Odhbha and Navan

Diarmuid  Ó Murchadha

The town of Navan had its official name altered to An Uaimh in 1922, but the change failed to gain acceptance locally so that "Navan" had its official status restored in 1970.  One reason underlying the reluctance to change may have been an instinctive feeling that Navan was not an "imported" English name in the manner of Maryborough or Kingstown.  It is my contention that "Navan" and "An Uaimh" are both derivatives of the earlier and very historic name, "(an) Odhbha".

Nor am I the first to propose such an identification.  In the Ordnance Survey Name Books for County Meath, compiled in 1836, John O'Donovan derived the name of Navan (parish) from: "An Odhbha, called from Ova, the first wife of Heremon".

Ordnance Survey Name Books, County Meath (typescript copy, 1928), volume.iii, page 365.

Furthermore, he quoted three forms of the name of the moat near Navan (townland Moathill) as given by local inhabitants: "Mota na hOdhbha; Mota na hUaimhe; Navan Moat".

Ordnance Survey Name Books, Co. Meath (typescript copy, 1928), volume. iii, page. 365.

However, he later backed away from this identifcation, and in his edition of the Annals of the Four Masters in 1851 he first describes Odhbha as "a mound on the summit of a hill giving name to a territory in the ancient Meath .... The name, which would be anglicised Ovey, is now obsolete".

Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters, editor John O'Donovan (Dublin, 1851), volume i, page 31.

While he did, in his second refenence, call it "a mound near Navan", neither then nor afterwards did he link the two names.

Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters, editor John O'Donovan (Dublin, 1851) volume i, page 31.

Later scholars, such as Hogan, followed O'Donovan's lead in being vague about the site of Odhbha, and in assuming that the name had become obsolete.

Onomasticon Goedelicum, page 556.

The only one who did not was P.W. Joyce, whose perceptive discussion of three possible origins for the name Navan appears to have gone largely unnoticed. His conclusions were:

"The change from Nuachongbhail to Novane looks too violent, though possible, and I am disposed to believe that Queen Odhbha's name still lives in the name "Navan". The people having lost all tradition of Heremon's repudiated queen, and not understanding what Odhbha meant, mistook it for Uaimh, which has nearly the same sound, and which was quite applicable...


Joyce's instincts were sound, and it is as well to dispose of this ghost-name at the outset. "Nuachongbháil ("new settlement") is not an uncommon name for ecclesiastical sites throughout Ireland, but Annals of Ulster. (For the years up to 1131, the new edition by S. Mac Airt and G. Mac Niocaill (Dublin 1983), is the one quoted from.)

Annals of Loch Cé, edited W.M. Hennessy (London, 1871).

A few years later, John Colgan, a great admirer of Ó Cléirigh and his associates - it was he who dubbed them the "Four Masters" - published part of his Acta Sanctorum.  Encountering the name "Nuachongbháil " in the Life of St. Fechin of Fore, County Westmeath he followed Ó Cléirigh's lead, informing his readers that "Nuadchongbháil est oppidum Mediae...", overlooking the fact that there was a parish of that name in Westmeath and so misleading many subsequent commentators.  The name should never have been applied to Navan.

John Colgan, Acta Sanctorum...(Louvain, 1645; Ir. MSS Comm. Facs., 1948) pp 135, 141.

See, for example, A Gwynn, R.N. Haddock, Medieval Religious Houses, Ireland (1970), p. 399.


The first historical reference to Odhbha is in Annals of Ulster 612 A.D. : Bellum Odbae..."The battle of Odba, (won) by Aengus son of Colmán, in which fell Conall Laeg Breg son of Aed Sláine".  (Annals of the Four Masters quote from a poem on the battle: An sce i mmullach Odhbha).  The protagonists were both grandsons of Diarmait mac Cerbaill. king of Uí Néill (died 565), obviously engaged in a power struggle.  The recurrence of battles at Odhbha clearly indicates occupation of the site.  Some years previously the Annals of Ulster 598 A.D., Brandub of the Laigin defeated and killed Áed son of Ainmire, king of Uí Neill, at Dun Bolg, and followed this up three years later (Annals of the Four Masters, recte 601) with "blows" (bémenna) on Brega.  Accordingly, in a praise poem from the Bóroma saga he is described as "the fair hero of Tara, the high tree of Odhbha" (ra fínscoith na Temra, ra bile n-ard nOdba).

