The Northern Ireland Place-Name Project
The Northern Ireland Place-Name Project, established in 1987, researches the origin and meaning of the place-names of Northern Ireland. It is the only centre for the study of Gaelic place-names in the United Kingdom, with parallels in the Institute for Name-Studies in the University of Nottingham in England, and the Archif Melville Richards Place-Name Database in the University of Bangor, North Wales. The Northern Ireland Place-Name Project grew out of the work of the voluntary Ulster Place-Name Society established in 1952, and supports the aim of the Scottish Place-Name Society to achieve a similar centre for the study of place-names in Scotland. Within Ireland, the Northern Ireland Place-Name Project co-operates with colleagues in Dublin in the Placenames Branch of the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, and in the Locus project on historical Irish place-names in University College Cork.
The place-names of Northern Ireland include those of 6 counties, 60-plus barony and district names, 269 parishes, 9,600 townlands and at least 20,000 ‘other’ names, in the languages of Irish Gaelic, English and Scots, with a few names in Latin or Old Norse. The gazetteer compiled by the Northern Ireland Place-Name Project is still growing, with current additions including both traditional names of fields and modern streets. There has always been a strong ‘community relations’ aspect to the work, since everyone lives in a place, and attachment to the place one calls home is a reality far closer than the name's language or community of origin.
Over the past 20 years the unit, which depends on funding from outside the university, has grown to include the following aspects of place-name research, although not all have been funded at any one time.
Computer database and gazetteer
The database is based on a gazetteer of geographic names of Northern Ireland, which was compiled by the Northern Ireland Place-Name Project from map and other sources. The gazetteer is linked with three further tables: historical references to and spellings of the names, linguistic elements occurring in the names, and a bibliography of sources for and writings about local place-names and their language. Since the restoration in 2004 of townlands to the official database of Northern Ireland addresses (Pointer: www.pointer-ni.gov.uk), work on the Northern Ireland Place-Name Project database has been supported by the Ordnance Survey for Northern Ireland. Completing explanations of the townland names in the database became the pilot project of the Culture and Heritage programme under MOSAIC, the digital Geographic Information Strategy for Northern Ireland. Between 2005 and 2008 the place-name information was displayed online linked to the address database (then on Pointer: www.pointer-ni.gov.uk). However in 2007, in the Review of Public Administration, the Ordnance Survey for Northern Ireland was moved from the Dept of Culture Arts and Leisure (DCAL) and merged into Land and Property Services in the Dept of Finance and Personnel. Funding for the heritage project had to cease, but Land and Property Services have prepared and are committed to maintaining online a new web database Placenames NI, currently being tested for launch. This will display the full gazetteer plus historical evidence for townland names, including written histories of the townland names of Co. Down. However, further funding is required to complete the explanations of townland names and analysis of further name-sets, and to make all the data available online.
Library and Archive for local place-name research
The Northern Ireland Place-Name Projects intends, with sufficient funding, to gather all published books, maps and articles relevant to local place-name research, as well as transcripts and field notes etc by Project staff; and also copies of other private research, such as the paper archive of Deirdre Flanagan lodged with us by her family (donations gratefully received).
The Northern Ireland Place-Name Project archive includes:
Annotated paper maps for Northern Ireland:
6-inch, 1-inch, townland index / Local Government District (LGD), 1:50,000, 1:10,000.
Audio fieldwork tapes and phonetic transcripts of place-names for some areas.
Photographs of places (showing topography, archaeology etc.) and place-name signage.
Collections on local personal and family names (forming part of many place-names).
Newspaper cuttings about name issues.
Some of this material is digitised but it has not [yet] been integrated with the database.
The archive also includes some sources on place-names in the Ulster border counties.
Series the Place-names of Northern Ireland: 1992-2004, currently 8 of a planned 30-40 volumes (approximately 6 per county)
Articles and book chapters on place-names (especially the UPNS journal Ainm)
Bilingual mapping (with OSNI)
Townland lists (with Northern Ireland councils)
Exhibition and introduction to local place-names Celebrating Ulster’s Townlands
Dictionary of Ulster place-names (now in its second edition)
Other place-name volumes, such as Lough Neagh Places (illus) published in 2007 (ISBN 0 85385 909 6). Click here for full list of publications.
Many people contact the Northern Ireland Place-Name Project with place-name and associated family name enquiries by post, phone, or e-mail. The Project can provide location, information on and original-language versions of existing place-names, and also suggest new names appropriate to an area. There is a charge to institutions, while individual researchers are asked to share some of their own knowledge with the Project in exchange. The Project regularly supplies information on the place-names of archaeological sites to Built Heritage in DoENI Environment and Heritage Services. It also supplies Irish spellings of local place-names to the Office of the First Minister (OFMDFM) at Stormont, and to many of the local councils, which have the power to ratify them for use in postal addresses, maps and signage. In 2004 Foras na Gaeilge funded additional researchers to provide Irish-language forms of addresses for areas where a concentration of Irish-speakers is attested by the Census, and this work is ongoing. See: www.ulsterplacenames.org
Lectures and talks
School and community outreach
Project members regularly give talks and comment on various aspects of names to local historical societies, community groups and schools, as well as the media. The Project also took part in the successful campaign for the retention of townland names in the Northern Ireland address system. Since 1999 the touring exhibition and booklet Celebrating Ulster’s Townlands has provided a general illustrated introduction to the study of local townland names. In 2003 an art competition Townlands in Art attracted entries from many primary schools for an exhibition in Queen’s University, reminding children of their local identity. In return the Northern Ireland Place-Name Project has learned a great deal from recording the unwritten place-name knowledge of local inhabitants, both traditional pronunciation of mapped place-names such as townlands, and the existence of further names such as townland divisions and fields. The Northern Ireland Place-Name Project also runs seminars to encourage groups and individuals working to promote and preserve the place-name heritage of their own area.
Liaison with colleague organisations
Through membership and participation in the conferences and discussion groups of the Society for Name Studies in Britain and Ireland, and the International Council of Onomastic Sciences, the Northern Ireland Place-Name Project contributes to the development of onomastic study throughout the world.
The connection of Queen’s University with place-name study is of long standing. John O’Donovan who investigated Irish names for the 1830s Ordnance Survey of Ireland was the first professor of Celtic in Queen’s. The place-name scholars Sean mac Airt and Deirdre Flanagan also worked here, and were founder members in 1952 of the voluntary Ulster Place-Name Society (UPNS) which is still closely connected with Irish and Celtic at Queen’s. More recently, under Arts and Humanities Research Board funding, the Project was directed from 1999-2004 by Dr Nollaig Ó Muraíle, who was a place-name officer for the Ordnance Survey of Ireland for twenty years before joining Queen’s in 1995. The Project fits well in Irish and Celtic Studies because almost all the older place-names in Northern Ireland were coined in the Irish language. However they have been affected by transmission in English spelling, alongside the many names coined in English and Scots.