Monday, April 18, 2011

The Meaning of Portlaw

There is no problem with the derivation of the first part of the word: Port meaning a river bank. All are in agreement with this. It is the second part (the “-law”) which gives rise to a difference of interpretation. Three possibilities have been put forward over the years: The Anglo Saxon theory. Port = bank and the “law” originating from the Anglo Saxon word lagh meaning a hill. This idea is mentioned in Canon Patrick Power’s Place Names of the Deise and Canon Power’s views carry serious weight. Canon Power, however, does not take direct responsibility for the theory but attributes it to the Slieverue scholar, John O’Donovan of Ordinance Survey fame (1806-1862). The Anglo Saxon (lagh = hill) origin for Portlaw is not mentioned by Dr. Hennebry. When taken objectively on its own merits, the theory would seem to be lacking in substantial back up on the grounds that (a) given the geographical setting of the low lying Clodiagh at Portlaw it would be stretching credibility to associate its river bank with a hill - in any language. (b) Anglo Saxon as a language petered out in England in the 12th century as it gave way to the precursor of the English language as we know it - it was never at any time spoken in the Portlaw area. (c) Having one part of a place name in Gaelic and the second part of the same word in Anglo Saxon would be most unusual and not make linguistic sense. The “LÁCH” (= friendly) theory. This would give us Portlách as coming from the word lách (modern spelling) meaning friendly or simpatico. Lách being a common word which has found its way into the English of the Deise in phrases like “a decent, lách kind of a man.” The particular modern spelling (Portlách) has been accepted by the Place Names Commission, without comment on its derivation. Unfortunately the spelling adopted by the Commission is of little help in determining home exactly the name originated, in the same way that the new spelling of saol (meaning life or lifetime) gives no clue to its real origin. We have to go back to the older spelling saoghal to see the connection with the Latin saeculum (age or lifetime). It is true, however, that the lách = friendly theory has its advocates and has been mentioned by Dr. Hennebry as a possibility. However, as an epithet in Gaelic, the word lách seems to be exclusively applied to humans. Can anyone find another instance where a hill or a wood or a plain or a river bank or any geographic feature is described in place names to be lách (meaning friendly)? Furthermore – and this is important – it is clear that in the older Irish spelling the word lách (= friendly) always had a “g” in the middle – LÁGHACH. In its older form Portlaw never had a “G”-but it did have a “D”-Portcldhach. This is significant. The “Stony River Bank” theory. Portcládhach was the older written form. The cládhach possibly comes from cladach meaning a stony place by a river or the sea. The word is common in Connaught in phrases like “thíos ar an gcladach” meaning “down on the stony shore” (as opposed to the sandy beach – which is trá). The Claddagh fishing village (now part of Galway city) is a case in point. Henebry seems to favour this “stony place” explanation over the “lách” theory (Scribhne Risteird de Hindeberg). And Richard Henebry was a native of the place as well as an able scholar with his doctoral thesis on “The Phonology of County Waterford Irish” But then how can Dr. Henebry or anyone else explain the disappearance of the “d” sound in the middle of the word? Cladach to Cládhach (or clách). Not really a big problem. The middle consonant is often glossed over (with a séimhiú) in the spoken word as the Irish language evolved. Take leabhar, for example, meaning a book. In old Irish this was LEBOR (no séimhiú ) from the latin Liber. Similiarly Dé Domhnaigh (Sunday) comes from Dies Domini (The day of the Lord) but over time we put in a séimhiú and dropped the “m” sound. Máthair (mother) was originally MATIR (no séimhiú ) from the latin Mater. Fabhal (as in fabhalscéal = a fable) pronounced “foul” comes from FABULA etc. etc. To this day Irish speakers of the English language (in Waterford and elsewhere) have no trouble slipping in a “séimhiú” in an English language word resulting in the dropping of a consonant. “Gimme two Fantas, a gin and tomaha juice and a large bohel. In many rural parts, WATER is pronounced waher. MIGHTY becomes moihy etc. So there is no big deal in explaining how “cladach” could come in time to bee pronounced “cládhach (or clach) without the “d” sound. I would therefore respectfully submit – without being dogmatic – that the cladach derivation, is the most plausible of the three propositions put forward. It makes good sense – especially when to this day, you can look over the bridge at low water and by the shimmering stream you can see with your own eyes those myriads of small Clodiagh-washed stones looking up at you. They are that Stony River Bank – the Stony River Bank that tells you its name – PORTCLÁDHACH – PORTLÁCH – PORTLAW.

Brendan Coffey Baile Átha Cliath – 23 Eanair 2007

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