The river placename Pill – a context

I grew up with the placename Pill.  And I suppose as is often the case, something so familiar goes without questioning. It was as much part of my vocabulary as Bight, Tailstone, Stroke, Taught, Backlash, Scooneen, Slob, and so on.  Over time I came to realise that traditional villages like Cheekpoint held their own words and vocabulary that really only made sense to the locals.  Some translate or were more widely used, and I guess Pill is one such word. 

Now to clarify the word Pill.  Many accounts accept that it is an imported word to Ireland – almost certainly from the Normans and used very commonly in Waterford and along the banks of the Three Sister Rivers; Barrow, Nore, and Suir, but apparently not as common elsewhere in Ireland. Others have said it is an old Irish word for Pool, but if that’s the case, why is it not more widespread in the country?

A lighter in operation in New Ross
A lighter in operation in New Ross being rowed by two men while the skipper steers, These flat-bottomed barges were the boats that most commonly used the Pills – the bulk freight carriers of their day

Pill was a word I really associated with the River Suir as a younger man.  Campile was just across from the village, and although we would call the river The Suir, it is more accurately described as the estuary of the Three Sisters – R Barrow, Nore & Suir.  We also had a fishing placename “The Corner of the Pill” – which was basically the junction of the Campile Pill with the Embankment and the Suir. Above this we also referred to a small stream that wound its way through the mud after coming out of the sluice gates on the Kilmannock embankment – The Pill

Accessed from An Actual Survey of the Harbour and River of Waterford and Tramore Bay.  Robert Sayer 1787 contains two pills in the backstrand area of Tramore – Corbally Beg Pill and Kilmackleague Pill

Above Cheekpoint as we journey the Suir to Waterford, the first we meet is the Faithlegg Pill (Or Woodlands Pill – which is on the opposite bank but a much younger placename name), close to the hotel and which some refer to as a stream.  Next, is the Ballycanvan Pill, which is probably more commonly called Jack Meades Pill today.  Closer to the city is St Johns River – but some still use the St Johns Pill, Johns Pill. (I have read it as called St Catherines Pill – but this is a much older name perhaps – related to a previous Abbey of St Catherine on the present courthouse site) 

I hope this gives a sense of the magic of these watercourses -Faithlegg Pill

At a recent talk by Joe Falvey in the People’s Park, he mentioned a new pill placename to me – Newtown Pill, which was located apparently between the present Waterpark College and the playing fields of the De La Salle.

Ballycanvan Pill looking down towards the Kings Channel on the River Suir. From a sketch by Charles Newport Bolton courtesy of Liam Hartley

Above the city we have of course Pilltown in Co Kilkenny – on the River Pil.    According to the Loganim placename site, this is one of three nationally including one in Co Meath – although I can see no association with this and water on the maps.  The site has two Pill Roads nationally – one is in Carrick On Suir close to Ormond Castle, while the other is in Kilkenny City.  There is also Pillmore – The Great Pill perhaps, a townland west of Youghal, also based at the mouth of a river, the Dissour, (thanks to Frank O’Neill for clarifying this detail by email). And finally, from what I could find anyway, Pillpark (Páirc an Phoill) – on the River Blackwater at Clashmore. 

As regards Pill Road in Carrick – while out walking the area recently three older gents told us this is the Pill Road but they had no notion why, perhaps it led to the river previously as there are a number of routes away from it at the bottom of the road where we are standing including one boreen which they had no name for which brings you past Ormond Castle to the river
apropo PIll Road in Carrick – Pill House? from the OSI Historic Maps. The three lads also mentioned a small steam close to Carrick old bridge that they call Pill
Another courtesy of the national treasure that are our OSI maps – Pouldrew Pill on the Suir

And of course the final one that I would be relatively familiar with is Pilltown (which is included in the Loganim link above) on the River Barrow. The older maps show a small tidal inlet there, but it seems to be now just an overgrown and marshy area. Pilltown of course was well known in boating terms as the old paddle steamers used to call here on the New Ross – Waterford runs – the Pilltown Stage. Incidentally, another on the Barrow that Brian Forristal told me of previously is the Glenmore Pill, on the Kilkenny side below the Pink Rock.

The blue line on the Kilkenny shore is the Pil River, passing close by to Piltown – which I understand is also the townland

Very recently I put out an appeal for information on my Twitter account.  I was surprised, and more than a little overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers…obviously river lovers might be scarce, but there are a few of us out there.

For example, Yvonne Cooney informed me that her dad – Lenny O’Neill Snr aka Hobbler Neill called the River Blackwater above Waterford City that flows up to Kilmacow – the Pill…interestingly this was confirmed by Andy Long who also mentioned that the area at the lower street in Kilmacow village is known locally as The Pill.

Not my greatest shot, but the entrance to the R Blackwater that flows to Grannagh and Kilmacow is sited on the Kilkenny bank between the TF Meagher road bridge and the old Railway bridge in thus shot. A once important route for lightermen and craft, is now largely a backwater
Amazing what you can find when someone tells you where to look

CK Heritage Group told me that “another good e.g. is Piltown in West Waterford (Baile an Phoill). For sure it is always a tidal inlet, but I always thought it hinted at the word Poll/Hole, and looking at ‘Poill’ on Teanglann it also seems to have connotations to the idea of ‘ins and outs’…”  This of course is located in the estuary of the River Blackwater on the Waterford Cork county border.

@DanHKilkenny told me of Coole Pill on the River Nore just above the meetings of the waters (Nore and Barrow).  Dan says it’s “not as big as Campile pill and tidal too”. 

