And That’s How I Spell "Ireland"
By Patricia Doherty (alt. Dougherty, etc.) Hinnebusch
Last Updated September 14, 2010

Searching for the Origins

irish map"What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Everybody knows that quote from "Romeo and Juliet" by the Englishman, Shakespeare. But if a "wild Irish rose" were the flower in question, the remarkably verbal inhabitants of Ireland would enthusiastically and lengthily debate word derivations and alternative spellings before countenancing alternative terms. Ireland has long been inhabited by philologists who exhibit creativity in the spelling of proper nouns. On the supposition that each of you hopes to experience the forty shades of green in "Ireland, Mother Ireland," and want to know something about its name, I offer my (disputable) explanation of the island’s ancient and modern names.*

Earliest Names of Ireland

One of the earliest names for Ireland was Scotia, arguably after Scota, a Pharaoh’s daughter in the days of Moses. Scotia married Niul, a Gael (alternative spelling, Gaedhal). Some say the Gaels got their name because Niul was a Gaedhal (alternative spelling, Gaodhal. Something was -- literally -- lost in the translation.). The Gaels migrated from Egypt to Crete to Spain (according to some historians.) The leader, Milesius (alt. Miled), who was also married to a Pharaoh’s daughter named Scota (a descendant of the aforementioned bride of Niul, some say) died in Spain.

The Gaels Arrive in Ireland

The Gaels left Spain for Ireland (then called Eirinn by some tomes; see last sentence in this paragaffe, er, paragraph) under the leadership of Milesius’ eight sons, but five sons perished in a dreadful storm. (Three sons survived but we only read about two: Eber (alt. Heber, Iver) and Eremon (yes, we have no alternatives!) and one deceased son. (More about this later.)

irish nameDividing Ireland

About 1000 B.C. Eber (Heber, etc.) defeated a De Danann army led by Queen Eire near the mouth of the Boyne. (Eire, Eirinn -- you got it, right? We’ll get back to the naming of the island pretty soon.) Well, Eber got the southern half of the Emerald Isle and Eremon the northern half. The northeast corner was accorded to the children of the lost brother, Ir, and the southwest corner to a cousin, Lughaid, the son of Ith. (Ith this really important? "Corner" is pretty imprecise, but it’s all I got! OK, you don’t need to remember the part about Ith but keep the name "Ir" in mind.)

A History of the Name

In the sixth century B.C., the poet Orpheus referred to Ireland as "Ierna," a name also used also by Aristotle. Ireland was termed "Ogygia" by Plutarch. Caesar used the name "Hibernia," which was derived from Ivernia, the name of a people located in the south of the island. Remember, the Milesian conqueror mentioned above, Eber, (Heber. Iver -- ah, what’s in a name?) was king of the southern half of the island. And while Tacitus and Pliny and Caesar used "Hibernia" for the whole island, the poet Egesippus called it "Scotia"; Pomponius Mela (first century A.D.) called it "Iuverni" (alt. Ivernia and Hibernia, if you drop h’s); and Solinus (circa 200 A.D.) favored "Juverna." (Remember your old Latin alphabet? The Romans didn’t always have a "j." I guess they got one before Solinus started writing.)

What About the Scots?

Meanwhile, some references say, the Milesians "came to be known as Scots" (alt. Scoti, Scotii after Scota I -or Scota II, or both Scotas. Rather, Scotae. The feminine plural would be Scotae in Latin. I know a little bit about Latin myself!) I can’t tell you if the inhabitants thought up this Scots or Scoti sobriquet themselves. The Latin and Roman historians would have voted for "Hibernians" or "Ebernians" or "Juvenals." (alt. Juveniles? They didn’t think much of Irish cultural achievements at the time.)

More About Scotland

scotlandNow here it gets tricky. Scotland had been called "Alba," but beginning about the third century A.D., the Scots ( I had to stick with one spelling or we’d be at this all evening) began to colonize Alba (later known as Scotia). Eventually all the kings of Alba were Scotic (not according to Scottish history, of course) and the Scotic people got dominion over all or the main part of the country (depending on whose book you read) and Alba began to be called Scotia Minor. (Obviously SOME people were calling Ireland "Scotia Major" at this point. I’m not telling you Who!) Anyway, the party of the first part, Scotia, became "Eire" and Alba became "Scotia." ( I don’t have a clue when "Scotia Major" became the operant title and frankly, Scarlett (Scarllet, Scarlet), I don’t give . . . Give it a rest, OK?) (Image by Wighson, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Finally "Eireland"

So, where did "Eire" come from in? Some believe unshakably, vehemently that its "own inhabitants" had dubbed it "Eire" --hence, Eire, Eireland. Remember the de Danann Queen Eire?(Why didn’t they call themselves Eire-men, then?) And since other so-called "historians" said they called themselves "Scots" ( after -- ah, let’s not go there again), why didn’t they call the island "Scot-land"?.

The Modern Name and Spelling

This brings us approximately to the seventh century, (There’s only one paragraph after this. Hang in there!) at which time the term "Ireland" seems to have been used by the northerners. (No one has recorded what the northeastern corner folks styled themselves.) There are those who say that the modern name, "Ireland," could possibly be traced to Ir, the poor unfortunate who drowned and whose family named the northern half or northeastern corner (who knows?) after him. (See para. 3 if you have to.) Of course, some dispute this and maintain the northern half (or corner) was not Ir-land but Irlanda. (Don’t ask what the southerners or southeast corner folks called themselves. Enough is enough!)

irish songBetter than A Song

There’s a ditty written by a homesick Irish-American titled, "And That’s How I Spell Ireland.") American tourists request it in pubs and taverns all over Ireland (alt. Irland, Eire, Erin, etc., etc.). I could have taken the easy way out and talked about that musical bit of sentimentalia and the other "Irish" songs penned by homesick immigrants. But I persisted in my scholarly pursuits and now you have these fascinating facts about the prior names of Ireland. (Or not, depending on your sources.)

©2006 Patricia Doherty Hinnebusch

* Most of this information is from The Story of the Irish Race by Seumas MacManus. In keeping with the ancient tradition, old Seumus himself spells proper names differently from one chapter to the other.

Learn More About Ireland and Irish Culture

Try the following recommended books from Amazon on Ireland:
How the Irish Saved Civilization
Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom

Ireland (Country Guide)
The Country Cooking of Ireland
Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America


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