Book of Leinster, 1.38530.

(Professor F.J. Byrne surmises that Brandubh may have regained temporarily for the Laigin parts of their lost midland territories).

F.J. Byrne, Irish kings and high-kings (London, 1973), page 142.

Another poem from the same saga indicates that Odhbha served as a landmark for Ulster armies travelling southwards-dar Esa dar Odba ngnáth.

Book of Leinster, 1.38210; see also 1.37710.

Originally Odbha was probably a prehistoric tumulus, one of many in the Boyne Valley.  When the literary men and genealogists set to work, it was brought into the Milesian scheme by giving to Milesius a daughter, Odhbha, who was reputably buried there.

Lebor Gabhála, Book of Leinster, 11. 1664-6.  See also Annals of the Four Masters i 30.

The compilers of the Dindshenchas, unsure as to gender, first made Odba a great champion who served Conn Cétchatach, but ended with a verse that put Odba, the wife of Eremon, in the burial mound as well.  While these personages were fictional, the site was not, and the Dindshenchas description provides us with information on it.  It was a ridge or hill (druimm) as well as a grave (uag), but the spot where the grave was built gave pleasure to many a host: "it is right that he (Odba) lies in the midst of the untroubled hosts from whom he sprang".

The Metrical Dindshenchas, ed. E. Gwynn (Todd Lecture Ser., xi), pp 174-77.

Incidentally, a verse of another Dindshenchas poem, that on Cerna, uses names from the account of the 612 battle- Áed Slaine, Conall láeg Breg and Oengus óc Odba.

The Metrical Dindshenchas, ed. E Gwynn ( Todd Lecture Ser., xii), pp 174-7.

The sepulchral associations of the tumuli in the Boyne valley did not prevent them being used for habitation and defence.  We learn that Cnodhbha (Knowth) had a king in 789; occupation there in early Christian times was confirmed by excavation.

Annals of Ulster 789.

G. Eogan, Excavations at Knowth, County Meath, 1962-3, Proc. RIA, 66C, p. 379.

Similarly, Dubhadh (Dowth) was among the places burned by Diarmaid Mac Murchadha in 1170.

Annals of the Four masters 1170.

Excavation there also showed evidence of occupation.

M.J and C. O'Kelly, The tumulus of Dowth, County Meath, Proc. RIA, 83C, p. 150.

Accordingly, the literary traditions relating to Odhbha as a burial mound do not conflict with the annalistic accounts of battles fought around it ( presumably to gain possession for defensive purposes).  We may disregard the "battle of Odba" in which one (prehistoric) king of Ulaid, Ailill Finn, was killed by a rival, Argatmár, but a reference from the legendary Cath Maighe Léna to fir Aithe 7 fir Odhba 7 fir Chnodhba 7 fir Omna does at least indicate habitation there.

Book of Leinster, 1.14983. Se also Annals of the Four Masters i, 66.

K. Jackson ed., Cath Maighe Léna (Dublin, 1938), p. 38. A poem at the end of the saga has the lines Atracht'n-a réim Conn Cnodhbha/co tuc a druim re h-Odhbha (p. 79).

This is corroborated by a reference to the slaying of Áed Odbae in 701 and that of his son, Flann mac Aodha Odhbha, in 722.

Annals of Ulster 701.

Fragmentary annals of Ireland, ed. Joan Radner (Dublin, 1978), p. 78.

The lines from the poem on the death of Muirchertach mac Erca (Fir Arda Dealbna / hUí Áeda Odba shaera) are obviously anachronistic, since, according the Annals of Ulster, Muirchertach was killed in 534, but they may indicate a family dynasty there.

Aided Muirchertaig Meic Erca, ed. L. Nic Dhonnchadha (DIAS, 1964).

This may also be the source of Ó Dubhagáin's (fourteenth century) Ó hAodha ar Odhbha airmgheir - a doubtful ascription since Odhbha was in the territory of (Cenél) Láegaire, whose chief family surname in pre-Norman times was Ó Caindelbháin.

