Lost in translation

Around 150 AD a very inquisitive Greek scientist by the name of Klaúdios Ptolemaîos compiled Geographia, a map of the world, consisting of five books. The first chapter of the second book contained a description of Ibernia – Ireland. He called the people living at the time in County Donegal Vennicni and the Foyle Vidua. Or so everyone thought. Only he did not use neither Latin words nor Latin letters. He wrote in his own language using, a quite distinct from the Latin, Greek alphabet.

Vennicnium (headland) was written Ουεννιχνιον – Oy(u)ennixnion and Vidua Ουιδουα – Oy(u)idoy(u)a. It should be considered that Ptolemaîos gathered information for his maps but most likely never made it to Ireland. Even if he did, he would have written down the language spoken at the time in his own tongue, which may not have been too bad, but if he got his information second hand, the corruption of the names would have been severe. Either way, they must have suffered a very similar fate as Irish placenames under the pen of early English cartographers.

The language spoken in his time in Ireland was, what is now called, primitive Irish, a term long overdue a considerable improvement, and was used in ogham inscriptions. In old Irish eo meant life or more precisely, the birth of light and life. Adding a b in front, beo stands for alive, having its roots in gwiHo (Proto-Indo-European) and biwo (Proto-Celtic). In middle Irish the meaning of this word changed its meaning to brooch, pin, salmon, yew, perhaps symbols of live. Having derived from the word neku (Proto-Indo-European), ec meant the extinction of light and life – death. Fire is mostly given the spelling of aed, coming from h2eydhos (Proto-Indo-European) and aydu (Proto-Celtic). But sometimes ea takes on the same meaning. The confusion about vowels and their order probably originated from the pre-Christian ogham which was vowel-less or it could be just a matter of dialect. In the shape of ea it becomes of local interest because it is found in Aileach Neid and Ned’s Point and the tradition of May-fires. It may have been that Neid/Ned was our very own deity in charge of cleansing fires.

A short note at this point on Aileach. In Colby’s Ordnance Survey alone, taken from poems and manuscripts in middle Irish, there must be at least eight different spellings of this word. As early monks started recording, using Latin, they created a similar corruption of words as Ptolemaîos before and the English afterwards. Then there was the problem with the vowel-less ogham. That Patrick allegedly burned over 180 ‘druidic’ manuscripts certainly did not help. And to add to the bewilderment, those monks developed a method of rhyming called metre, changing the spelling of words to make them fit their perception of a rhyme. With other words, everything goes. So Aileach could be ail – stone and lecc – slabstone (on a grave), or Ailech with ech meaning horse(s)/stud(s). And since it is also spelled Oi instead of Ai it could have had its origin in oilean – island, which would be more fitting for an island of islands, which was exactly what they would have seen. Using this option would put an interesting twist to Aileach Neid, making it the island of fire. It also could be easily none of the above.

Still drifting from the issue, I started out with, there is one more thing, which concerns Lough Foyle and Lough Swilly. Celts used to name their lakes and rivers after goddesses. Although the legend of the Foyle claims that this name comes from Feabal, son of Manannán mac Lir but Fea, one of the wifes of Neid, was a war goddess and is said to have resided at Aileach. Only this neither confers with Ptolemaîos name nor the one Seoirse and myself discovered which is Sen-tuinne (middle Irish spelling), meaning Old Wave. It is not stretching it too far,  Ουιδουα – Oy(u)idoy(u)a comes close, leaving us a goddess short. Suili is eyes in Irish, having derived from seh2wil (Proto-Indo-European) and sfwol / s3li (Proto-Celtic), which is translated into sun, but it means literally eye of the sky. And there is a Celtic goddess named Sul/Sulis.

