November 10th 2009
Origins of Sligo/Slicech/Sligeach
A recent article by Sligoman Paul Gunning, printed in the Sligo Champion, has prompted a rebuttal from Dr Nollaig Ó Muraíle of NUI Galway. Gunning's article disputed how Sligo got it's name. Having previously worked for the Ordnance Survey as a Placenames Officer, O'Muráile's article is compelling and comprehensive. SligoHeritage is indebted to Dr Ó Muraíle for giving us permission to reproduce the piece. It will be a valuable asset to individuals and researchers delving into Sligo history and is the definitive last word on how Sligo got its name:
"Sligeach" – Sligo’s Original (and Correct) Name
Leaving aside the recent controversy about Sligo borough’s coat of arms – which has no bearing on the subject of the town’s name – the evidence for the name’s origin and meaning is quite straightforward and incontrovertible.
The town bears a name that is on record for almost a millennium and a half. It occurs in three early and unimpeachable sources, each over a thousand years old.
The Annals of Ulster, considered the most reliable collection of early Irish annals, tell of a battle it calls Bellum Slicighe which was fought in the year AD 543 and in which the most notable victim was Eógan Bél, king of Connacht. The form Slicighe is the genitive singular of Slicech, a feminine noun – meaning, as mentioned below, ‘a shelly place’ – and this suggests that it may be the name of a river (most Irish river-names being feminine) – as we will see presently, this was indeed the case.
Bishop Tírechán's mention of Sligo (7th century)
About the year 670 a bishop from Tirawley, in what is now Co. Mayo, named Tírechán wrote an account in Latin of St Patrick’s missionary journeys. While the work has no worthwhile biographical details of the saint, it tells us a great deal that is of value about Irish topography in the 7th century. When recounting the saint’s supposed travels in north Connacht it mentions ‘the river of Slicicha’ (flumen Slicichae) – the name here being a lightly latinised form of Slicech. Slicech, then, was the name of a river – undoubtedly the old name of the Garvogue (just as Gaillem, modern Gaillimh, was the old name of what is now called the River Corrib).
The third ancient source in which the name occurs is the famous early Irish saga or prose tale called Togail Bruidne Da Derga (the Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel) – a work compiled in the 11th century from two 9th-century versions. Towards the end of the tale a list of the ‘royal rivers’ of Ireland includes the Sinand, Siúir and Slicech.
Further corroboration that Slicech (Modern Irish, Sligeach) was the name of a significant river is found in the Annals of Ulster at the year 1188 where the killing of Ruaidhrí Ó Canannáin, king of Tír Chonaill and royal heir of Ireland, is said to have occurred ic Drochat Slicighi (at the bridge of [the] Slicech – i.e. the bridge over the river S.). This seems to be the last time that Slicech is treated as a feminine noun; when the Annals at the year 1245 report the building of the castle of Sligo, it is called caislen Sligigh – Sligeach here being treated as masculine.
Slicech, it should be noted, is the Old and Middle Irish spelling of the word that is written Sligeach in Modern Irish. (Old and Middle Irish are the phases of the language in use prior to about the year AD 1200.) Slicech derives from a well-attested Old Irish word, slice, ‘shell’, which is written slige in Modern Irish. From this it will be seen that ‘c’ in Old Irish when placed between two vowels is the equivalent of ‘g’ in Modern Irish (while ‘g’ between two vowels in Old Irish was lenited or aspirated – which is why it is written ‘gh’ in Modern Irish).
Professor Mary O'Dowd in error
And so to the suggestion, recently revived in the Sligo Champion, 30 September 2009, p. 28, that ‘the “slig” in Sligeach is not a shell but rather a sli or slighe, meaning either an important road or road through a wood’. Mary O’Dowd of Queen’s University, Belfast, is cited in support of this idea. Now Professor O’Dowd, a former colleague of mine in QUB, is highly respected as an authority on Early Modern Ireland but she has not – nor would she claim to have – any special expertise in relation to the Irish language, especially in its earlier phases. In this instance she appears to have misinterpreted a statement by Professor Donncha Ó Corráin of UCC (published in 1972) about the Old Irish word slige, meaning a path or road. She suggests that the word in question – written slighe in Modern Irish (or in standardised spelling, slí) – is the basis of the name Sligo. But if she understood the difference between the rules for spelling words in Old and Middle Irish on the one hand and in Modern Irish on the other she would appreciate that were the name actually to involve the word slighe/slí, then the anglicised version of the place-name would probably be something like ‘Sleeo’ or ‘Sleeuck’ – certainly not ‘Sligo’! (Incidentally, Ó Corráin did not at any stage suggest that the name Sligo derived from the word slige.)
