From The United Irishman, November 24, 1900.
Among the many other subjects which the National Schools and in fact most other educational institutions in Ireland have tabooed is Irish topography. “Of the geography of the British Isles,” says the Intermediate programme, “a minute knowledge will be required.” “A general knowledge of the geography of the British Empire, with special knowledge of the railway systems of the United Kingdom,” say the Civil Service programmes, and the unfortunate scholar is primed with the height of Mount Everest, the length of the Ganges, the density of the Dead Sea, and the junctions of the London North-Western, but of Ireland he is told next to nothing, for a knowledge of anything Irish is not a factor in competitive examinations. Hence, we grow up with the haziest ideas about Irish places, and except for such towns as Belfast or Cork or Derry, have only the dimmest acquaintance with the lakes, mountains, plains, and rivers that go to make Ireland, know somewhat more about Timbuctoo than Tullamore, and are more certain of the source of the Nile than the Shannon. It is to be hoped that one of the earliest school texts which the Gaelic League will produce will be an Irish geography in Irish, which will do something towards dissipating the ignorance and apathy which surround the subject in our day schools, and indeed in every department of our daily life.
It does not need the present writer to point out how inseparably intertwined with each other are geography and topography. Both are fascinating studies, but the latter is possibly the more fascinating, because it is the local and the homely, it tells us of things about us, it brings us from the generalities of geography to the particularities of the places we have grown up in. It is the blending of tradition, history, and locality that makes the past live and keeps the memory of great things an abiding influence to inspire the present. We, by turning our backs on our language, have lost the power that these memories would give us. For us the rivers and the lakes have no message in their music, the voices of the glens and groves, the mountains and the lonely places speak unintelligibly, for we have lost the medium that would make them plain to us. We may appreciate their beauty, their rugged grandeur, or their soft splendour, but they are merely earth and verdure to us. We feel not the sympathy with their associations which the knowledge of the story of their names would give us. In some cases we have allowed the old names to be substituted by English ones, in many we have permitted such atrocious attempts at pronunciation to become current that the real name may be said to be obliterated, in most we have regarded the subject with such indifference that the survival of any remnant of the old nomenclature may be regarded as little short of a miracle.
There have not been wanting at all times men to draw attention to the valuable materials which we were thus allowing to slip from us. Davis, ever watchful for anything tending to distinctiveness, saw the necessity of a book on the subject. Writing to O’Brien in 1844 he says: “Either you or I, or someone should compile a short account of the geography, history, and statistics of Ireland, accompanied by a map. We must do more to educate the people. This is the only moral force in which I have any faith.” It did not come then, except in such detached fashion as in O’Donovan’s notes to the Four Masters and the publications of the Archaeological Society, or in O’Curry’s notes under similar circumstances. The first real attempt was made by Dr. T. W. Joyce in his “Irish Names of Places,” and in fact it may be said to be the only volume on the subject yet obtainable. Still it is not a book for the general reader, and is far from complete. Besides it takes account only of the places with Irish or barbarised Irish titles, passes over quite a host even of these, and has practically nothing to say of these districts which have been unfortunate enough to have foreign names substituted for their native titles. Yet it is an excellent book, and we know of few more interesting volumes for an Irish language class to add to its studies. It will make many things plain that seem inexplicable, and fill the country with quite a host of legends and recollections that will make the most uninviting places full of interest and make the beauty spots more beautiful.