Topographical Poems, ed. J. Carney (Dublin, 1943), p.2.

Corpus Genealogiarum, ed. M.A. O'Brien (Dublin, 1962), p. 166.

The Viking Dimension

Within the space of four years (892-6) Flannacaán, king of Brega, lost three of his sons.

Annals of Ulster 893,895,896.

A lament, ascribed to Flann mac Lonáin, names them as Congalac of Colt, Cellach of Cerna and Cináed of Cnodhbha, and describes them as three sons of Flann(acán) who used to agitate Odhbha (imluaidhet Odhbha).

Annals of the Four masters 890.  O'Donovan's translation of imluaidhet is "coursed over", but the verb generally means "moves, tosses about, stirs up, gets going", etc. (DIL).

Their aggression towards Odhbha would be understandable if it had become a Viking fortress. we know that later in the year 896 Flannacán himself fell a victim to the (Northmen Nordmannis iugulatus est)

Annals of Ulster 896.

From the time of the first Scandnavian incursions, and in particular following the setting up of a Viking town at Dublin, the easily accessible plains of Meath suffered frequent attacks by the Gaill. These raids were not solely for plunder; rival native chieftans were only too ready to employ foreign military expertise. so in 850 Cináed son of Conaing used them in his rebellion against the high king, Máel Sechnaill, while in 859 Cerball of Ossory joined Amlaíb and Ímar of Dublin in an attack on Meath.

In this paragraph, all dates refer to entries in the Annals of Ulster.

Áed son of Niall and Flann son of Conaing brought the kings of the foreigners with them to plunder Meath in 862, but in the following year Flann's own territory was plundered by the same foreigners, this time at the behest of Lorcán son of Cathal.  On that occasion they searched the cave of Achad Aldai (? Newgrange) as well as those of Knowth and Dowth, "something which had never been done before".  Flann son of Máel Sechnaill was heavily defeated by the foreigners in 888 and in the following two years the fair of Tailtiu was not held.  Máel Mithig, king of Knowth, attempted to defend Northern Brega against the heathens in 918, but fell a year later alongside Niall Glúndubh at the battle of Dublin.  The following year the heathens smashed the churches of Kells and Dulane.  In 935 they sacked Lagore and the cave of Knowth.  In 947 Ruaidrí Ua Canannain came to Slane to defeat the combined army of Mael Mithig's son and Amlaíb Cuarán of Dublin.  The very next year we find Máel Mithig's son killing 1,600 of the foreigners, while Ruaidri returned to spend six months encamped in Meath and Brega, inflicting slaughter on the foreigners before finally meeting death at their hands.  During the following year Gothfrith of Dublin felt free to plunder Kells, Donaghpatrick, Dulane and Kilskeer, as well as Ardbraccan near Navan.

It would be surprising then if at some period the Vikings did not make settlements in County Meath, however temporary.  Much of south Brega, from Dublin to the Boyne, was known as Fine Gall in the eleventh century, if not earlier.

See Annals of the Four Masters from AD 1052 on; also AI 1013.

As early as 867 Amlaíb had an inland fort at Clondalkin, and in the mid tenth century warfare against Ruaidrí Ua Canannain could hardly have been carried on without a base or bases in County Meath.

Annals of Ulster 867.

It is in this context that we must consider a reference occuring in a metrical fragment in the Book of Ballymote:  Odba i tir Tomair toghaig taebaig (Odhbha in the choice many sided land of Tomar.)

Bb 292 a 8 (Cnodba is mentioned in the same context).

Tomar or Tomrar was a name of great renown in Dublin, as shown by references to the ring of Tomar (fail Tomhair) in 994 and to the wood of Tomar (Caill Tomair) in 1,000.

Annals of the Four Masters 994.

Annals of Inisfallen, ed. S. Mac Airt (Dublin, 1951), p. 174.

The destruction of Dublin in 944 by Congalach son of Máel Mithig is celebrated in a poem which includes: Ro craidheadh muintir Thomair (the race of Tomar was tormented.)

Annals of Ulster 944; Annals of the Four Masters 942 and note.

