Speech and the capacity to communicate using language have been central to the evolutionary success of the human race. Putting names on things, places, thoughts, ideas, relationships, events and experiences is what we humans do. Naming places is also related to possession, territoriality as well as economic, social, cultural and political realities. There is a rich heritage of local place names across Ireland. In rural Ireland it was quite common for individual fields to have names as a means of identification. In this regard Manchán Magan's book Thirty-Two Words for Field is a real gem, as are the works of the great Tim Robinson on Connemara and John Canon O'Hanlon, among many others.
In an Irish context, it is ironic that county loyalties are still an important feature of social and political life, even though counties are very much an English political creation and have stood the test of time.
Growing up in Mountmellick, Co Laois, in the 1960s, I was conscious of history and background to street names in my locality. I lived on Pearse Street, named after one of the leaders of the 1916 rising. Had I lived on the same street 50 years earlier my address would have read, Queen Street, Mountmellick, Queen's County. In the early years of the Irish Free State most street names in Mountmellick were dramatically changed to commemorate the nationalist leaders Pearse, Connolly, Wolfe Tone, O'Connell, Emmet, Parnell, Davitt, and even Patrick Sarsfield. Out went Henry Street, Moore Street, and Drogheda Square, so called after Henry Moore, Earl of Drogheda, a ground landlord whose name on streets was almost nationwide, and even in Dublin, where we still see Henry Street, Moore Street and Earl Street, all adjoining the main O'Connell Street thoroughfare. In my county, the capital town of Maryborough, Queen's County, became Portlaoise, Laois. This practice was replicated across the country in the early years of independence. Official Land Registry documentation confirming property transfers and ownership until recent times referred to Offaly and Laois as King's County and Queen's County.
Naming a place is very much a political statement. Kingstown, so named to honour an 1821 visit by George IV, became Dún Laoghaire in 1920. Likewise in 1920 Queenstown, so named to honour a visit by Queen Victoria in 1849, became Cobh. Maryborough in Queens and Philipstown (now Daingean) in neighbouring King's County were to the memory of Queen Mary and her husband Philip II of Spain.
Before partition, Ireland was perceived by most people living on the island as a separate geographical and political entity. It was widely known as Ireland or Erin. After partition, the naming of the two political units on the island was contested and remains so in ways that are both sensitive and delicate. Depending on one's political preference and in which part of Ireland one lives, the northern political unit is called Northern Ireland, the North of Ireland, Ulster, the Six Counties, the North, while the southern Irish state has been called the Irish Free State, the South, Ireland, the Irish Republic, and the 26 counties.
Article 4 of the Constitution states the name of the State is Éire, or, in the English language, Ireland. The Republic of Ireland Act of 1948, which proclaimed an Irish republic, states: “It is hereby declared that the description of state shall be the Republic of Ireland.” Irish people, however, seem to have an antipathy to the name Éire, probably because it was used by many British people to refer to the state. Postage stamps and passports are the only commonly used items which carry the name Éire. Hibernia, while used by some organisations, and is in the formal Latin title of the NUI, Universitas Hiberniae Nationalis, has never been widely used.
Our neighbouring island has its own naming issues; variously referred to as Britain or Great Britain and its constituent parts of England, Scotland and Wales all contained within the United Kingdom state. As political identities and allegiances evolve within the UK, we have seen the strengthening of national identities within that state. Some, mainly English commentators, still refer to the British Isles, a name which most Irish people strongly resent, as we did the British Lions, now firmly and properly the British and Irish Lions rugby team.
It is interesting to examine the use of the historical term Ulster to refer to the northern political unit and the emergence in more recent years of Ireland as the preferred name for the southern state. Many Irish nationalists resent the use of Ulster by unionists to refer to the Northern Ireland, because it only includes part of the historic province of Ulster. Yet people living in the southern state now seem to have no hesitation in using the name Ireland to refer to the state, even though it doesn’t include the whole island. While the term the Republic of Ireland is now largely associated with a football team. The now common usage of Ireland probably reflects a partitionist mentality in this state acknowledging that the two parts of Ireland have drifted apart during the last 100 years. The growth in a separate Northern Irish identity and even Ulster Scots has also been well documented in various academic studies and opinion polls. The use of the term Six Counties in reference to Northern Ireland is used as a political tool, much more so than the softer reference “The North”.
Brexit, or more properly the UK exit, has introduced an element of uncertainty and change into the politics of our two islands. Finding words, language and structures to explain and manage such change is the very essence of politics.
This work, however sensitive and delicate, must continue.