Having wondered off into the thick and dangerous undergrowth of language and the potholes of its spelling, which perhaps was necessary, it is time to return to Klaúdios Ptolemaîos and his name for the people of Donegal, Ουεννιχνιονι – Oy(u)ennixnioi. The closest match so far is eoin – bird(s) from middle Irish writings, which used the same spelling for the name which became later Eógan and then anglicised Owen. It might be premature though to call us bird-people or from the tribe of the birds just now, for the reasons listed above. What the name would have reflected undoubtedly, would have been the aspirations and identification of the people living in Donegal at the time. It would have meant something and it would have been understood. For example and according to legend three princes of the Tuatha Dé Danann (tribe/people of the goddess Danu) held a meeting at Aileach discussing the matter of property division amongst them. They were know as Mac Cecht, Mac Coill and Mac Greine, son of the Plough, son of the Hazel and son of the Sun. Cú Chulainn does not fare as well. He is the Hound of the Shinning Hound. No wonder then that he got himself into a frenzy occasionally, considering the strictness of their pecking order.

Over time several attempts have been made to identify the places on Ptolemaîos map. As far as our corner of the north west is concerned, only the existence of Lough Foyle is secure and the name of the people of this area. But what I am trying to say, in most long-winding way possible, is that before 150 AD a tribe and a headland used a name which was transmitted to the sound of owen. The death of Eógan, son of Niall of the Nine Hostages is said to have taken place in 465 AD. It nearly lost all relevance if he did or didn’t exist. Neither Cenél nEoghain nor Tir Eoghain nor Inis Eoghain have been named after him. He simply was put in place 300 years too late.


Claudii Ptolemaei geographia, Volume 1 By Ptolemy, Karl Friedrich August Nobbe, p. 64 and following

The Geography of Claudius Ptolemy, Book II, ChapterI, Location of Hibernia island of Britannia

Ptolemy’s map of Ireland: a modern decoding by R. Darcy and William Flynn

7 thoughts

  1. Hi Thomas,
    Great blog!!

    Not sure how Vennicnium translates as headland? Looked at eDill but cant find how this would work. Interesting your idea about it being related to Owen and birds but not convinced of that. Maybe the Greek Oy represents the Irish Ui similar to Maqqi Maccu of Ogham. Possibly then Vennicnium may derive from the word Feni – ‘wagon’ or ‘chariot’, hence ‘the people of chariots’? – The Vennicagni?
    Well, thats my guess lol….

    As to Ailech, wasn’t it in earleir times just ‘Al’ – rock, the gentive being Alo, so Ailech is a just a later gentive and hence the second part has no real extra meaning.


  2. Hallo Dane,
    Many thanks for your comment which also has been food for thought. Vennicnium does not translate into headland, my mistake. It is the Vennicnium Headland, named after its people. There are two articles, I came across, which shed some light on the issue of translation.
    The last one is more detailed. Since there is no ‘feni’ in any of the other tribe names on Ptolemy‘s map, I will stick for now to the Indo-European ‘uen’ – strive, leaving us with a possible ic in Venicnii ({n}ii being its plural ending). It is only a guess but since there may be a possibility of ‘ech’ – horse in Ailech, and the 12th century poems very often associate Aileach with steeds or horses, it seems that we won’t after all fly like birds but we might be as swift as horses. And where there are horses, your chariots wouldn’t be far behind, literally. As a royal seat and according to ancient Irish law, a road would have led to the palace, wide enough to accommodate two chariots, each drawn by two horses, without touching each other. Although these laws were allegedly written by Patrick in the fifth century, there were in already established existence before his arrival.
    In 2007 a very interesting thesis was submitted by Shelly D. Werner on Site morphology and settlement distribution during the 1st Millennium BC to 1st Millennium AD, concerning the issue of contact, or in this instance the exchanges of genes, between Scotland and the north of Ireland. She concludes:
    “The evidence interpreted from the analyses does indicate communication and contact between Scotland and Ireland. However, stronger affiliations appear to have formed
    between Argyll and Co. Donegal rather than with Northern Ireland, particularly during the 1st millennium BC. This perhaps involved years of intermarriages between the two areas, which led to the later claims of Irish ancestry for the royal dynasties of Argyll. The alleged migration of the Scots was during a period of climatic decline and societal re-organization. This migration was also ‘recorded’ centuries after the event. During the establishment of the Dál Riata in Argyll, societies were flourishing, supported by the presence of high status objects. At this time the kinglists and genealogies were created, perhaps to substantiate claims of royal ancestry and referenced old communication links with Ireland that were actually with Co. Donegal rather than Co. Antrim.”

