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Lucan: "Place of the Marsh Mallows" - Not Elms

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Years ago, I looked up “elm” in my Foclóir and read that it was “leamhán” in Irish. The marsh-mallow plant that grows wild, down by the Liffey, was “leamhacán” in Irish, and far closer to our spelling of the area. This stayed in the back of my mind as an unanswered question for a few years, until recently, when reading a research article on Hill’s Mills [i], when again, the placename was described as the “land abounding in marsh-mallows”. I had to investigate this anomaly in “place of the elms” versus “marshmallows”!

To roll back a bit in time, in the year 1615 Lucan was described as meaning “a marshy place”[ii] which gives very strong credence to the placename being associated with marshy land/marshmallow plants, when Irish was spoken in the area. The earliest written version of the placename is “Lyeuchan” in the 13th century, which phonetically sounds akin to “leamahacán”[iii]. In every single written variation of the placename, all contain the “chan/kan” ending. If we were to look at the word for “elm” in Irish, “leamhán” again, it does not contain this “chan/kan” ending, so it would seem that someone, at some stage, made the assumption that Lucan meant “elms”, and that notion stuck and became popular. Sometimes, just because something is repeated, does not mean that it is true. I had to go back further to find out if there was other proof of the name.

In 1837 the definitive publication Ainmleabhar Paróiste na Suirbhéireachta Ordanáis / Ordnance Survey Parish Namebook gave Lucan the definition of “land abounding in marshmallows”. Rather than being a fanciful name, the root of the marshmallow plant was a useful source of mucilage for treating inflammation of the respiratory tract (coughs, colds, sore throats) and was popularly used in herbal medicines, as well as in the confectionary of the same name. If you visit the chemist today for a cough bottle, look out for “Broncho Stop” on the shelf, as it contains an extract of this useful plant.

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Even today you can find the marshmallow plant, with its beautiful pale lilac flowers [iv], growing wild down by the Liffey, although it was originally introduced as a medicinal plant. It is perennial, and so it returns, year after year to the same spot. To my delight, when I visited St. Finian's medieval church in Esker, Lucan, two weeks ago, I saw a Wood Mallow growing at the edge of the Western gable wall of the church. Wood Mallows are one of the six varieties of Mallow wildflowers in Ireland.

Perhaps, over time, the true meaning of the name of “Lucan” will gain recognition and the humble marshmallow plant will be appreciated for its central connection to our village.

[i] Jackson, Mary. “Hill's Mill Lucan, County Dublin, 19141.” Dublin Historical Record, vol. 67, no. 2, 2014, pp. 85–100., Accessed 13 June 2020.
[ii] Ronan, M.V. 1941, "Royal Visitation of Dublin, 1615", Archivium Hibernicum, vol. 8, pp. 1-55.
[iii] – see written records.

SOCIETY FOR OLD LUCAN (SOL) is the local history group for Lucan; open to everyone. Free to join - email Facebook group; “Society for Old Lucan (SOL)” & Twitter: @Soc4OldLucan. Committee: Helen Farrell (chair), Elaine Hurley, Billy Sines, Darren Tully, Paul Butler and Jonathan Cully.
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