O'Donovan thought that this referred to theTomrair erell slain in 848, but there was at least one later Tomrar (son of Tomralt), slain in 923.

Annals of Ulster 848; Annals of the Four Masters 923.

The Scandanavians may not have occupied Odhbha continuousy but they were certainly slaughtered there in 1017 - along with some of the Laigin - by Mael Sechnaill, king of Meath: Annals of Ulster 1017: Ar Gall 7 (&) Laigen in Fodbai la Máel Sechnaill.  This I take to be "foreigners (and Laigin) of the Odhbha" (rather than in Fodbai) showing that they were in occupation there, three years after the battle of Clontarf (where Brian Bóromha defeated the same alliance).  This occupation may have resulted from the events of 1013, the year in which Gilla Mo-Chonna, king of south Brega, died (following a drinking bout).  This king had been an arch enemy of the foreigners, enslaving them to pull the plough and harrow. Following his death, and aided by the Laigin, they attacked and defeated the men of Meath at In Draignén (Drinan, parish Kinsealy) County Dublin.  Flann son of Máel Sechnaill was killed there, and Mael Sechnaill himself slain later in the year, also by the foreigners of Dublin.

Annals of Ulster 1013

The alliance of the Scandanavians with the Leinstermen continued long after this, particularly during the reign of Diarmait mac Máel Na mBó, king of Leinster (and of the foreigners) and an aspirant to the kingship of Ireland from around 1040.  He was killed in 1072, in a battle against Conchobar Ua Maíl Shechlainn, king of Tara, amidst a slaughter of both foreigners and Laigin.  One wonders was it by coincidence that this battle again was fought at Odhbha, Diarmait being killed at a spot called Muileann Cúl.

Annals of Ulster 1072; Annals of the Four Masters 1072 (poem); Book of Leinster, 1.5488.

After the Viking threat receded, Odhbha may have lost some of its military significance, but hardly its name. In 1147 Gilla Mo-Dubda Ua Caisidi at Ardbraccan (three miles west of Navan) composed a poem of 273 quatrains, Adam, aenathair na ndaine.  It is hardly surprising that in his listing of renowned sites he included Odba - which he could almost see from his scriptorium - in the same line as Eamhain Macha and Acaill (Skreen).

Book of Lecan, 210v(a).

And it is inconceivable that such a celebrated name should disappear without trace.  Surely the motte-castle, which within 30 years was constructed at "Novan" must have been on the site of - and indeed using a version of the name of - ancient Odhbha.

The Abbey of Navan

Around the time that Gilla Mo-Dubda was writing his poem in Ardbraccan, a new monastery was being constructed on a site between the mound of Odhbha and the river Blackwater (in what is now Abbeylands).  It was for a community of Augustinians canons regular, part of a great movement which during the second half of the eleventh century had spread throughout continental Europe and later in Britian.  It developed in Ireland from the 1130's, particularly under the influence of St. Malachy who after his visit to Arrouaise in 1140 introduced the rule of that place to many houses in the northern half of Ireland.  He was supported by the kings of Oriel and Connacht and by Murchadh Ua Maíl Shechnaill, king of Meath from 1106 to 1153.

Gwynn/Haddock, Med. Rel. Houses, Ire., pp 146 - 50.  Navan was Arroasian in 1267 ( CDI 1251 - 1284, p. 130); so also were Kells and Trim.

The Uí Chaindelbháin were the ruling family of Láegaire at this period and it was probably one of them who donated the Navan Site.  Although not mentioned until c. 1174 - 84, when Christian O Loddan was abbot, we know from John de Courcy's charter (1189) that the monastery of the Blessed Virgin Mary de Novan already possessed, through the gift of the Irish (de donacione hibernicorum) and before the coming of the English into Ireland, the site of the abbey as well as adjoining lands: terram de Kel big Rathlogh terram de grange ffoghyn.

The Irish cartularies of Llanthony, ed. E. St. John Brooks ( Dublin, 1953 ), p. 250.

Ed. by E. St. John Brooks in JRSAI 63 ( 1933 ), pp 38 -45.  (After Hugh de Lacy was killed in 1186 his lands were administered by the Justicar, which is why the confirmatory grant to the monastery of Navan came from John de Courcy).

