‘Carved or hewn in stone’—as were the Ten commandments—is an expression that has come to mean permanence or durability. The placing of name stones at the head of a village bohereen (bóithrin)—in ancient Ireland a bye-road or laneway wide enough to accommodate two cows (Bó) with their calves and yearlings—has given rise to some discussion as to the proper spellings of the village names, such as Cahergowan. The Béal-oideas or oral instruction/wisdom of an area will usually throw more light on the meaning and acccurate spelling than the ‘folksy legend ‘ (folklore) it is sometimes made to be. In the case of Cahergowan,we have the most reliable word of Johnny Casserly that its name derives from the fact that within the village there existed a cattle pound. Nothing to do with a Gabha or smith, you might think.
Yet how could such a facility turn Cahergowan into a Cathair or city? The usual Irish names for a village or townland was baile, as in Baile ‘n Chláir. Yet in Dinneen’s Irish-English Dictionary (1927), under Cathair we find it to have another meaning, “a circular stone fort, common to topography” (p.170)—Cahersiveen in Kerry being then the stone fort of Sabina—while under Gamhain (p.515) we find “a calf”. Under alternative spellings here not only does he give Gamhan but also Gabhain. It would seem clear from this that Cahergowan might mean a circular stone for the calves. However Dinneen has one more surprise for us. Under Gabhainn (p.504) he gives the following meanings, “a place of restraint, a pen or pound, a bonded store etc.”
This would mean the best spelling should then be Cathair Ghabhainn, the ( circular) stone pond, or pen for cattle—which was, possibly, an adaptation of an older Lios (Rath) as P.W. Joyce points out under Lisnagowan in his The Origin and History of Irish Names of Places (1869, page 284).
Where then does the Summerfield of the Ordnance Survey map come from? We know from Lodge’s Peerage of 1837 (p.114) that Ulick John de Burgh, 14th Earl of Clanricarde and Baron of Dunkellin was also made a UK Baron of Somerhill, Co. Kent, in 1826 but they had lost their holdings around here many years previously. In the meantime John Bingham was created a baron in 1800, presumably for delivering both his own vote (Newbrook, Co Mayo) and his wife’s vote (Lady Avonmore of Fortfield, Co Dublin, Lord Lucan’s people) for the Act of Union and made up for himself the more Irish sounding Baron Clanmorris title (not Claremorris). One of his sons had a marriage connection to the Ffrenches of Galway. In the Applottment Book (a record of Church titles based on acreage) of the 1820’s the third Lord, Dennis Arthur Bingham, is shown as having considerable estates in the Bawnmore, Kinisky, Claregalway, Sommerville, Monetough and Rampark line of villages. I give the spellings as I find them there. I have a recollection of a field for young calves being called a summerfield , but I have no references to such as we go to press. Perhaps some reader can further enlighten us on this point. (Contributions to this article or some reflections on the origins of village names around Claregalway are very welcome).
Aodán Mc Glynn