Gold in Them There Placenames – An Irishman’s Diary about Tullybuck, Toponymy, and the Schools Folklore Collection

Tullybuck in my native Co Monaghan is home to a gold-mine, or a potential gold-mine anyway. Photograph: iStock

Tullybuck in my native Co Monaghan is home to a gold-mine, or a potential gold-mine anyway. Photograph: iStock

 

One of the accidental blessings of Ireland’s colonial past is that it left us a coded landscape of anglicised placenames, whose translation back into the original is an endless source of entertainment.

Reading the business pages earlier this week, for example, I saw mention of the townland of Tullybuck in my native Co Monaghan. Its existence had somehow escaped me until then, but as I now know it’s home to a gold-mine, or a potential gold-mine anyway, part of the Clontibret exploration field.

So of course my first thought was the name’s aptness – even if, after decades of drilling in that general area, any bucks that might eventually accrue will not have been fast ones.  

But then I did some mining of my own – purely toponymical – beginning with a guessed translation. 

The “Tully” prefix usually means a small hill, from tulach, while “buck” was presumably bog,  meaning soft. This being so, the hoped-for hard currency was under a soft hill. And sure enough, that’s what the placename database logainm.ie thought too.

But one of the pleasures of Logainm these day is that it now also links, via duchas.ie, to the schools folklore collection.

This was a wonderful project in the late 1930s, when students all over Ireland were encouraged to record the oral history of their localities, usually gathered from older generations. 

Thanks to digitisation, the results are now available at a click. So when you look up Tullybuck, you also get a portal into the copybook of one “Peggy Leonard” – relating, in impeccable children’s handwriting, everything she knows about her townland.

She confirms the name does indeed mean “soft hill”; that farmers there grow potatoes, oats, and flax; that locals can still identify three “porridge houses” where Famine relief was distributed; and that her school is called “after the next townland Moys”, because the name Tullybuck was “not considered nice enough”.

Peggy also mentions the former existence in the area of a mine, not for gold, but “antimony”. She tells us that Tullybuck was the scene of the Battle of Clontribret (1595): Hugh O’Neill’s first big victory in the Nine Years War.  

So as the young Peter McDonnell wrote, two generations later, the suspected gold under the fairy fort 'remains until this day'

And she says there are traces locally of the “Black Pig’s Race”, aka Black Pig’s Dyke: the mysterious series of earthworks, more than 2,000 years old, that meanders across the drumlin belt, from Donegal to Down via Longford, for no reason that makes sense to historians.

That’s quite a collection of lore in one, innocuously named townland. But inevitably it also set me reading about the BPD again, via a fine website on the subject, blackpigsdyke.ie. And among other things there, I learned of an interesting latter-day attempt at explanation. The theory suggests that, rather than being any kind of defence, like Hadrian’s Wall, the Dyke’s construction was an end in itself. That it was a ritual inscription, in “contested landscapes”, about the power of whoever could do it.  

If so, suggests the website, the names of those responsible must have “endured in memory for many generations”, before their glory faded and was replaced “by a folk story about a mystical Black Pig or a gigantic worm”.

I don’t know. But speaking of worm holes, my exploration of the earthworks led me mystically back into the Dúchas collection, via another Monaghan townland: Ture (as in Newry, it means a place of yew trees).  

Ture is a good bit west of Tullybuck, and not geologically related. I mention it here only because of stories from its contribution to the Dúchas collection that also involve gold. The gold there was left not by natural processes but by Danes, or fairies, or both. In any case, according to one Peter McDonnell’s account, as collected from his grandfather, it was located under a fairy fort. 

So even after a local man who had emigrated to Australia wrote back to tell of a series of vivid dreams in which the location was pinpointed, Peter’s then-young grandfather was forbidden to search for it. But one day, when his father was away, he and his brothers started digging anyway. After much work, they got as far down as a flat stone, with a suspiciously “boast” (ie hollow) sound.  

Then they noticed that the cattle they were supposed to be minding had broken into the cornfield. Facing a world of paternal trouble, they abandoned their mining and never returned to it. So as the young Peter McDonnell wrote, two generations later, the suspected gold under the fairy fort “remains until this day”. Mind you, that was 1938. There may have been a few more exploratory drills since.

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