    Click to access SD%20Werner%20PhD%20thesis%2007.pdf

    As to Ailech – and back to the 12th century poems, it has been always, to my knowledge, conveyed as a name consisting of two words with slightly variations for the second part. More recently the opinion seemed to have formed that the name consists of ail – rock and lecc – slab stone, grave stone. But since the middle Irish spelling has only one L, no matter which way the rest was spelled, and leaving us therefore a very essential L short, this does not seem to be a valid option.

  3. Thanks for those links , very interesting. I prefer the link with tribe/family `fine’ leaving Coni – Cun, I presume – Conn, so the Tribe of Conn!! Perhaps they were there all along and it’s mere myth that they moved up from Connaght, or it happened much earlier than thought, prior to 150AD.

    As to Ailech, I understand it as meaning ‘the Rock or Rocks’. See eDill which lists it as meaning ‘Rock, Basis, Foundation’ and states it as a `collective’ of Ail. Rock in old Irish was Al, with Alo assumed to be the genitive (according to Jackson and Dumville). Then later by the ninth century it became Ail and the genitive Ailech. See eDill where they give the old Irish example ‘Colmán Alo’ and the eighth century example ‘Coirthech regem Aloo’ meaning Coroticus was actually king of Ailech, not Dumbarton or possibly both (idea I am working on).

    This would then all sync with that paper you gave a link for where Donegal and Argyll were closely linked, the Britons/Picts of Argyl intermarrying with the Irish and Picts of Donegal. We know that the story of the migration to Argyll is most likely Pseudo history as the archaeology has shown that the migration probably went both ways. The Britons/Picts going to Northern Ireland and intermarrying and then returning, off and on, to Argyll and intermarrying much like that paper suggests.
    Many of the tribes of Northern Ireland /Ulster were Cruithne as we know so I would hazard a guess that the migrations of Picts/Britons to Northern Ireland would have been a quite fluid affair but would have increased when the Romans took Britain in the early centuries of the first millenium and moved up into what became Scotland. When the Romans left the Irish moved into Western Britain, the northern Irish descendants of the Britons increasing their presence in Argyll, ie the Cruithne and Irish, possibly explaining why Gildas thought that the Picts first occupied northern Briton at this time. A small clue that might indicate this process was possible is the list of sons of Aedan Mac Grabran, that includes both Britonnic names and even Saxon. This may lead us back then to Coroticus, A Romono British Lord/king leading Scots (moccu Conn most likely) and Picts (non Romano Britons and Cruithne) out of Ailech/ Tir Connell and may explain how the tribe of Conn was able to expand into the midlands in the late to early sixth century, ignoring all the later Pseudo history. If Coroticus was a lord or king of Ailech in the time of Patricks letter (circa 484-493) then we have a tantalising glimpse into who he might actually have been called by the Irish or what the O’Neills called him in their later pseudo history.


    • “most likely Pseudo history as the archaeology has shown that the migration probably went both ways. The Britons/Picts going to Northern Ireland and intermarrying and then returning, off and on, to Argyll and intermarrying much like that paper suggests.”

      Except the legends regard them as from northeast Ireland, the Dal Riata, not Donegal. Further that argument is evidence of absence (as I had seen used to argue the Saxons never settled in Britain except on a tiny scale by the pots not people crowd who have been given a huge blackeye by aDNA studies). There have also been several archaeologists that have pointed out mistakes in Campbell’s assertions.

      • Jim, much research still has to be done before we even can consider getting close to the truth of what really happened and how.
        Sadly, we seem to have entered a period when archaeology and research is considered expendable and so this discipline with some others will be scrapped in Universities. Here go the free thinkers.

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