Grace Fitzpatrick told me of a Pill at Charlefield, The Rower, Co. Kilkenny,” It’s on River Barrow and we always called it the pill. It’s an inlet from the river and we swam there all our childhood”

Kevin O’Hanlon tells us of “One in the very south of Carlow joining Wexford and across the Barrow from Kilkenny it’s Poulmounty Pill

Meanwhile in Wexford Padraig Breen mentioned that there are “Quite a lot of pills on the Slaney or at least a lot of use of the word”  Tom Martin tells us that the word is used in Fethard on Sea.  At the bridge on dock road. Halfway to Quay.

As I had already mentioned the SW of England – here’s what my Twitter pals had to share

Adrian Fulcher mentioned that on the River Fowey in Cornwall we have the Pont Pill, Mixtow Pill, Bodmin Pill, and Cliff Pill all on the Fowey.   Also in Cornwall, the placename Pill Creek is located on the River Fal.

Paul Montgomery gave me a link to a placename and an archaeological treasure – The Magor Pill Boat

Severn Piscator who sounds like he’s a man after my own heart when it comes to fishing heritage had this to say about his beloved River Severn.  “The word Pill or Pil is very common for tidal inlets throughout the Bristol Channel and Severn Estuary. it’s used as far up the river as Westbury on Severn on the great horseshoe bend of the river, above this point the word Lode is used.” He also shared a link to info on a famous Severn chart from 1595. He tells us “it was thought to have been produced due to the threat of a Spanish invasion using the Bristol Channel. It’s a great illustration of the Pills (Pilles) of the Severn…”

Find the original here Accessed from the UK Web Archive

We also got a link to the placename of Pill in Somerset. And a link to placenames in Wales associated with the word Pill via Dr. Rita Singer.

As regards the etymology of the word a lot of ideas were shared – some thinking it was Irish, Welsh, or Celtic while many seemed to think it is old English.  Here’s what wiktionary had to say about Pill. And I clipped out the relevant piece here for emphasis – From Middle English *pill, *pyll, from Old English pyll (“a pool, pill”), from Proto-Germanic *pullijaz (“small pool, ditch, creek”), diminutive of Proto-Germanic *pullaz (“pool, stream”), from Proto-Indo-European *bl̥nos (“bog, marsh”). Cognate with Old English pull (“pool, creek”), Scots poll (“slow moving stream, creek, inlet”), Icelandic pollur (“pond, pool, puddle”). More at pool.

This via James Hogg – an interesting reference at the end which I have not tracked down as yet – I can’t accept that there is no connection. For me the best theory to explain it in Ireland is the Norman invasion and the vast number of Bristol merchants that settled and traded with the Three Sisters at that time.

I think this exercise proved to me that this word and placename is old and worth preserving here in Ireland. If only on backwaters such as heritage blogs like mine. I can’t help but think that many have been lost down the years as the role of the waterways diminished and the mud and silt built up on our once national primary routes of economic trade. I’m also not so arrogant to think that I have captured the whole story here in these few weeks of hobby investigation. But hopefully, it’s a contribution to keeping the word alive. My thanks to all those Twitter people who helped me with this, my apologies if I missed you but hopefully I didn’t misrepresent anything anyone was kind enough to contribute to the exercise.

Needless to say, if you want to let me know of others, do so in the comments – or via email to


I found this wonderful piece again just after I completed this account about Johns Pill in Waterford. It’s by the late Brian J Goggins on his Irish waterways history page. A treasure trove and a man I so admired.

Post publication John O Leary told me this nugget via Facebook – “We have a creek known as the Pill just beside me here in Courcey Country/Parish just to the west of Kinsale Harbour which is also known as Sandycove Creek just inside Sandycove (Knochrush on charts) Island” Meanwhile Frank Cheevers told me of another pill “but this time on the outskirts of the lovely Forest of Dean in England

I’m also working on a story about the navigation between Carrick and Clonmel but one piece I have written is evidence from J Ernest Grubb about the extent of the traffic on the Pills between Carrick and Waterford – . “They also navigated the smaller rivers or pills such as Pilltown, Portlaw Pill (R Clodiagh), the Pouldrew Mill Pill, Kilmacow Pill (named Black River by Grubb – but generally known on maps today as the Blackwater)”

David Carroll kindly sent me on some information following the launch of Cormac Lowth’s new book – Ringsend Sailing Trawlers – Cormac mentions a Pill Lane in Dublin a street that is now called Chancery Street.

Clodagh Willams via Facebook sent me the following link about Dunkitt and it includes a snippet from A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland (1837) “”Dunkitt”, a parish, in the barony of Ida, county of Kilkenny, and province of Leinster, 4 miles (N. by W.) from Waterford, on the road to Thomastown…The parish is situated near the river Suir, with which it communicates by the Dunkitt pill...The land is generally good, and is based on a substratum of limestone, of which great quantities are quarried chiefly for exportation to the county of Wexford by the river Suir, from which the pill is navigable to the quarries….” I think this underscores how stretches of water were claimed for the locality and also how widespread the word was used in the past to denote a stretch of (navigable?) water. I guess it also risks confusion!

Mick Walsh on facebook added these extra details: “…As you mentioned it is a common term on the Slaney and I have heard it applied to both a small river (such as Poulnass Pill in Glynn) and to marshy areas around streams. “Peg it out in the pill” was my father’s threat to any object he considered frustratingly useless. Pilltown in west Waterford might be a more unusual one because the Blackwater once flowed through there out to Whiting Bay. A storm in the late 800s opened the current channel past Ferrypoint and changed the course of the river. This area is a recent addition geographically speaking, so might have Viking or Norman roots rather than Gaelic Irish.