Schull or Skull?

The recently inaugurated Wild Atlantic Way raised once again the thorny issue of hand-me-down derivations in English of Irish place names. Schull or Skull? An Scoil or Scoil Mhuire? Confused? You’re not alone. Nor is this a new conundrum.

As long ago as 1912, the two spellings of Schull/Skull were a cause of enquiry. In a letter in the Cork County Eagle & Munster Advertiser (also known as “The Skibbereen Eagle”) in October 5th 1912 the writer states: “I am also very anxious to know if any of our local historians could give us some authentic history to the name of this pretty town presently spelt ‘Schull’ or ‘Skull’”. The letter is signed “Oinseach”.

Ask around and you will get as many different answers as the number of people asked. Both forms of the word have been used for the village of Schull for approximately two hundred years but the only use of “Skull” is on Ordnance Survey maps and only Ordnance Survey maps. Other maps use “Schull” because it is the local usage. Cork County Council supports this usage consequently you will not find a single road sign indicating “Skull”.

What is not in doubt is that the word sounds the same in English and Irish: skull (to English speakers). In the ‘Schull’ spelling the “ch” component is hard, as in “chemist”. First timers frequently pronounce it “shull” because the pronunciation is not obvious.

Why or how the “ch” component came to be is not visible from the record. The earliest evidence I can find of the current spelling is in the pages of the Freeman’s Journal in a letter in its edition of March 23rd 1847 from: “Robert Traill, D. D., Rector and Vicar of Schull, and Chairman of the Schull Relief Committee.” His address was given as: “Schull Rectory, Schull, county Cork”.

Given this early use, particularly the postal address, and the persistence of its use after the Ordnance Survey chose the “k” spelling for its maps indicates that the Post Office was already using the “ch” form. This usage would have pre-dated the Ordnance Survey’s work.

The origin of the name is obviously Irish but the exact word in Irish that the current word derives from is not definitively known. There are several candidates, the most heavily promoted of which is “scoil”, the Irish word for “school”. There is not a shred of evidence that a school worthy of note ever existed in this area. Nor is there a tradition of learning that derives from the existence of a school in the area. Given that monastic and church properties as well as those owned by the lords of the day were well recorded in various manuscripts it is beyond belief that any monastic or religious site of any size in Schull would have been ignored.

No physical evidence of a monastic settlement or school exists either nor is there any evidence of such settlements in the names of town lands, physical features or other topographical evidence.

This total lack of evidence, both physical and written, hasn’t deterred the fantasists from inventing scenarios that fit their world view and promoting their view that there was an ancient school in Schull and further that it was dedicated to Mary. (More of that later.)

The first recorded place name for this area is “scol”, from a Decretal Letter of Pope Innocent III in 1199 to the bishop of Cork confirming the rights of the bishop of Cork against the Norman overlords. The See of Cork had been vacant for several years.

Topographically the strongest candidate from the Irish is “scumhal” meaning a precipice or an abrupt opening in the coastline (which is very apparent to anyone who has approached Schull on the water). “Scumhal” sounds the same as “scoil”.

Given that there was no standardised spelling for either Irish or English until relatively recently there is no surprise that the variations in the spelling of the same sound are many: Scoil, Scoole, Scool, Scoll, Scull.

There is no “k” in the Irish alphabet, “c” in Irish has the same hard sound as “k” in English. To ears familiar with the English language the word sounded like ‘skull’ and in English the usual spelling is ‘sk’. (The word “skull” in English is that part of the body enclosing the brain. “Scull” in English is a pair of small oars used by a single rower, an oar placed over the stern of a boat to propel it by a side-to-side motion, and a light, narrow boat propelled with a scull or a pair of sculls. Different spelling, same sound.)

In 1609 the spelling is “Skollegh Haven” indicating Schull Harbour. This is subsequent to the Munster Plantation and the further introduction of English as the language of administration. Thereafter, the use of “k” dominates  the spelling of what was essentially the same sounding word. However, “Scole Haven” appears in 1623.

Both Skull and Skul are used alongside each other in the Down Survey of 1656-58. Skull is used in the Grand Jury Map surveyed in the 1790s and published 1811. The Ordnance Survey conducted between 1825–46 uses Skull as does Griffith’s Valuation of 1847-64 and every official document since, whether of British or Irish Government origin.

A report from Bantry Sessions in February 1848 refers to “Scull”.

By April 25th 1884, according to the Skibbereen Eagle, The Poor Law Union for the area was written as “Schull”. Other examples of the “ch” spelling from that era include Skibbereen Petty and Quarter Sessions, the dedication of a Methodist Church and the Cork Diocesan Synod. The “ch” spelling was not used exclusively however, “k” appears frequently as well.

The West Carbery Tramway & Light Railway Company changed its name in 1892 to the “Schull and Skibbereen Tramway and Light Railway Company”. Indeed, there is a letter dated 30th June 1886 on headed company paper from Elim Henry d’Avigdor, engineer, to the Board of Trade where “Schull” is used.

The Mining Journal edition dated July 4th 1885 refers to “Schull”. There is a also reference to “Schull” in the 1893 edition of the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archeological Society.

