By JAMES HARDIN
“Naming is one of the most interesting things that people do with landscape.” So said Kay Muhr, author and senior research fellow of the Northern Ireland Place-Name Project in Irish and Celtic Studies, Queen’s University, Belfast, Ireland.
Muhr was guest speaker at a May 16 symposium held at the Library of Congress and sponsored jointly with the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure/Arts Council of Northern Ireland, the American Folklife Center and the Library’s Music Division. The symposium, titled “All Through the North, As I Walked Forth” (after an Irish folksong), was part of a larger program of concerts and lectures, “Rediscover Northern Ireland,” held from May 2 to May 29, 2007.
“Places get names for different reasons,” explained Muhr. A place is given a name “for something important about it in the past,” and the name later becomes a “window into intimate history.” Places are named, for example, for people, natural features of the landscape, trees, animals or ancient buildings.
Muhr’s talk focused on the evidence for place names and social and military history that can be found on the maps drawn by Richard Bartlett in southeast Ulster in 1603. A few years later, Bartlett evidently lost his head at the hands of local inhabitants in north Ulster who “would not have their country discovered.”
The symposium also featured a lecture by Henry Glassie, author and professor of folklore at Indiana University, Bloomington. Glassie talked about several of the people he recorded for his book “Passing the Time in Ballymenone” (Indiana University Press, 1982), which was based on fieldwork he conducted over a decade in a rural community in Northern Ireland’s Co. Fermanagh.
Glassie went to the region in 1972 to learn how “country people endured hard times.” During his research, he learned that many of the people he met ordered their history less chronologically than spatially. Places on the familiar, hilly landscape carried names, the names evoked events and the events were cast into narratives that the local historians arranged into three classes: saints, battles and the neighbors. Thus did the local people accommodate themselves to the struggles of their daily existence and learn to prevail “by adhering to the virtues of faith, courage and wit.”
Both speakers acknowledged the pleasure and importance of walking and careful observation to the process of community formation. They addressed the cultural importance of names and the way community is established and maintained by sharing knowledge of the natural and cultural landscape.
Also on the program was Edward Redmond, a senior reference librarian in the Library’s Geography and Maps Division, which holds 5 million maps, including many Irish maps dating from 1528 to the present. Redmond gave an overview of the division’s holdings and described its carto-bibliographic resources on Northern Ireland, showing a sample of historic maps from the collection. He gave a brief introduction to the resources available for doing research in the division and announced an Irish carto-bibliography, compiled by Patrick Dempsey and members of the Geography and Maps Division staff, which will soon be published as an online finding aid.
The Northern Ireland Place-Name Project was founded in 1987 as a cultural initiative to study the origins, history, and meaning of the place-names in Northern Ireland. While most of the names are of Irish Gaelic language origin, some derive from Norse, Norman French, Ulster Scots and English. The project has produced seven volumes of in-depth scholarship on the subject, and plans are under way to produce two more volumes and an interactive electronic database.
James Hardin, former editor and public information coordinator at the American Folklife Center, retired from the Library of Congress in 2004.