The Irish-speaking peasant alone has a true idea of Irish topography. For him still there are “the five ends of Eireann,” there are still Leath-Chuinn and Leath-Mohgha, there are no counties; the sounding waves of Moyle still fret around the shores of Uladh. Cliodhna’s wave still breaks upon the rocks of Carberry; the Boyne still marks the border of Uladh even as it did in the days of Maedhbh and Cuchullain, the whole face of the land in fact is different. The thirty-two counties disappear, and instead there exists a world that seems strange and foreign. One learns of Tir Connaill and Tir Eoghain, of Ikerrin and Iveragh, of Idrone and Offally, of Bregia, Magh na n-Ealtaidh, and Ossory. Tir-Amhlaidh, Magh Luirg, Ui Maine, and the two Breffnies. Of Triucha, Oirghiallia Na Fuaithe, and many other cantred and tribe land. Similarly the lakes, the rivers, and the mountains become native. One never hears of such things as the Sugar Loaf, the Devil’s Bit, or the Devil’s Punch Bowl, of Lake Belvidere, of Newtown this or that or Mount so and so. Instead one finds the country dotted with full sounding titles, duns and liossa, ratha, and sliabhs take the place of all the Saxon names, and the land looks in reality a separate and distinct entity. There is no similarity with any other nation on God’s earth except where a kindred people have left their traces, or where branches of the same race have spread and multiplied. Obliterated at once are all the towns and villages that make the country look like an English shire, gone are the connecting links with British kings and queens, with Cromwellian freebooter and Williamite adventurer, and on the spots that once knew them spring to life again the memories that carry us back to the old race which has seen Norman knight, Elizabethian gallant, the Roundhead, the Hugenot, the Williamite, and the Palatine, come, intermarry with the children of the soil, and develop into the most anti-English of us all. Nay, these old names carry us back even beyond historic days, recall names and deeds that loom on the border line of history, in those dim days where the mists of tradition bide and all the figures have a mighty majesty. They tell us of the origin of loughs and rivers, why this hollow is so called, and where is the cairn that has lived down time upon yon mountain top. They teach us of the work of the centuries, hold within them the secrets of the far off years, tell us of the changes that have come since first a name was given to them by the tall blue-eyed flaxen-haired heroes who chased the wolves through the pine forests, and formed a phalanx round the island whose fame deterred even Imperial Rome. The rule of the foreigner may have imposed new names upon some of them, but nothing can change the associations of a nation except the indifference of its own people – and today even still those old memories linger in the valley depths and on the mountain tops. On old men’s lips and in old women’s hearts the old names are cherished – the old traditions still survive. They are potent still to link us with what has gone if we but will it.
Some of our public bodies have taken the praiseworthy step of casting their foreign titles and restoring the olden Gaelic names. In very many cases change would not need to be radical, the original title has survived, in a very barbarous fashion generally but not wholly indecipherable. In other instances, generally of towns, only the English title appears to be known. Either of two things has happened here, the town is an English foundation entirely like Charleville, or the name is of some centuries standing, like Newport, Louisburg, or Newtownbarry. The Gaelic names of such places generally is unknown in the district, but the old books restore them to us. The Irish, as we know, never affected town life, but there were towns notwithstanding, for Ptolemy’s map gives the names and situations of several such settlements even then of European fame. It should be the duty of our National organisations to agitate for a return by all our councils, rural and district, to their legitimate titles. The County Councils ruling over districts created by English Acts of Parliament ought to be left alone. Our minor councils correspond far better with our ancient divisions – for all our baronies are mainly the olden sub-divisions of the provinces and retain fairly correctly their original names. An effort should be made to influence our boards to set up on all their public notices the Gaelic names of the villages and parishes, to insist on their electoral divisions being known by their Gaelic titles and in every other way possible to disseminate knowledge of the local history of our people. This history lies locked up in our topography, the natural features of our land, its hills and hollows, its woods and morasses, its riverheads and estuaries, all these are plain to the man who can read our topography. He may never have been within miles of them, and yet their names tell him at once as well as if he were a native what manner of places they are that have been mentioned. The value of such knowledge cannot be overestimated. It is a priceless heirloom, for the loss of which no amount of commercial success can compensate. It is a book that is always to our hand, a well-spring of inspiration that can never run dry; a treasure for the humblest as for the highest; a spell that charms equally the poet and toiler; that whispers of yesterday, and fits us for tomorrow.