At the time of the abbey's dissolution in 1540, Grange in the parish of Ardbraccan was still among its possessions, as was Rathlogh beside the Boyne.

N.B. White ed., Extents of Irish monastic possessions, 1540 - 1541, pp 250 - 55.

Other lands east of the Boyne (ultra ampnem de Mane) had been added to the abbey's possessions by O'Roirk (Tighernán Ua Ruairc), who had acquired the overlordship of part of Meath on three occasions in the mid twelfth century but these do not appear in the 1540 Extents.

DeCourcy charter

Annals of the Four Masters, 1144, 1150, 1169.

The name given to the new foundation in Latin and English documents was almost invariably Novan or Nouan ("v" and "u" being interchangeable in Latin manuscripts).  The Llanthony cartularies (circa 1179 - 1279) favoured Nouan while in Calendars of Documents (1215 - circa 1300) it is written Novan.

Calendars of Documents, Ireland, i, 104; ii, 130; iii, 194; iv, 332; v, 236.

There is no compelling reason why this should not directly derive from Odhbha, the pronunciation of which by the twelfth century would approximate to "Óva".

"Ova" and Owa" were Connell mac Geoghagan's English versions of Odhbha in his 1627 translation of the Annals of Clonmacnoise, ed. D. Murphy, 1896. pp 98, 180.

Use of the article may also have commenced by then (cf. Annals of Ulster: Ar Gall 7 (&) Laigen in Fodbai ), a practice which ofter resulted in the tranference of an initial "n", i.e. "an Óva > "an Nóva". (as in nearby Nobber < an Obair).  Use of the article, even in Norman French and and English, was a feature of the monastery / town name at all periods:

le Nouan (circa 1225).

Song of Dermot and the Earl, ed. G.H. Orpen, (Oxford, 1892), p. 228.

del Novan (1300).

Calendars of Documents, Ireland, 1293 - 1301, p. 332.

le Novaan ( 1346).

Account roll of the Priory of Holy Trinity, Dublin 1337 - 1346, ed. J. Mills (Dublin, 1891), p. 108.

the Nawan ( 1539 ).

Fiant Henry VIII, No. 76 (App. to 7th Rep. DKRI, p. 40).

the Novan ( 1552 ).

Fiant Edw. VI, No. 943 ( App. to 8th Rep. DKRI, p. 126).

town of the Navan (1670 ).

CSPI 1669 - 1670, p. 153.

passed the Navan ( 1690 ).

HMC Ormonde manuscript, New Ser. volume viii, p. 386.

As late as 1913 P. W. Joyce the Navan "is still often called The Navan".

Irish names of places, iii, 19.

The final "-n" could be due to an inflexional change, such as happened to many vowel endings at this period, e.g. abh, genetive abha (a river) which later gave abha, genetive abhann.  Ballnahow and Ballynahown are both found as townland names. With Dun Dealga (Annals of Ulster, 1002 ) compare Dun Dalgyn ( AI 1315 ).  This was not confined to feminine nouns: gogae / gobha, a smith, acquired a genetive gobhann; with Cruimthiris hi Cengoba (Kinnegoe, County Armagh ) compare Findchu Bri Gobann (Brigown, County Cork).  So it is not unreasonable to postulate a spoken form such as Mainistear an Nóvan applied to the new foundation.

Tripartite life of St. Patrick. ed. K. Mulchrone (Dublin, 1939), page 155.

Corp. Gen. SS Hib., ed. P. O Riain (Dublin, 1985), page 52.

The use of Latin would help to establish such an ending, since it was common practice in writing adjectival forms of Irish names to ad an "-n" to vowel endings, e.g. Archiep. Armachanus (Ard Macha); Lugdunensis (Lughmhadh); Osserianensis (Osraighe); de Laoina (Cell Dá Lua).

Examples taken from B. Ó Ciobháin, Deoisi na hEireann, in Dinnseanchas, v, 71-85.

In the Papal letters we get such forms as "Novania" and "BVM de Nouano / de Novvano" beside the more usual Novan / Nowan / Nouane.

