Dé Máirt, Iúil 10, 2012

Notes on the place-names of the Giant's Causeway

The Giant's Causeway is in the news at the moment due to concerns regarding the inclusion of creationist belief in the new visitors centre.

The Giant's causeway has a great place-name heritage, rooted in the Irish language, and recognised by UNESCO, it is hoped that that hertitage and the Gaelic mythology connected with the causeway is also given prominence.

The Irish for Giant's Causeway is Clochán an Aifir and it is a roughly a translation of same. 

Clochán na bhFómharach is the form found in Irish literature,  it means the causeway of the Fomorians, Formorians being a race in Irish mythology. 

It seems that Clochán an Aifir is ultimately a development of this name. 

"Clochán an Aifir, a development from Clochán an Fhamhair (alias Clochán an Fhomhóra) 'causway of the fomorian'." (MacKay)

It should be noted that the Scottish Gaelic word for giant is fuamhaire.

It was known as Clochán an Aifir in Rathlin Irish.

It was also known in Irish as Tóchar na dTréanfhear 'causeway of the strongmen / warriors'. (MacKay, A Dictionary of Ulster Place-names)

The comtempory version of the 'legend' of the Giant's causeway is as follows ....

The story tells that the Giant’s Causeway was built by Finn McCool as a walk way to fight the Scottish giant Benandonner.

"Finn fell asleep before going across to Scotland and he woke up to find the Scottish giant appearing on the horizon. Finn realised Benandonner was much bigger than himself and ran to his wife Oonagh wondering what he should do. Oonagh disguised Finn as a baby and made him curl up in an enormous cradle. Benandonner saw the huge ‘child’ in the cradle and began to wonder what size his father would be. Benandonner returned to Scotland and destroyed the Causeway as he returned home."

The legend of Fionn Mac Cumhaill agus the Scottish Giant 'Bennadonnar' is well known today but is it attested in traditional Irish language literature or folklore?

I have not come across it. Could it possibly be quite a recent legend?

I have contacted a number of learned Scottish Gaels who have never heard of Benadonnar.

To a topoymist, 'Benadonnar' looks like a place-name rather than any personal name. 

It should be pointed out that the 1:10,000 map reveals a Benadinar (which appears to be a rock), Benadinar Port and Benadinar Cave in the townland of Feigh Mountain. 

Are these place-names the basis of the legend of Benadonnar or is the giant the basis of these place-names? 

I feel that it is likely that the Benadinar rock has given its name to the giant. 

The first element of Benadinar is clearly beann 'a peak', but the second part is still unclear to me. Could the second element be 'danar' (dan-fhear) - a dane, a cruel savage person? This meaning could fit with well with the legend, but firmer evidence is needed. 

Benadinar is undoubtedly from Irish, I would suggest the spelling Beann an Danair 'meaning uncertain')

The minor names of the Causeway Coast

Portnaboe - from the Irish Port na Bó 'Port of the Cow'

Great Stookan - Stookan represents the Irish Stuacán  'a pinnacle'. Great may or may not be a translation of the Irish mór 'great / large'.

Weir's Snout - an English language form. It seems to be so named due to a resemblance of the rock formation to a snout. 

Port Ganny - seems to be transparently form the Irish Port Gainimh 'Sandy Port' 

Grand Causeway - an English form.

Aird Snout - A mix of Irish and English. The Giant's Causeway is in the townland of Aird. Aird means 'heights' in Irish. The townland was formerly divided into Ard Íochtarach and Ard Uachtarach.

Port Noffer - 'Port na bhFear', orginally 'Port na bhFear-Mór'  according to Laverty, it would seem more likely to me to simply be from the Irish Port an Aifir 'Port of the Giant' 

Port Reostan  Close to the part of the causeway known as the amphitheatre. Second element difficult to interpret, insufficient information at this point. A local pronunciation and historical forms could shine some light on it. Could it be a surname or even a personal name? 

Lacada Point- The the Irish, Leac Fhada 'The long slab / flat rock'

Port na Spaniagh - transparently from the Irish Port na Spáinneach 'Port of the Spaniards', liked to the wreck of the Spanish Armada ship, the Girona, at this point. It is very interesting that it is barely anglicised from the Irish, the various Irish elements continuing to be separate words in the anglicised form, this is highly usual, not not atypical on the North Antrim coast. 

Port na Callian / Portnacallion - Obviously from Irish but this is one of the more difficult names in this area to correctly interpret. It is popularly translated as 'Port of the Girl' but cleary that is not grammaticaly feasible in Irish. It could be however that all of the anglicised forms of place-names beginning with 'Port' in this area have been simplified and used -na- in the genetive, ie. the feminine form. 

Callion / callian does resemlbe however the East Ulster Irish form caileán (girl), standard Irish Cailín. 

On the balance of probablity I feel that Port a' Chaileáin (?) 'Port of the girl' is the basis of Port na Callian, but I would prefer to see more evidence before giving a definitive answer. 

Port na Tober - At first glance a transparent form but there is a distinct problem, the Irish word tobar is a feminine noun, therefore the article remains 'an' in the genitive. 

Again, it could be that all of the anglicised forms of place-names beginning with 'Port' in this area have been simplified and used -na- in the genetive. Tobar is feminine in Scottish Gaelic but the genitive in lthat case would be  Port na Toibreach. Could Port na dTobar, with 'tober' declined in an alternative genitive plural be the original form? 

On balance,  I must postulate that Port na Tober is from the Irish Port an Tobair 'The port of the well' but I would prefer to see some historical forms before taking a firm stance. 

Port na Plaiskin / Plaiskin Head I have noted that Plaiskin has been interpreted as 'high, unsheltered land', this could will be the case with pláiscín being the basis of Plaiskin. 

Again we have a grammar problemit could be that all of the anglicised forms of place-names beginning with 'Port' in this area have been simplified and used -na- in the genitive.  

Possibly Port an Phláiscín (?) 'Port of the high unsheltered land', this form would suit the toponmy of the area. 

But again, I would have see some historical forms if available. 

Is it possible that we are dealing with the word 'pléascán', explosion? Is there any explosive quality to the waves at this point?

Hamilton's Seat - an English form, made up of a surname and Seat. 

"At Benbane Head, Hamilton’s Seat (named after Rev. W. Hamilton, the first observer to describe accurately the origin of the basalts in 1786) " 

From Causeway Coast and Glens website (http://www.giantscausewayireland.com/Discovery.T1025.aspx)