Latin for “rabbit”. And it seems to be every bit as successful at self-multiplication as the species. At any rate, there are at least eight Coney Islands in Ireland alone, including the one immortalised in song by Van Morrison.
Fuuny to say, there are several Irish Gibraltars too. Sligo apart, the name crops up (no geological pun intended, although now that I think about it, it’s a pleasant coincidence) in Dublin, Wicklow, Meath, and even my native Monaghan. The main influence here was not topography, I suspect, but history: especially the Battle of Trafalgar, soon after which the Dublin Gibraltar, for one, first appeared.
As for the Monaghan version, a surveyor noted its existence in 1835 on a townland previously called Garran Otra and concluded drily that the new name should be spelt as in “the fortified rock from which the military proprietor thought it proper to name it”. It is of course possible that there was also some passing physical resemblance to the Iberian landmark. As Patrick Kavanagh has hinted, there are a lot of rocks in Monaghan, fortified and otherwise.
GETTING BACKto Dublin, and supposed likenesses with Italy, I can at least understand Sorrento Road in Dalkey. The view of Killiney Bay has been compared, without obvious sarcasm, to the Bay of Naples. And I suppose that if you scrunch your eyes up, or have enough drink taken, Dalkey Island could just about pass for Capri.
But how do we explain a townland called “Mantua”, near Swords? The name occurs in Roscommon too, I know, although there it derives from an eponymous house that was owned by Italians. So does the Dublin name have a similarly origin? Or is there some fancied resemblance between the Swords Mantua, set as it is an estuary, and that brooding city of lakes in Lombardy? Maybe they both have a mosquito problem in summer? The Italian city was long home to the Gonzaga family, who ruled it for centuries and whose palace still dominates the medieval centre. So if any part of Dublin were to be named after Mantua then, by the same logic as Rialto, it should be the area surrounding Gonzaga College, that illustrious educational establishment in Ranelagh where so many of our leaders are schooled.
I have never been inside its famous gates, sadly: although I was sorely tempted to visit last year when a mischievous past-pupil forwarded me his invitation to a debate wherein some of the college’s greatest alumni, including Peter Sutherland, were to discuss the motion “Could a Gonzaga education have saved Ireland from the crisis?” The point is, I can only imagine what the view around the school is like. But if it matches the self-regard of that motion, it must be breathtaking. In which case, renaming part of Ranelagh in its honour would surely be justified.