Cal. Papal Reg., Pap. Lett., v, 109; vi, 269; xi, 298, 323; also v, 211; x, 465; xi, 243.

The Irish version was complicated by the fact that the name Odhbha was practically unique and so inevitably tended to become confused with uamh/uaimh/uamha, a well known (feminine) word which, with its connotation of "cave, burial place, souterrain" was an apt descrription of the site.

The other only example is Odhbha in County Mayo (Life of St. Mochua, in W. Stokes ed., Lives of SS from Book of Lismore, p. 141).  It was in the territory of the Partraighe, and appears in the annats ?? as "Ome/ Homy/ oue"; the parish is now Ballyovey, but generally called Partry. (See N. O Muráile, Mayo Places, page 39).

M.A. O'Brien (ZCP 14, page 332) believed that Odba was a borrowing from Welsh, since it corresponded exactly to Welsh oddfa, "cache, hiding place".

Uamh was the word used in the Annals of Ulster 863 in connection with the plundering of Knowth, Dowth, etc., by the Vikings.

Also uamh(a) was particularly prone to the dual genetive syndrome.  Ath na hUamha in County Cork (Ai 1220) later became Athnowen / Ovens.  Compare also Gortnahoo in Tipperary with Gortnahoon in Galway and Knocknahoo in Sligo with Knocknahooan in Clare.

Examples from P.W. Joyce, Irish names of places, i, 439.

It was probably the use of the dative for nominative which gave Nooan in Clare and Noan in Topperary - the latter an interesting example since the name appears in 1309 as " le Novan" and in an Irish poem circa 1460 as "(a) Nuamhain".

Cal. Jus. Rolls Ire., iii, 133.

A. O'Sullivan, P. Ó Riain editors, Poems on marcher lords, (London, 1987), page 36.

It was in the twelfth century also that Ua > O in surnames, an interchange which developed in quite a number of words.  A byform of uamhainn is still in frequent use in place names in south Kerry, namely oin (genetive on / ona), meaning a souterrain.

See B. Ó Ciobhain, Toponomia Hiberniae, (baile Atha Cliath, 1985 ), index.  Note also that Nowen Hill in west Cork was written (in the genetive) na hOine in a poem circa 1730 (R. Ó Foghludha, eagaroir Eoghan an Mhéirín Mac Carrthaigh (Baile Atha Cliath, 1938, 1.31).

Later Developments

In 1170 Strongbow, aided by Diarmaid mac Murchadha plundered and burned the territory of Ua Ruairc in Meath.  Two years later Ua Ruairc submitted to Henry 11 who had already, on landing at Wexford, granted the land of Meath (as Murchadh Ua Mailsheachlainn had held it) to Hugh de Lacy.

G. Cambrensis, Expugnatio Hibernica, editor A.B. Scott, F.X. Martin (Dublin 1978) pages 68, 94. See also AI 1170.

For grant see G.H. Orpen, Ireland under the Normans, i, 285-6.

Before de Lacy was killed in 1186, the lordship of Meath "from the Shannon to the sea was full of castles and of foreigners".

Annals of Loch Ce 1186.

These were not the great stone castles of the early thirteenth century but motte and bailey fortifications, many of them erected by de Lacy's feudatories.  Navan and Ardbraccan had been sub infeudated to Jocelyn de Angulo who was probably responsible for the Navan moat in 1176.

Song of Dermot.

Miscellaneous Irish Annals, ed. S. Ó hInnse ( Dublin 1947 ).

It was only natural that he would adapt the existing mound of Odhbha for this purpose, thus achieving extra height.

At 16.5 metres Navan motte is the highest in County Meath (B.J. Gragam, The mottes of the Norman liberty of Meath, in H. Murtagh ed., Irish Midland Studies, (Athlone 1980 ), page 55.

Similar "castles" to that of Navan were built, also in 1176, at Knowth, Dunshaughlin, Trim, Skreen and Slane.

MIA 1176.

In most of these places the motte and baileys were later succeeded by stone castles, but not apparently at Navan where the only "castle" was the Moat.  The town which grew up at the junction of the two rivers was fortified by walls only.

