Some Puzzles and Cautions in Interpreting Irish Local Names (Origin of the name Ireland)

Patrick Weston Joyce

We are not able to tell, with any degree of certainty, the meaning of the name of Ireland itself, or of any one of the four provinces. Our old writers have legends to account for all; but these legends are quite worthless as etymological authorities, except perhaps the legend of the origin of the name of Leinster, which has a historical look about it.[1] The oldest native form of the name of Ireland is Eriu or Heriu. But in the ancient Greek, Latin, Breton and Welsh forms of the name, the first syllable Er, is represented by two syllables, with a b, v, or w sound:—Gr. and Lat., Iberio or Hiberio, Hibernia Jouernia (Ivernia); Welsh and Breton, Ywerddon, Iwerdon, Iverdon. From this it may be inferred, with every appearance of certainty, that the native name was originally Ibheriu, Eberiu, Iveriu, Hiberiu, Hiveriu, or some such form; but for this there is no native manuscript authority, even in the very oldest of our writings. Beyond this, all is uncertainty. Dr. Whitley Stokes suggests that this old form may be connected with Sanscrit avara, western; but this, though possibly right, is still conjecture.

The name Erin has been explained iarin, western land; or iar-inis, western island. Zeuss conjectures iar-rend, or iar-renn, modern iar-reann, western island or country; and Pictet regards the first syllable of the form Ivernia as being the Celtic word ibh, land, tribe. Pictet took the word ibh from O'Reilly, whereas there is no nominative singular word ibh in the Irish language: ibh or uibh is merely the dative plural of ua or o, a grandson. Max Müller (Lectures on the Science of Language, I. 245) thinks he sees in Erin or Eriu a trace of the name of the primitive Aryan people. But all these latter conjectures are almost certainly wrong.


[1] See my Irish Names of Places, vol. i., page 93.