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