How Ireland got its name


Following the failed rebellion of Silken Thomas, the Earl of Kildare, in the 1530s, Henry VIII was declared ‘King of Ireland’. This was done by statute of the newly formed Parliament of Ireland in 1542.. The country from that year onwards was known to the English as the ‘Kingdom of Ireland’ but initially it only applied to The Pale around Dublin. This, it is believed, marked one of the first appearances of the name ‘Ireland’ specifically for internal use, although medieval scribes claimed that the Milesians  referred to the island as ‘Irlanda’. During the Viking period of c.920 AD, the ‘British Isles’ had been tagged Skotland, England, Bretland (Wales) and Irland, but the Irish never used Irland or Ireland at that time.
Following the Norman Invasion in 1169, the country had been known internally, as ‘Dominus Hiberniae’, although an early Norman settler, in a short poem, wrote ‘Ich am of Irlaunde…’

The entire population of the island in the 1500s, outside The Pale, spoke only Irish, including, at this stage, the Anglo-Normans. Their country was called ’Éire’ not the ‘Kingdom of Ireland’ – not even ‘Ireland’. ‘Dominus Hiberniae’, too was quickly forgotten.

In Geoffrey Keating’s ‘General History of Ireland’ (c.1632), he cites fourteen different Gaelic names for Ireland, many of which were those favoured by the poets of the land. Only a few of them are familiar to us today: Inis Fáil, meaning The Isle of Destiny, was the name used by the Tuatha Dé Danann but it remained only in the domain of the poets. It later emerged as a synonym Ireland in some romantic nationalist poetry in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Slightly more familiar are the names Éire, Fodhla and Banba. When the eight sons of Míle Easpáinne (The Milesians) invaded Ireland to avenge the death of Míle’s uncle, Ith, they defeated the Tuathe Dé Danann and then proceeded to Tara. On their way they met, in turn, the three goddesses: Éiru, Fódhla and Banba, each of whom was given a promise by the chief poet of the Milesians, that her name would be a name for the island Today we use only one of those names – Éire.

The ancient Greek writers called our island Ierne, and the Romans referred to it as various incarnations of Hibernia. It was thought that Hibernia meant The Land of Winter but Latin scholars now doubt that interpretation.  Pytheas the Greek called it Iérn. It isn’t until Ptolemy of the second century AD that we get to grips with its true meaning. He spells it Iouernia or Ivernia. Leading language scholars of Proto-Celtic/Proto-Goidelic are now sure of its etymology:

Ìeriù > Éiru > Éire > Abundant Land

Scotia or the Land of the Scots, is another term used by various other Roman and Latin writers who referred to Irish raiders as ‘Scoti’. Some of the earliest references are in the fifth century. Saint Patrick also calls the Irish ‘Scoti’, and in the sixth century, early British historians refer to Ireland as Scotia. It was a term that exclusively applied to Ireland up until the eleventh century when modern Scotland was first referred to as Scotia. But up to the sixteenth century many Latin writers continued to refer to Ireland as Scotia. From the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries various scholars used to distinguish between Ireland and Scotland by using Scotia Major for Ireland and Scotia Minor for Scotland. I’m sure the Scots of today love to hear that!

The source of this name is intriguing and leads us to the ancient line of genealogy of the Mileseans. The sons of Míle Easpáinne gave a name to Ireland in memory of their mother Scota, daughter of the Pharaoh Nectanebus. The Milesians, according to the genealogies, were nomadic Scythians from central Europe who over the centuries moved from their homeland to Egypt and then to the Iberian Peninsula where they set sailk for Ireland, their final destination. Curent Irish DNA studies are revealing of this same pattern of population movement.

[Source: Ó Dochartaigh, Seoirse, Know Your Place, Orpen Press, 2021]

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