Describing his journey around Lough Corrib, Richard Hayward in his book The Corrib Country (Dundalgan Press, 1968, p.133) had this to say about Claregalway:
We shall not long have regained and travelled along the road to Galway before we notice a complete change in the landscape, for the country now for miles around is a rather dreary plain, flat as a board, a circumstance revealed in the Irish name of the place we are now approaching, Claregalway—Baile-an-Chláir—‘the Town of the Flat Land’
Now the word Baile in Irish usually means a townland rather than a town as such and besides what most people think of as the village of Claregalway—where the Church and shops are to be found—is in fact Cahergowan on the north side of the roadand Lakeview to the south. Even so Mr Hayward’s explanation is the one I grew up with, that Claregalway was the Town of the Plain of Galway! But such is clearly not the case! Where is the “rather dreary plain” he finds “for miles around”? He must have had his eyes closed when he saw the “monotonous plain” (p.134).
P. W. Joyce in The Origin and History of Irish Names of Places (Vol.1, p.427) has a much more feasible explanation. He points out that while Clár literally means a board and as such is often applied as a name to a flat piece of land it can also “signify in some places the ford of the plank”. He specifically mentions Claregalway as an example.
“There is a place in Galway which was formerly called by this name, where a great abbey was founded in the thirteenth century, and a castle in the sixteenth, both of which are still to be seen in ruins; the place is mentioned by the Four Masters, who call it Baile-an-Chláir, but it retains only a part of this old name, being now called Clare-Galway to distinguish it from other Clares.”
This explanation brought back to me memories of my mother recounting the strangeness of having to cross the river during the war (II) on boards (low down opposite the castle) compared to the new (1957) bridge. The Four Masters mentioned above made their epic compiling of old annals in the early 17th century but Professor T.P. O’Neill has written that what was probably a wooden structure was first mentioned in the 1349 records of King Edward III.
“The traditional name was Clár an Diabhail because, it is said, the river Clare was formerly crossed on planks supported by pillars.” (O’Neill: Some Historical Snippets in Drama Festival programme).
So perhaps those who, like me, felt that the County Council some time back were up to their usual penny-pinching tricks in not signposting us fully as Baile Chláir na Gaillimhe might have to reconsider the situation.
Readers’ comments welcome
Editor’s Note: Aodán had made some suggestions for future developments in Claregalway, many of which are already being pursued by Claregalway Amenity Group. An update will be published in a future issue of Nuacht Chláir.