But that has not stopped Mr Paul Gunning from going still further and deducing that Sligo derives from a strange form, ‘Slige dha Átha’ (more correctly spelt Slighe Dhá Átha), for which he does not, nor could he, cite references, but which by a remarkable leap of faith he associates with a phrase found in ecclesiastical documents from the later middle ages, the Calendar of Papal Registers and the Annates (records of fees paid to the Papacy in late medieval times) of Elphin Diocese – ‘Inter duos pontes’ (between two bridges). He manages to misquote the phrase and seems to attach special significance to a slight misspelling of Sligeach (Slignath) – being clearly unaware that Irish names in these sources are notoriously prone to garbling and corruption, since the documents are in most cases copies of copies (of copies?) transcribed by Roman clerks who had never heard of most of the place-names they were obliged to copy. (To take just one example, Killaspugbrone in the Papal Registers is mangled into ‘Rillea Spacbroyn’, while Sligeach is spelt in no fewer than eight different ways.) Also occurring in the same context is a strange place-name, Minbrisg (or some variant), which may be discussed on another occasion. As for the ‘two bridges’, one noted historian has suggested that they may well be the ancient bridge of Sligo (first mentioned in 1188) and the bridge once known as Droichead Martra which gave name to the townland of Belladrihid near Ballysadare. The phrase almost certainly has nothing to do with two alleged bridges in the area of Sligo town.
Ill informed speculation on Sligo/Slicech
None of the recent linguistically and historically ill-informed speculation is capable of dislodging, to even the slightest degree, the position of Slicech as the well-attested and wholly unproblematic name of the river and, later, of the castle and town, and later again of the county. The name, moreover, is corroborated by the findings of archaeologists who tell us that the local river, sea and land all abound in shells – hence the wholly appropriate name, ‘the shelly place’.
And it is worth noting that the name-form Sligeach survived unchanged and uncorrupted among the Irish-speaking population of the area (that is, almost everybody living in the vicinity of Sligo for well over a millennium) while the language remained the local vernacular. That is surely a remarkable degree of continuity. And it is especially noteworthy that, despite the sneers of latterday ‘experts’ – all of them, be it noted, lacking any expertise in the earlier language – the ‘popular’ interpretation of the name’s meaning is proved by the Dictionary of the Irish Language [from] Old and Middle Irish Materials (compiled by an international team of scholars 1913-1976 and published by the Royal Irish Academy) to have been absolutely correct! The local ‘peasantry’, then, turn out to have been better-informed on the matter than some of those who have since advanced nonsensical ‘explanations’ of the name – generations of Sligo people certainly did not merit having their understanding of the matter dubbed ‘silly’ by those who should have known better.
In conclusion, it might be conceded that if the name of Sligo were badly attested – or like, say, Leitrim, were not on record until as late as 1491 – there might be some slight justification for indulging in the kind of fevered and ill-informed speculation recently seen in the pages of the Sligo Champion.
Sligo/Sliceach named a century and a half before Dublin/Áth Cliath
Instead, Sligo is one of the earliest and most reliably attested of Irish place-names, occurring three times prior to AD 1000 in three impeccably trustworthy sources as Slicech (exactly equivalent to the modern form Sligeach).
Sligeach, in fact, is on record earlier – often much earlier – than the name of every other major town and city in Ireland. For example, it occurs a century and a half before our earliest record of one of the two names of Dublin (Áth Cliath – and three centuries before the capital’s other name, Duiblinn), about 120 years before Belfast and 140 before Cork, a full six centuries before Kilkenny and almost as long before Galway, and nearly four centuries before Waterford. There are just a couple of near-contemporaries – for example, it beats Limerick by a mere quarter of a century, and (according to the most reliable annalistic source) is on record just three years before Derry.
In the light of the evidence I have just set out, one might reasonably expect Sligo’s people to rejoice in the admirable degree of antiquity which attaches to the town’s (and county’s) name – historically attested for almost 1,500 years and archaeologically perhaps as much as 5,000 years – rather than chasing after the most foolish of hares and (to continue in the same vein) proposing truly harebrained interpretations of a name which is simply, and gratifyingly, lacking in difficulty or ambiguity.
Why look for problems where there simply are none?"
Dr Nollaig Ó Muraíle, MRIA,
Roinn na Gaeilge,
(formerly Placenames Officer,
Ordnance Survey – 1972-93)