It is estimated that 90% of the administrative place names in the country are of Irish language origin. All have been anglicised, very few have been recorded in Irish language sources. The anglicisation of Irish place names began with the Anglo-Normans in the twelfth century and culminated with the standardisation of place name spelling in English by the Ordnance Survey in the nineteenth.

In his book “Place and Placelessness”, Canadian geographer Edward Relph posited that a place “is only named when it is considered in terms of some human task or lived experience. The name of a place is something personal and private to a local community until it is mapped. The community have rights to the place name, until it is mapped, when in a sense it becomes public property. It is unofficial, existing only in the language of a local community, until it is made official by being written down.”

This is particularly appropriate to the situation regarding Schull/Skull. All that is in dispute is the spelling. The word is sounded the same in both English and Irish. It is in the writing down and making official of the “Skull” spelling that the local community’s usage has been ignored.

Trying to ascertain the original Irish source of a place name through this haze of mis-spellings derived from mispronunciations can be difficult and sometimes impossible. But not always. Irish scholars have been working to establish authoritative Irish place names for over fifty years since the establishment of the Irish Place Names Commission in 1946.

The result of this work is a number of Place Name Orders from the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Cork being one of them in 2012. This Order lists “Skull” as the proper English language name for the town, parish, electoral division and townland known locally as “Schull”.

The Placenames (County Cork) Order of 2012 lists “An Scoil” as the proper Irish name for the village. Cork County Council, so consistent in its use of “Schull” wobbles when it comes to the Irish version and uses both “An Scoil” and “Scoil Mhuire” as the Irish versions of the place name.

“An Scoil” literally translates as “the school”, however, there is no evidence of the existence of a school either physical or in the written record, in the time after Christianity was introduced to Ireland, in the area now known as Schull. “Scoil Mhuire” translates as “Mary’s School”. If there was no school in the first place, how could it be dedicated to Mary? So how or why did this confection come about?

The earliest usage of “Scoil Mhuire” in the local press is from “Gaelic League Jottings” in the Southern Star newspaper in February 1907. The Southern Star was the political polar opposite of its neighbour the Cork County Eagle (Skibbereen Eagle) which took a unionist position on political matters.

There are no further instances of the use of Scoil Mhuire in the press until February 1948 in the Southern Star’s “Dublin Letter” written by one Peadar O h-Annracháin under under the pseudonym “Cois Life” (“Beside the Liffey”).

The Department of Agriculture in a 1947 notice in Irish refers to: “Fiosru Poibli i dTighe na Cuirte, Scoil Mhuire,” a public inquiry into certain fishing practices in the area.

Subsequent usage of Scoil Mhuire seems to be confined to the G.A.A., the earliest of which is a notice of a match in the West Cork League between Cill-Min and Scoil Mhuire at Kilmeen in September 1955. “Scoil Mhuire” GAA club is now amalgamated with Ballydehob and known as Gabriel Rangers.

From the above it would seem that the coinage of “Scoil Mhuire” as the Irish version of Schull/Skull has nationalist origins. At the time the learning of Irish and differentiating from the English language and culture wherever possible was an essential characteristic of those seeking Irish independence. Wound into this thinking was the Catholic religion. There was a huge cult of Marian worship in Ireland right through the twentieth century and what better way to marry the two than in the name of the village.

As a result of a one-man campaign to have the name of Schull changed to “Scoil Mhuire”, the so-called “traditional” form of the name, Nollaig Ó Muraíle, a member of the the Place Names Commission was asked to investigate the origin of the place name.

As quoted in Gary Dempsey’s thesis “Whispered in the Landscape/Written on the Street, A Study of Placename Policy and Conflict in Ireland from 1946 to 2010”, Ó Muraíle discovered that the “Scoil Mhuire” form dated back to 1893 when the parish priest of Schull at the time, Very Rev. John O’Connor (P.P. Schull 1888–1911), who “fancied himself as a historian, misread a latin sentence as referring to a ‘College of St. Mary’ in Skull; in fact, the text referred to a collegiate church in Waterford but the PP had set the ball rolling…”

Ó Muraíle continues: “…I did try to explain how the incorrect name had come about; the campaigner had made his mind up on the situation already and was not interested in any other version of the name’s origin but the one he had.”

Currently, the only adherents to the “Scoil Mhuire” form are Cork County Council and the Department of Education. Both bodies are in contravention of the Placenames (County Cork) Order of 2012 which lists “An Scoil” as the proper Irish name for the village even though there is no basis for this. If indeed the original Irish name for the area was “An Scoil” this would most likely have been translated as “Anskull” or similar by the Ordnance Survey as the word “Scoil” will not occur on its own in Irish.

Placename orders or not, it is the local usage that matters because the place belongs to those who use it. To these people, the place is important, it has meaning, what Relph defines as “insideness”: the degree of attachment, involvement and concern that a person or group has for a particular place.

To generations of people for over a thousand years this place is called Scol/Scumhal/Skull/Schull, spell it how you will, the sound remains the same.

Poverty, famine, emigration and haphazard anglicisation of our place names have left their individual marks on this beautiful landscape, yet, despite all, the name of this place sounds the same as it did a thousand years ago.

This is something to be celebrated.


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