Oldest Town in Ireland

On June 7, 2011 · 2 Comments

The poll has closed and the winning iconic view came from wangi: "Edinburgh Old Town & Castle from Arthur’s Seat." The image will appear on the blog banner for the remainder of June.

I don’t know why I torture myself. Nothing good can come from this, and yet I can’t resist. I noticed a place reputed to be the "oldest town in Ireland" as I investigated an unusual geographic feature. These types of claims are notoriously tenuous and probably doubly-so in a land as ancient as Ireland. At what point does a gathering of people magically transform into an initial town? It’s entirely subjective.

The nebulous definition allows multiple claimants to create their own versions of the truth. This condition extends to all corners of Ireland as I discovered when I tried to fact-checked that initial assertion. Let’s investigate a few choices.

Ballyshannon, Co. Donegal

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If victory went to the settlement with the most mentions, then Ballyshannon would be an obvious choice. The town and its cheerleaders have pushed aggressively to cement its reputation. The claim appears everywhere. It’s ubiquitous. The Ballyshannon Town Council says,

Ballyshannon, the oldest town in Ireland is steeped in history. Inis Saimer, the little island situated in the Erne Estuary is said to be the spot where the first inhabitants of Ireland landed. Parthalon [sic.], a chieftain from Scythia (near modern Macedonia) is said to have landed here around 2700 B.C.

Notice the use of the operative phrase “is said.” Really? Who said that, exactly? I’m not sure that someone allegedly stepping ashore three thousand years ago necessarily creates a solid claim. However, I do give them points for boldly firing over the bow of any other town that might try to make a similar boast. A mere Viking founder would have a tough time dethroning Partholón of Scythia unless one goes with the smart money that says Partholón was a myth rather than a historical figure.

Kinsale, Co. Cork

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Kinsale is another extremely common claimant. However, there does not appear to be even the thinnest attempt to substantiate Kinsale’s assertion, unrealistic or otherwise. The Intertubes toss it around as a factual statement, as if the conventional wisdom is so self-evident that it requires no further elaboration beyond the statement itself. It’s hard to take the Kinsale claim seriously.

Waterford, Co. Waterford

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"Waterford is arguably the oldest area of continuous urban settlement in Ireland" according to the Waterford City Council. It dates back to a Viking founding in 941. The difference between Waterford and other claimants is that Waterford splits a hair and focuses on a slightly different status: the first "city" rather than the first town. The Street View image above is Reginald’s Tower which has its own claim to being oldest — allegedly the oldest civic, urban structure in Ireland.

Kildare, Co. Kildare

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Kildare receives frequent mention too. The Cill Dara Historical Society says, "It would appear that Kildare had developed urban characteristics long before the Vikings came to Ireland. It can therefore claim to be one of the oldest, if not the oldest, town in Ireland." I do give some credit to the Cill Dara Historical Society for adding the qualifier. Plenty of other sites drop the qualifier and claim exclusive title to the honor.

There are plenty of other places that have been designated the oldest Irish town to varying degrees. I found references to Armagh, Dublin, Glenarm, Limerick, and Dún Laoghaire, although to much lower frequencies than the others mentioned previously.

My thought is that there are plenty of ancient towns in Ireland and it’s probably pointless to try to designate one above the rest. This seems to be more of an indication of the aspirations of tourism bureaus and local bragging rights.

On June 7, 2011 · 2 Comments

2 Responses to “Oldest Town in Ireland”

  1. Steve says:

    I can’t imagine the hand-wringing that goes on over there about this; with multiple entrants and such old designations. Heck, here in CT two towns battle over who’s the oldest like two toddlers in a sandbox with only one truck. (Wethersfield and Windsor.)

    And they care. They really, REALLY care.

  2. Proinsias says:

    Ballyshannon is without doubt the oldest unless the Annals of the Four Masters is a fraud, and if so, it would be up to someone to prove it. The Four Masters clearly state that the first settler Parthalón settled on Inis Saimer and this placename is still there. Our towns/villages/cities are not defined by English rules (e.g their so called charters etc). You can argue all day long as to what constitutes a town or city but without doubt Ballyshannon represents the ‘oldest continually settled town in Ireland’.

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