Local place names and histories dot the globe

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Posted on: 6th July, 2015

Category: The History Corner

Contributor: Patrick J. Mahoney

Above: Main Street, Bantry, North Dakota in its heyday

The season of summer holidays is upon us, and while many will head to the popular beaches of Tenerife or enjoy a ‘staycation’ elsewhere in Ireland, others travelling further afield may come across some familiar-sounding place names amidst their foreign destinations. While an ever-expanding list of Irish language exonyms has ensured that nearly every major destination around the globe from Cathair na nAingeal (Los Angeles) to Tóiceo (Tokyo) has at least the capability of becoming Gaelicised in name and speech, other localities do not require such effort or creativity. Like other European migrants, as the Irish spread to far-flung regions of the world, they brought with them not only their cultural customs and beliefs, but also the familiar place names of home. Although those which recall well-known urban centres like Derry, Dublin, and Belfast are certainly more commonplace, West Corkonians have also harkened back to their local towns and villages throughout the years to christen the likes of their adopted environs. From New England to New South Wales and beyond, travelers will find destinations like Glandore, Bantry, Baltimore, Bandon, and Cape Clear. However, unlike their West Cork equivalents whose names usually harken back to the original Irish language description of some noteworthy natural or manmade principle feature of the local area, those found around the world do not adhere to this practice. For example, despite its name, Cape Clear in Victoria, Australia is located near the city of Ballarat, over 100 kilometres from the nearest coast. While there exist a number of local tales about the settlement’s name, it is thought that it was christened by a group of expats from Cape Clear Island, who had ventured to the area during a gold rush in the 19th-century. In recognition of its status as perhaps the only inland Cape in the world, locals in the small community, which consists of a primary school, general store and hotel, humorously erected a 13-metre tall, fully functioning model lighthouse in 2008.

Like Cape Clear, the town of Bandon, Oregon also owes its beginnings to the discovery of gold in the area in the mid-19th century. Originally home to the Coquille Indian tribe, the site of the present town was established in 1853 under the name of Averill. Coincidentally, a Corkman by the name of Henry Baldwin was briefly shipwrecked not far from the area in 1852. However, it wasn’t until two decades later that the town would take on the lasting name of Bandon, following the arrival of West Cork natives George Bennett, George Sealey, Bennett’s two sons, and later Joseph Williams and his three sons to the area. On what drove the men to the furthest edge of the pacific coast, one of Bennett’s sons noted, “…Land in Oregon was cheap, gold was for the panning, and the climate was better than at home.” Unlike Victoria’s inland Cape Clear, the Irish language variant and original meaning of the name Droichead na Bandan (Bridge of the Bandon), which spoke to the Irish town’s value as a river crossing-point, is equally appropriate for its American namesake which sits prominently along the Coquille River.

Ironically, it was an attempt by the town’s founder, George Bennett, to bring about a further geographical link between the two Bandons that later brought about disaster to the settlement. Recognised as the first to introduce gorse into the US eco-system, Bennett brought the yellow shrub to his new Pacific environment as a reminder of home. Outlasting the man who had transplanted it, by the 1930s the plant had thrived to the point that it had become a dominant feature of the area’s landscape. However, during the dry season of 1936, the natural secretion of flammable oils from the non-native gorse plant fueled what would have otherwise been a minor forest fire to spread rapidly and destroy all but 16 of Bandon’s 500 homes and its entire business district. Although the majority of its 1,800 residents were unscathed by the blaze, there were 10 reported casualties and over $3 million worth of damage. In the years that followed, Bandon made a full recovery, and remains a thriving town and popular tourist destination to this day. It also maintains a twin or sister city agreement with its West Cork namesake.

The town of Bantry, North Dakota hasn’t fared as well. Situated in McHenry County, the town was founded by Irish immigrants in 1905, at a time of unprecedented growth for railways and towns in the state. Fittingly, amongst the surnames of its earliest settlers can be found the common West Cork names of McCarthy, Collins, and Sullivan. The small town, which emerged as a thriving farming community that played host to a number of agricultural fairs including a large harvest home festival each October, was comprised of a grocery and general store, a barbershop, bank, butcher, and newspaper office. By 1920, a report in the ‘Grand Folks Daily Herald’ noted that a shift from small grain to variety farming had served the community well, and would ensure its future success even in the event of a major drought. Despite such predictions, and the reported $100,000 annual income from produce in the city, its population began to steadily decline during the drought and depression-filled years of the 1930s and never recovered. Now a shell of its former self, the Census Bureau’s latest community survey noted that the population, which had totaled 315 at its peak in 1920, had dwindled down to just 23.

Wherever your summer travels may take you, there is the possibility that you may encounter a bit of West Cork whether in name or local lore. Happy and safe travels, agus bainigí sult as bhur laethanta saoire!

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