Much debate has raged in recent years within Clontarf on the precise derivation and meaning of the name, Clontarf. The anglicised term, Clontarf, is, of course, a corruption of the Irish form, Cluain Tarbh, directly translated as the ‘meadow of the bull.’
But this is precisely where the confusion arises as ‘Cluain Tarbh is grammatically incorrect. Tarbh, being a first declension noun in the Irish language, should change to ‘tairbh’ in the Tuiseal Ginideach (genitive or possessive case).
So the question is, does it mean the meadow of bull, or there are there other explanations?
A number of theories currently abound that the ‘bull’ referred is not in fact an animal at all but instead refers to the ‘bull-like roar’ the sea makes when hitting off the sandbanks. This theory caught legs back in 1861 when English mapmaker, Charles Haliday, in a diary entry recorded ‘that the sandbanks were so named by the Irish because of the roaring of the surf on the exposed sand.’ This sounds like a credible explanation and an interesting coincidental connection. But does it stand up?
A more ludicrous theory is that the ‘bull’ specifically refers to the North Bull, Bull Island or Bull Wall. This is simply incorrect because the very first historic reference to the word ‘North Bull’ did not occur until 1686 when cartographer, Sir Greenvil Collins, refers to the North Bull and the South Bull on Dublin Bay. We can, therefore, rule this one out because we know that Cluain Tarbh existed from Celtic times.
The answer is really quite simple. In a fit of post-modernist style thinking to gain an explanation, we have placed all the emphasis on the word bull or tarbh. In reality, we should be looking at the word meadow (cluain). If we accept the theory of the sea resounding like the bull’s roar, we are left to explain the significance of the meadow. Where is the meadow? When the emphasis is on sea or the bull, why bring in the meadow? Why not the Bull’s Roar? The Sea Bull (Tarbh na Farraige)? Why mix land and sea?
To conclusively answer this question, we must remember that in Celtic times the symbolism of the bull was one of great power, strength, virility and superiority. All of the Celtic chieftains kept bulls and traded them. They even fought wars against one another when their prized bulls were coveted or stolen by a rival.
There is the beautiful story of the Taín Bó Cúailgne (The Cattle Raid of Cooley). So to form a placename, as ‘the meadow of the bull’ would have been a potent, symbolic and very natural thing to do, bearing in mind the importance both of land and bulls to the Celtic people. In my view, this application would have been particularly suited to the fertile plains of Clontarf.
We must also remember that Cluain Tarbh is also grammatically correctly written as Cluain Tairbh in some Celtic manuscripts and the version that has come down to us may in fact be a corruption of the language. We should also remember while the language flourished as a spoken tongue during Celtic times, that only the monks, bards and certain Celtic chieftains were able to write the language. That is why great variations of dialect, words and spelling exist in the language to this day.
Looking for the Meadow?
So to take this debate one step forward, I believe that instead of chasing around looking for meanings connected with the bull, we should in fact be looking for the precise location of the meadow. And does Clontarf Castle now stand on part of that meadow? What do you think?