'Cairn' & 'ros': Carnaross


Arriving at the exact derivation of a placename is often not possible. Where cairn appears in a place name the reference is to an ancient pagan burial site. It was customary to put a cairn or heap of stones over a grave. The custom was mostly abandoned with the arrival of Christianity,

Carnaross, (detail from Larkin's Grand Jury Map, 1812 but a cairn was still raised over suicides, the unbaptised and victims of war or fever who, for practical reasons, could not be brought to the churchyard. No passers-by would dare touch the cairn, and in some places a tree was planted instead of, or in addition to, the heap of stones.

In county Meath some of the places with cairn in their names are Rathcairn, Kilcairn, Cairnstown and Carnaross, to name but a few. Carnaross may have got its name from the Irish cairn. In P.W. Joyce's Irish Names of Places, (1913) vol. III, we find a reference to Carnaross which states that "the old people there say it is shortened from 'Carraig-na-ros', 'the rock of the woods'."

However, there is evidence that Carnaross, cathru na ros, is the quarter of the hills and not the quarter of the cairn. In ancient Ireland ceathru signified a quarter of a townland. The Normans introduced a similar sounding word, cartron, (in French quarteron), for the same kind of division of land which was, according to Joyce, from 60 to 160 acres. Cartronganny, near Mullingar, is the sandy cartron or the sandy quarter.


Ros is more difficult to interpret. It would not have been applied to any kind of hill, but rather to a promontory covered with trees or brushwood. In parts of Ireland the word is synonymous with wood, and a perfect example of the meaning of ros can be seen on the Donore road from Navan to Drogheda at Rosnaree. There is evidence that the valley of the Blackwater was thickly wooded in ancient times, and to the north of Castle Kieran is a locality named Cloghanrush, the stony place of the wood.

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