Dr. Liam Ó hAisibéil, NUI Galway: Onomastic Perspectives in the Creation of Space in Acallam na Senórach

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Blog author: Kathleen Reddy

The CSCS seminar on December 10, 2019 was given by Dr. Liam Ó hAisibéil of NUI Galway, specialist in Gaelic onomastics and currently a visiting researcher in the University of Glasgow’s School of Humanities. Dr. Ó hAisibéil’s talk was entitled “Onomastic Perspectives in the Creation of Space in Acallam na Senórach.”

Acallam na Senórach, which translates as “The Colloquy of the Ancients” is an Irish text dating from the early 13th century, and which is found in five manuscripts surviving from the 15th to 17th centuries. It is the longest extant text in the medieval Gaelic fíanaigecht genre, which consists of tales centred on the warrior Finn MacCumaill and his warrior band of fían. In Acallam na Senórach, a collection of tales is framed by a narrative set in the 5th century AD, in which St. Patrick is taken on a tour of Ireland by Cáilte and Oisín, two of the fían. The text includes dialogues between St. Patrick and the two warriors as well as poetic interludes which accentuate the narrative. A significant aspect of the text is the inclusion of multiple examples of dindsenchas, in which the origins of place-names are recounted.

Dr. Ó hAisibéil explained that research on the onomastic aspects of Acallam na Senórach usually takes one of two approaches: research which takes the places named in the text as imaginary and research which considers them as real locations. Dr. Ó hAisibéil also pointed out that about 200 place names, or 30% of the places mentioned in Acallam na Senórach have been identified as real place names. However, this leaves about 500 names which are inconclusive. Dr. Ó hAisibéil also outlined a chronology of place names in Ireland, with certain lexical structures being productive at different periods of history, and place names becoming progressively more structurally complex. This means that the structure of a place name indicates when it came into being.

Dr. Ó hAisibéil explained that about 230 place names are given as pairs in the texts, where a place is given a double name: the name of the place in the text’s 13th century present, as well as the place’s name at the time of the action set in the 5th century. These are presented in the formula: “X which is now called Y.” Dr. Ó hAisibéil has analysed these paired place names and has shown that over half the place names in the Y position can be identified while those in the X position cannot. He also found that most of the place names in the X position follow a naming pattern that was common in the 11th to 13th centuries. This indicates that the “older” names given in the text are likely often “imaginary” names, possibly created by the author of Acallam na Senórach.  

Dr. Ó hAisibéil concluded his talk by posing a number of questions for further research which his findings have raised, such as the purpose of created place names in the text. Dr. Ó hAisibéil’s engaging presentation was followed by a number of questions from members of the audience, particularly those who are also engaged in research concerning onomastics as well as fíanaigecht literature, indicating the pertinence of Dr. Ó hAisibéil’s research. As is the custom, the presenter and audience members adjourned to a nearby public house to continue a fruitful discussion.

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