Where the streets have new names – Frank McNally on a French row with strong Irish echoes

Return to sender

I see that some French people are up in arms again, this time over a postal reform that will impose new names on previously nameless rural roads and numbers on houses that never needed them before.

The measure will replace traditional forms of house address. And as reported by the London Times, it has caused special annoyance in Brittany, where a man named Jacques Danin is leading the protest against what he sees as an attack on Breton identity.

Danin owns the only house in “Ty Nevez”, a hamlet in the district of Plouezoc’h, and so has never been hard for the post office to find. Ty Nevez means “new house” in Breton, just as another placename threatened with extinction, Ty Braz, means “big house”.

But these are considered too vague by Parisian bureaucrats. That other great colonising influence, the smartphone, doesn’t like them either. So the local district council has now dropped the old address for Danin’s house and decreed that henceforth, officially, he lives at “No 1001 Route de Trobellec”.


Bureaucrats say the reforms are just a technical, administrative matter.

Danin is not alone in disagreeing. Another of the Breton critics describes them as a form of “ethnocide”.

The first thing that struck me about this story was the similarity of those Breton placenames with a couple from my native Co Monaghan: Tydavnet and Tyholland.

The prefix there also means “house”.

But as used in Ireland, I think, it generally implies an old church or other religious establishment.

Hence Tydavnet, named for St Davnet, aka Dympna, a seventh-century holy woman who gave her name to the local psychiatric hospital and also inspired a cult in Belgium, where she was martyred, and where the town of Gheel has commemorated her since the Middle Ages with a tradition of mental healthcare in the community.

The other thing that struck me about the French row was how it is essentially a repeat of one that broke out in Northern Ireland all of 50 years ago and rumbled on into this century, before reaching an uneasy resolution.

The “Save Our Townlands” campaign arose in opposition to a 1972 decision by the Royal Mail that every house, however remote, should henceforward have a number, road name, and postcode.

Townland names would not be banned, but they were now considered “superfluous information” and the natives of Northern Ireland were asked to exclude them from addresses.

The Royal Mail had not reckoned, however, with the sense of attachment Irish people feel for these vestiges of an old Gaelic system of land division.

In the mid-1970s, affection for townland names was one of the few things that united nationalists and unionists. The (nine-county) Federation for Ulster Local Studies was an influential opponent too. And of the six counties affected by the reforms, Fermanagh in particular said no.

Speaking to The Irish Times in 1980, the secretary of the FULS, Brian Turner, summed up the debacle:

“Fermanagh never accepted the scheme and ten other councils of the 26 local bodies have now rescinded it. Some irreparable damage has been done but at least people on all sides of the fence now recognise the importance of these historic townlands.”

Even so, the campaign continued to reverberate into the 21st century, partly because of a perceived reluctance by officialdom to use townlands in addresses.

The Northern Ireland Assembly passed a motion in 2001 asking government departments to do so in all correspondence.

But prioritisation of road names continued. And a decade later, even Fermanagh was worried about a gradual loss of communal memory. A 2012 editorial in the Fermanagh Herald carried the headline: “Time running out for our townlands”.

In the current French debate, supporters of the new road name and number system include firefighters, who are not always enamoured of the (sometimes literally) colourful descriptions used to identify rural places now.

A spokesman for the National Federation of Fire Officers complained: “When we are told in the middle of the night: ‘it’s the house in the hamlet with the green shutters’, it’s not so easy to get there quickly.”

But back in 1970s Northern Ireland, local knowledge could still be crucial in such cases. Fionnuala O Connor reported in this newspaper of a case involving a farmer from a Co Down townland called Myra Castle, whose combine harvester caught fire near his home.

He ran inside and rang 999 from his new phone (as yet unlisted in the directory), reporting his location as the aforesaid townland. “But what’s your postal code?” the operator asked.

He didn’t know, so after a desperate search of the phonebook, gave the code of his nearest neighbour instead.

By the time the brigade found them, it was too late. The combine was a burnt-out shell and the chief fireman was angry.

“Why didn’t you tell the operator you lived at Myra Castle?” he asked.