Irish Language

Unlocking the key to a few Irish place-names

Knowing your ráth from your lios and your dún

Road signs for Derry, Dundalk, Dublin and Slane in the English language, each translated directly into the Irish language words, located in Ardee town, County Louth, Ireland.
Irish road signs Road signs for Derry, Dundalk, Dublin and Slane, all translated from the original Irish (Derick Hudson/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Following on from last week’s look at Micheál Ó Mainnín’s article on Irish place-names, to help you work out the meaning of some our best known towns, here are some clues to guide you through the maze..

Although some of the most important early church sites in Ireland bear names with no ecclesiastical significance, Derry (Doire – “oakwood” for example), the advent of Christianity saw the introduction of a new terminology.

Domhnach, from the Latin dominicum “a church building”, is thought to be our oldest ecclesiastical element and is found in names such as Donaghadee in Down and Donaghmore (Domhnach Mór – “great church”) in Tyrone.

Cill – from the Latin cella, “church, monastery, graveyard” – is by far the commonest ecclesiastical element in Irish place-names but it can be confused with coill which means a wood.

Frequentlym cill refers to an early Irish church or monastery of the pre-12th century period and Shankill in Belfast, derived from the Irish Seanchill – “old church”, probably dates from this period. Cill is often qualified by the name of the founding saint as in Kilbroney (Cill Bhrónaí – “Bronagh’s church”), Co. Down.

Other ecclesiastical elements gained currency from the late 12th century, a period of great reform in the Irish church, particularly teampall, as in Templepatrick, County Antrim and eaglais, as in Eglish in counties Armagh and Tyrone.

The elements ráth (rath), dún (doon, dun), lios (lis), cathair (caher) and caiseal (cashel) are undoubtedly our oldest secular placename elements.

All can be translated as “fort” in English and most of them probably originated in the period c.400-800 AD.

Ráth is most common in Leinster, with significant numbers in Munster and Connacht but there are relatively few examples in Ulster, although we do have Ráth Maoláin - Rathmullan in County Donegal.

Lios on the other hand is least common in Leinster and most common in southern Ulster and Connacht.

Notable examples are Lisnaskea (Lios na Sceiche – “fort of the thorn bush”) and Lisbellaw (Lios Béal Átha – “fort at the mouth of the ford”) in Fermanagh.

Dún appears to occur everywhere and is, of course, the original Irish form of the name of County Down.

The commonest of all Irish settlement terms is undoubtedly baile, Anglicised “bally”, which primarily means “dwelling place” but which in the course of time came to refer to the lands attached to the dwelling unit, the “homestead”, the “townland” and finally “town” itself.

Baile can be followed by a surname so that Baile Uí- Dhálaigh is Ballygawley, it can refer to the situation of the place (e.g. An Baile Meánach - Ballymena)– “the middle town”) to its shape or to the physical nature of the terrain, or to some prominent natural or man-made feature within the townland (e.g. Ballynahinch, Baile na hInse – “the townland which contains an island”).

You can discover more about Irish place-names in Micheál Ó Mainnín’s article at


Doire (dirra) - an oakwood

Domhnach (doenakh) - a church building

Domhnach Mór (doenakh more) - Donaghmore – great church

Cill (kill) - church, monastery, graveyard

Seanchill (shaankill) - Shankill

Cill Bhrónaí (kil wronee) - Kilbroney

teampall (champal) - a church

Teampall Phádraig (champal fadreeg) - Templepatrick

Eaglais (ugleesh) - a church

ráth (rah) - an earthen ring-fort

dún (doon) -a fort

lios (liss) – the nclosed ground of (ancient) dwelling-house

cathair (caher) - a monastic city

caiseal (cashel) - a stone fort

Ráth Maoláin (rah mweelaan) - Rathmullan

Lios na Sceiche (liss ne shkayha) – fort of the thorn bush)

Lios Béal Átha (lis bel aha) Lisbellaw

baile (bala) - bala

coill (cull) - a wood

Baile Uí Dhálaigh (bal’ee gaalee) - Ballygawley

An Baile Meánach (un bala maanakh) - Ballymena

Ballynahinch - (bala ne hinshe) Baile na hInse