IrelandXO Insight - Pronouncing Irish Place Names

Thursday, 3 September, 2020
Share This:

Why are Irish place names so hard to pronounce? 

Whether you are researching your Irish ancestry, or simply reading the news, here’s how to tap into local know-how and start pronouncing Irish place names like a native.

IrelandXO Insight - Pronouncing Irish Place Names

It’s no secret that Irish signage can be the undoing of even the most seasoned traveller. Even Irish natives know how easy it is to get a place-name pronunciation wrong when they are not local to the area. Every dialect and their districts have their own distinct way of pronouncing addresses, and that goes for the Irish language as well.

Could it be that English transcriptions of Gaelic place names are at the root of the problem? Or is it the faeries having the last laugh? People of a variety of linguistic backgrounds have left their mark on the island of Ireland. The Gaels, the Vikings, the Normans, the Ulster-Scots and the English. It wasn’t only Gaelic words that had to be adapted to English phonology and spelling.

Dublin’s Camden Street, for example, is pronounced “Candem Street” by the locals. And this trait is not unique to Dubliners. The site of an ancient Gaelic battle, in Co. Roscommon, the hill of Canbo is also known locally as “Cambo”. So which version is right? It all depends on who you’re talking to!

When the Ordnance Survey men set out to map and record Irish places, just before the Great Famine, it was a world first. There were no standardized spellings. John O’Donovan, a Gaelic scholar, toured the country at that time and took great pains to get it right. You can see that the transcriber did his best with transcribing Inis Tíog (Inish-TEE-og) in Co. Kilkenny as Inistioge (Inish-teeg). However, the jury is out on how Eochaill (O-oh-kill) in Co. Cork became Youghal (yawl/y’all). There are cases aplenty where great care was taken by a landlord to translate a place name and in those cases, the Ordinance Survey recorded both e.g. Cnoc an Anama (the hill of Souls) was known as Knockananima and Soulmount.

The Gaelic word dubh (black) can be pronounced as (dove) or (doo) depending on the region too. Does that mean Dublin and Doolin were both named Blackpool? Possibly. Dublin was the Viking town of “Blackpool” but Doolin, on the edge of the Burren was more likely to have been “Blackland”.

Which brings us to place names that are in Irish only. In the 1920s, immediately following independence, any places that were named for the king or queen of England were changed to their original Gaelic name using Irish phonology. Queen’s County was renamed Laois (leash) and it’s capital town, Maryborough named after Queen Mary, reverted to Portlaoise (Port-LEASH). The port of Queenstown became Cobh (cove) and Kingstown became Dún Laoighre (Doon Leera or Dun Leery). 

Not to worry, plenty of people in Ireland don’t know the correct local pronunciation and newsreaders are no exception. Omagh (OH-ma) was mispronounced by many journalists. Barack Obama was also thrown by the “gh” and called it “Omack. Even the BBC got caught out reporting Drogheda (Draw-heh-dah) as “Droe-gay-da”.

Don't forget there is no "Th" sound in the Irish language so that is why you may get confused by trees and turds (threes & thirds) and Thurles (TUR-less) in Ireland.

Tongue twisters abound, but ah sure that’s half the fun! Visitor mispronunciations give the locals a great laugh so don’t be discouraged, it’s a conversation starter! What’s the most confounding Irish place name you’ve encountered? Do you need help figuring out an Irish placename your ancestor was from?

Wherever you are from, it’s always good to ask a local. And now you can. Jump on the Message Board at Irelandxo.com and ask away.