The Annalistic entry for Navan in Mac Carthaig's Book is simply caislen a Numan (?leg. Numhan) its usual dative indicating that the original scribe did not associate it with either Odhbha or Uamha but was perhaps adapting a monastic "Novan".  It should be noted that the use of the genetive uamhan(n) was not universal in Meath, as is noticeable in the townland name Cornahoova (parish Enniskeen) which probably derives from Cor na hUuamha.

An Uaimh

It could also derive from Cor na hUaimhe, although uaimh/ uaimhe with palatal "v" is not usual in place names.  The earliest recorded Irish version of Navan monastery is in the Annals of Ulster 1455; ab na hUaamha/ Mainistir na hUaama.  However a sixteenth century scribe of the Annals of Ulster (Rawl. B. 489), referring to the sacking of Navan in 1539, called it an Uaimh, and this may have been an accepted form in Ulster/Omeath from then on. Toirdealbhach Ó Mealláin wrote don Uaimh / don Nuaimh in 1643.

"Mac Carthaig's Book" was probably compiled by Donald O Fihely in the fifteenth century, but his source for this entry is not known.

Edited byT. Ó Donnchadha in Analect. Hib., 3, p.p. 27-8.

Around 1900, a list of town names, "hastily jotted down from two natives of Omeath", included: "Nuaimh, Navan".

Irisleabhar na Gaedhilge xi (1900), page 157.

A little later, Seosamh Laoide, with reference to a poem containing the phrase "ins an uaigh "(or " ins an Nuadh"), tells us that:

In Magheracloone near Carrickmacross, one person gave "Aonach na hUaighe" = Navan fair, whilst another had "Aonach na hUaimhe", the commoner form. Mr. P. Morris (Farney) had the same experience, all agreeing in the latter, only one man that he questioned using the former at first, but the latter thereafter.

S. Laoide, eag., Seachrán Chairn tSiadhail ( B.Á.C., 1904), page 87.

This divergence appears to have been a constant factor.  Seamus Dall Mac Cuarta circa 1720 has Air aonach a Luáin annsa Núadhan so shuas, the only Irish form since 1176 to feature a final "n".

E. Ó Tuathail, eag., Rainn agus Amhráin (B.A.C., 1923), pp. 17,74.

Muiris O Gormáin, in a phrase book compiled circa 1770, has "I am going to Navan": ta me dol an a h-Uamha " - using the genetive following "an a" (= " chun na").

Described by T.P. McCaughey, Eigse xii (1968), pp 203-28 (p. 207).

Although John O'Donovan in 1836 wrote "An Uaimh", he was rather taken aback to find that an old man from Kildalkey gave the Irish for Navan as "Nuadh".

Ordnance Survey Letters, County Meath (1928 edition), pp 61, 67-8.  Writing from Kells on 1 August 1836, O'Donovan gave his opinion that "the Moat near Navan was the locality originally called An Uaimh or the crypt".  Five days later he wrote from Trim in great excitement to say that the Kildalkey man told him that the name of Nuadh or Navan was the same as Newtown in English, a piece of folk etymology which immediately convinced O'Donovan that "Nuadh" was none other than a shortened version of the Annals of the Four Master's and Colgan's "Nuadhchongbhái "!

Significantly too, P.W. Joyce remarked that "the pronunciation varies between an Uaimh and an Odhbha."

Irish names of places, iii, 18.


Finally, the English "Navan" was a sixteenth century development.  The first occurence I could trace was in 1529 - "The Abbott of Navanne".

Gerard papers, Analect. Hib. 2, p. 197.

The change may have been influenced by the tendency in Northern Irish to replace "ó" with "á" - e. g. Ó Hágáin for Ó Hógáin.

T.F. O'Rahilly, Irish dialects past and present, (Dublin, 1932), p. 193.

It took over a century before the older form died out;

as late as 1693 we read of "the rectory of Novan".

Aldworth's Return (Marsh's Library), quoted by J.H. Moore, Notices of the town of Navan, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 1895, page 155.

From then on "Navan" remained the standard for in English.


