Out and proud – Frank McNally on the many Irishtowns of Ireland

A telling vestige of the island’s history

Ireland is the last place you’d expect to find an “Irish Pub”, so described. An “Irishtown”, however, is a different matter entirely. In a telling vestige of the island’s history, there is no shortage of those. On the contrary, they must be among our more common placenames.

There are four townlands of the title in Dublin city and county alone, according to Logainm, the placename database. These include the biggest and best-known Irishtown, located within shouting distance of where Ireland will play England for a Six Nations Grand Slam this weekend.

Elsewhere, Irishtowns are most common in Meath (which has seven Logainm entries under the name, although there may be some duplication), followed by Wexford (5) and Wicklow (4).

Kildare, Westmeath, and Tipperary all have three listings; Kilkenny and Offaly two each, while Limerick, Mayo, Louth, Laois, and Antrim all have one.


Logainm seems to have no Cork Irishtown, although I think Bandon has, or used to have, a suburb so named. Nor does it mention Tyrone: despite which, my copy of a Benedict Kiely memoir has him recalling an Irishtown in his native Omagh.

That was “just a few houses and the gasworks”, he wrote, but it had at least one historic monument, the “King’s Bridge” (aka Crevnagh Bridge): named for James II, who sat on horseback there in 1689 and “watched Omagh burn behind him”.

Irishtowns apart, Ireland also several thoroughfares called “Irish Streets”, like the low-rise extension of Ardee’s Main St, or the one that leads you from Armagh city centre to – tellingly again – the GAA’s Athletic Grounds.

The historic explanation for these toponomycal oddities, of course, is that the towns and cities involved were all Norman or English strongholds once, with the native Irish confined to the margins, outside the walls (if there were walls), a safe distance from the settlers. They could trade in the metropolis during daytime. But after nightfall, the gates (if there were gates) were closed against them.

Athlone’s Irishtown is an interesting case. In its original form, it was on the Connacht side of the Shannon, as you might expect. Only in later centuries did the name attach to a settlement on the east of town, where it remains today.

Circa 1960, the main thoroughfare there was renamed Sean Costello Street, after a local victim of the 1916 Rising. But in a symbol of modern history, it is now home to a place called “Irishtown Central”, a shopping and residential complex.

There are a few “Englishtowns” in Ireland too, although not as many. One is in Limerick, which also has an Irishtown. And the drama implied in the rival placenames was well played out in the city’s history, especially during the siege of 1691.

Limerick’s Irishtown used to take a definite article, at least whenever it appeared in newspapers. Hence a 19th-century Irish Times report, headlined “Desperate Affray in Limerick”, which described a riot in “the Irishtown”.

That was an unusual riot, for several reasons. Not only was it led by women, it involved police being attacked with “sticks, stones, bricks, and several German clock weights”.

In a more peaceful (but still poor) era, the area included “the Lanes”, made infamous by Angela’s Ashes. There too, it gets the definite article. Frank McCourt describes growing up in Limerick, “down in the Irish Town”.

If any Irishtown deserves a definitive the, however, it must be the one in Mayo. Although little more than a crossroads, that was in 1879 the scene of events that led to the Land League, and by extension to Ireland’s only complete and successful (in its own terms) revolution, the Land War.

But in other respects, the Mayo Irishtown may be an exception to the usual rule, in that the name appears to be a relatively recent invention. Before then, the crossroads was called Drymills, after an old mill from the 1700s or earlier.

An ambiguous handwritten note on Logainm.ie, dated 1947, comments: “It seems that the name ‘Irishtown’ has been given to it by a bankrupt shopkeeper named Mullarkey in commemoration of the late Land League...”

Getting back to the Irishtown in Dublin 4, poor as it was once in former centuries, that one had the benefit of access to the sea, a crucial thing for more than fishing.

“The great unwashed” is just a joke these days, thankfully. But here’s The Irish Times, in an enlightened editorial of 1859, lamenting the effective privatisation then of most of Dublin’s coastline, to the exclusion of those who most needed it.

“We know, indeed, that the poor can bathe for one or two hours daily on the slob and muddy beach of Irishtown,” the paper wrote. But this was a mixed blessing. Given that the area suffered the drainage of the city, and of “several noisome manufacturies”, it was debatable whether the bathers “come out of the water more dirty than when they went in.”