It is not just mythological, divine and actual ancient people that have inspired classical street names in Belfast. There are also some ancient geographical terms that have been used. There is a Hibernia Street in Holywood, which uses the Latin name for Ireland, a name that stems from the Latin for ‘winter.’
But perhaps the more intriguing ancient influence comes from the map of ‘Hibernia’ depicted in the Geographia of Claudius Ptolemy, a second century AD, Alexandrian Greek mathematician, astronomer, geographer and astrologer.
Off University Street, there is an Eblana Street, named in 1874 (IHTA XVII.18) from a town listed on the east coast of Ireland on Ptolemy’s map. It is very likely that Belfast’s Eblana Street was so named in the belief that Ptolemy’s EBLANA was the earliest recorded name for the locality of Dublin.
Irish antiquarians such as Sir James Ware and Walter Harris made this EBLANA-Dublin connection and believed that the name had somehow evolved from EBLANA into Irish Dubhlinn, anglicised as Dublin. This identification may have become widely enough accepted for P.W. Joyce to repeat it in the first volume of The Origin and History of Irish Names of Places, published in 1875, without any examination.
Several businesses and institutions in modern Dublin haveused the name Eblana because of this supposed equivalence, e.g. Eblana Motors and the Eblana Theatre, located in the basement of the Busáras, Dublin’s main bus station.
However, it is now widely accepted that Ptolemy’s EBLANA does not refer to Dublin but to place a little to the north of the city. By 1946, T.F. O’Rahilly was making no mention of a connection between Eblani or its Ebdani inhabitants with the city of Dublin: “Ptolemy places these somewhere about the north of Co. Dublin; but they and their town, Eblana, appear to be unknown to Irish tradition. (O’Rahilly (1946), 7).
Unlike Dublin, Ptolemy’s EBLANA does not stand on a river, but between the mouths of two rivers: the BUBINDAS and the OBOKA. The former appears to be the River Boyne and because early antiquarians believed that EBLANA was Dublin, they identified the OBOKA with a river south of the city, specifically that which enters the sea at Arklow in Wicklow, consequently dubbed the Ovoca (now the River Avoca).
It may be Ptolemy’s OBOKA that is the River Liffey (although there is no etymological connection), with his MODONNOS probably representing the Avoca. EBLANA, thus, is located somewhere between the mouths of the Boyne and the Liffey. This could see EBLANA identified with the promontory fort/trading post of Drumanagh south of present-day Loughshinny, a site which is prominent in arguments over connections between Ireland and the Roman world.
The name ‘Eblana’ might actually be known to Irish tradition, perpetuated in names of peoples and places recorded in Irish medieval sources, namely Eibhlinn, Sliabh Eibhlinne (= Slieve Felim) and Éile (Ely O’Carroll, Eliogarty/Ely O’Fogarty, Brí Éile = Hill of Croghan, where the Old Croghan Man was found; Tempan (2006)).
On the surface, the distance between EBLANA and ‘Éile’ might seem rather large, with some rather hefty sounding letters dropping out, but really this development is rather standard. The ‘b’ in medieval Irish is prone to disappear, especially when connected to another consonant. The loss of the ‘b’ would see the initial ‘E’ lengthened, with the ‘n’ disappearing probably through variations in declension. This is seen in other Irish names such as Ériu/Éirinn, Áru/Ára/Árainn (Aran Islands) and Rechru/Reachrainn (Rathlin).
These names seemingly derived from EBLANA – Eibhlinn, Sliabh Eibhlinne, Éile – are located in the Irish midlands (Offaly and Tipperary), but this is not incompatible with the identification of EBLANA with Drumanagh on the east coast. Many centuries had passed between the creation of Ptolemy’s Geographia and the emergence of these peoples in native Irish sources. There are several other Irish populations named by Ptolemy who are believed to have spread or migrated considerable distances before they emerge in native Irish histories, e.g. MANAPII located in the south-east, but connected with Fir Manach / Fermanagh.
Another possible etymological trail might be seen in the name of the River Delvin in north Co. Dublin. As Ptolemy often dropped the initial letters of names and a shift from EBLANA to ‘Delvin’ could be possible. The mouth of the Delvin is the location of two substantial groups of chamber tombs, which may have still been visible from the sea at the time of Ptolemy. Looking at the Irish name of the modern Delvin – An Ailbhine – would seem to further any potential EBLANA > Delvin. This seems awfully close to the Eibhlinn proposed above for EBLANA.
However, while EBLANA to ‘Delvin’ is possible etymologically, it is a much more complicated journey than EBLANA > Eibhlinn, involving not just the not uncommon switching (metathesis) of -bl- to -lb-, but also the much rarer addition of an initial ‘D’ (prothesis). It could be that An Ailbhine > Delvin is merely a modern Anglicisation, with a touch of knowledge of the ‘Delbna’, a population group from Westmeath. EBLANA > Eblenn > Sliabh Eibhlinne is much simpler and more economical. No complex sound changes required.
Eblana Street may not be the only ‘Ptolemaic’ Belfast street name. The aforementioned OBOKA seems to be the inspiration for the naming of Avoca Street in 1878 (IHTA XVII.9), in Oldpark between the Crumlin and Cliftonville Roads.
This taking of ‘Ptolemaic’ towns and rivers to provide more modern names is not just limited to Ireland. A similar thing happened to Morecambe and Morecambe Bay in Lancashire, a name coined in the 18th century by antiquarians based on Ptolemy’s MORIKAMBE.
If both Eblana Street and Avoca Street got their names from antiquarian (if somewhat erroneous) enthusiasm regarding Ptolemy’s Geographia, it is a bit surprising that there is no ‘Logia Street’ somewhere in Belfast.
As can be seen from the map above, Ptolemy posited a LOGIA river mouth in the area of what is now Belfast. By its geographical position and by its linguistic form, LOGIA is taken by consensus to refer to the mouth of the Lagan or what is now called Belfast Lough (or Carrickfergus Bay in the Middle Ages).
However, it may only be coincidental that LOGIA resembles the name ‘Lagan.’ The latter derives from the Irish lagán, ‘a hollow.’ LOGIA corresponds to a reconstructed Proto-Celtic word meaning ‘calf,’ which has come into Modern Irish as lao. It is preserved in the Irish name of Belfast Lough, Loch Lao, ‘sea-inlet of the calf.’ There is, incidentally, a street in the Short Strand which has exactly this name, with no addition of ‘street’ or the like. The official bilingual street sign shows the Irish form Loch Lao and the anglicised form Lough Lea.
If these two blogs on ancient and mythological street-names in Belfast has piqued your interest in the history of towns in Ireland, you could head over to the Irish Historic Towns Atlas HERE (https://www.ria.ie/irish-historic-towns-atlas-online).
Alternatively, if the unravelling of etymological mysteries surrounding Irish place names has intrigued you, click HERE (https://qub.academia.edu/PaulTempan) to access a variety of Dr Tempan’s blogs and articles on the origins of Irish names and words.
Joyce, P.W. The Origin and History of Irish Names of Places, Vol. I. Dublin (1875)
O’Rahilly, T.F. Early Irish History and Mythology. Dublin (1946)
Tempan, P. ‘Two Mountain Names: Slieve Felim and Mauherslieve,’ North Munster Antiquarian Journal 46 (2006), 119-25.