The moat near Navan was originally a prehistoric burial mound called Odhbha.  In early Christian times it was used as a fortified residence by local Gaelic tribes and from the ninth century by Vikings.  The Normans made it into a motte and bailey fortification in 1176.  A twelfth century monastery built near it adopted its name - ('n)Odhbha (n) - as "Novan", and this became the recognoised name of the nearby town in Latin and English, changing to " Navan "

Source:  Ríocht na Midhe, Vol VIII, 1992/93


In a letter to the Meath Chronicle  Donal Mac Na Midhe, 57 Brews Hill, Navan, showed that An Uaimh was a logical choice as the Irish name for Navan.

There has been some questioning of the validity of An Uaimh as the Irish name for the town of Navan.  It should be obvious that the name was not invented or drawn from a hat, as one might assume from recent comments.  The reason it was chosen was quite simply that the town was called An Uaimh by the natives of Meath in the not so distant past when Irish was the spoken language of the people.

My father, Seán Mac Na Midhe, who is generally credited with the responsibility for the choice, remembered meeting in his youth, old people who had a smattering of Irish and who spoke of the town as An Uaimh or Nuaimh.  In 1920 when the question of an Irish name for the town was raised, Dr. Douglas Hyde (1866 - 1949), co founder of the Gaelic League, Professor of Modern Irish, University College, Dublin and later first President of Ireland, wrote to my father, in a letter dated 12th January of that year, recommending the adoption of An Uaimh as the Irish name for Navan on the grounds that old native speakers, some of whom had survived in Meath up to a few years before, always knew and referred to the town by that name.

The following references show that the name An Uaimh is not of recent origin:

Dr. Joyce states in Vol. 111, page 18, of Irish Names of Places, published in 1913:

" We know that the present colloquial Irish name of Navan is an Uaimh, the cave; this name is still remembered by the old people and we find it also in some of our more modern Irish annals."

In "Notices of the Town of Navan", which appeared in the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries, Vol 23, 1893, Mr. J.H. Moore, County Surveyor of Meath, states that Dr. John O'Donovan, who visited Meath in 1836, found the town called An Uaimh by the peasantry who spoke Irish.

The following are extracts written by Dr. O'Donovan to the Ordnance Survey Commissioners:       "Navan August 16, 1836.

Dear Sir,

I find in the Journal of the rebellion of 1641 this town of Navan is called by the Irish name which is prevalent at present, to wit An Uaimh, thus:

'1641, May 30, a Commissionary nominee, by the name Thomas MacKiernan, the companion of Donagh More O'Daly, come to the Friars in the parish of Donaghcloney (Magherclooney in Monaghan), thence he proceeded to the parish of Donaghmoyne, and thence westwards (s.w.?) to Armaghberage to the Creaghts at Kells, and into the Uaimh (Navan) and to Ardbracken and Portlester.'  Again 1641, August 5: 'The forces proceeded to Kells, to the Uaimh (Navan) and to Ardee, etc.'

This is certainly the name of Navan at this time ... There is no doubt that the writer wrote the name of Navan as it was prounounced in his time.

In the same letter, Dr. O'Donovan writes:

'The present inhabitants of this county do not pronounce the Irish name of Navan alike; in the neighbourhood of the town itself, and in the direction of Nobber and Moynalty, they pronounce it An Uaimh, which perfectly agrees with the name given in the Journal of the war of 1641, and signifies a cave.'

Sir William Wilde, in Beauties of the Boyne and Blackwater, published in 1849, quotes O'Donovan as follows:  ' In the account of this invasion of the Pale given in the Annals of Kilronan, this town is called An Uaimh, which is its present Irish name, as pronounced by the natives of Meath.'

The invasion referred to was 'a great plundering of Meath as far as Tara by the O'Neills and O'Donnells in the year 1539.' (Beauties of the Boyne and Blackwater, page 134 ).

I wish to make it clear that I am not attempting to prove that Navan or The Novane (an earlier for) is derived from An Uaimh, although it may well be.  I am giving evidence that the town had been called An Uaimh by the Irish speaking people for a very long period and that it was in vernacular use up to recent times.  Thus, it appears to me that An Uaimh was a logical choice when it was adopted as the Irish name of the town.

Donal Mac Na Midhe