Photo by Lois Kapila

You might have noticed how many of Dublin’s street names find their roots in the food trades of earlier centuries. There’s Cook Street and Fishamble Street, and there’s Cornmarket and Winetavern Street, to name a few.

And each place name is more than just a handy tool for telling each other where to meet. It can also increase our understanding of the past, particularly Ireland’s gastronomic and culinary history.

Cook Street, which is parallel to the Liffey just south of the river near Christ Church, today has very few houses and no food outlets, with the road used as a parking spot for tourist coaches outside the old city walls.

But while there are no cooking shops, or perhaps even cooks living there today, in the past the concentration of bakers and cooks there, just outside the Hiberno-Norse north wall of Medieval Dublin, was logical.

Their fires and ovens would have been a potential danger to the city’s householders, medieval houses were wooden, and the nearby river would have provided ample water to extinguish out-of-control fires.

Other trades that had strong smells were also forced outside of the city’s walls, such as the leather-curing industry from which the Blackpitts gets its name.

In Dublin, food-related place names can hint at the eating habits of our forefathers, and provide a lens to study traditions, practices or trades that were once widespread.

Parts of Dublin and other Irish cities were linked with specific trades, for example Linenhall, and the street names often relate to this history, even though the trade or industry is but a distant memory.

The vast majority of the place names of Ireland have their origin in the Irish language. Most of these were coined before the seventeenth century – and a significant number are at least a thousand years older.

Researchers at the placenames department in the Civil Service have been working away to establish the correct original forms of the names, putting up what they learn online.

For example, the previously mentioned Cook Street in Dublin is Sráid na gCócairí (the Street of the Cooks), whereas Cook Street in Cork is Sráid an Chócaigh, which is named after an individual by the name of Cook.

This difference in the English and Irish versions is particularly notable in the name Dublin, which is a phonetic derivation of Dubh Linn or “black pool”, while the Irish Baile Átha Cliath literally means “the town of the ford of the hurdles”.

But there are many food-related place names, too, where in the move from the Irish to the English, some of the resonance has been masked.

Cattle were a sign of wealth in ancient Ireland and cattle raids such as in the famous myth Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), in which Queen Medb summons an army to steal a bull, were common.

Cattle were revered more for their milk, butter and other bán bhia or white meats than for their meat, and many milk, butter and dairy related placenames are found throughout Ireland. More recent archaeological evidence has helped reappraise the estimates of how much beef was eaten by our ancestors.

The Irish obsession with cattle is evident, too, in Irish place names. Bó and tarbh are the words in the Irish language for cow and bull respectively.

The word bóthar is Irish for road and a road was defined in width by the length and breadth of a cow and even the Irish word for boy (buachaill) can also mean herd boy or herdsman.

Bóthar can also appear as “batter”, as in Stoneybatter, or in a direct Anglicisation such as Bohernabreena as in “the road of the hostel”, both of which are in Dublin.

Stoneybatter is a partial remnant of the old road from Glendalough in County Wicklow to Tara, County Meath, which acted as a cow track or drove way for centuries. The age-old link between Smithfield, Oxmantown, Stoneybatter, and the cattle trade remains in a number of relatively modern street names.

Many of those of a certain vintage, who are in their 50s or older, may still remember the cattle market that ran for centuries at the corner of North Circular Road and Aughrim Street, which was redeveloped into a public housing complex called Drumalee (Droim an Lao) or “hill of the young calf”.

In neighbouring Cabra, too, there is an Annamoe Road, Park, Terrace, and Drive stemming from (Áth na mBó) or “the ford of the cows”. This bovine link is preserved in the relatively recent Cowtown Café.

Other bovine Dublin place names include Red Cow Lane, Bull Wall, Bull Alley not to mention Clontarf, the site of the famous battle at which Brian Ború defeated the Vikings in 1014, which derives its name from Cluain Tarbh (meadow of the bull).

Some place names featuring the English “bawn”, such as Old Bawn in Dublin, derive from Bó-dhún – cow fort or walled enclosure, and not from ‘bán’ the Irish for white.

In addition to the bovine-related place names in Dublin, there are ovine connections, ranging from Gleann na gCaorach (Glenageary) or “the valley of the sheep” in South County Dublin to Lamb Alley in the Liberties close to Cornmarket, or even Goatstown (Baile na nGabhar).

Some of Dublin’s other food-related place names are also disguised. Ship Street at the back of Dublin Castle actually derives its name from Sheep Street, which is still evident in the Irish original Sráid na gCaorach.

Elsewhere, a glance at the Irish version of a street name throws up other staples: North Frederick Street, in Irish, is Sráid Ghort an Arbhar (Street of the Corn Field).

Not everything that sounds edible was, though: Marrowbone Lane finds its origins in Saint Mary at Bourne or Marylebone in London, rather than a bone to flavour soups.

As O’Connell Street was previously named Sackville Street, earlier maps show how some Dublin streets have been renamed during the redevelopment of the city. Bishop Street was once upon a time called Big Butter Lane, and Wood Quay was Pudding Lane.

But others remain today – from Blackberry Lane, to Cherry Orchard, Oatlands, Cherryfield Road, Distillery Road, Haymarket, Hazelbrook, Home Farm Road, Milltown, Orchard Road, Shellybanks Road, South City Markets, and Watermill Road.

So as you walk the streets of Dublin, pay more attention to the signs and clues that hint at our cultural and gastronomic heritage, often hidden in plain sight.

Máirtín Mac Con Iomaire is a senior lecturer in Culinary Arts, Gastronomy and Food Studies in the Dublin Institute of Technology.

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