Irish Placenames and Genealogy

posted in: Uncategorized | 0
Irish lordships, 1500s

Irish Placenames and Genealogy

Placenames are important in genealogy as without them little progress can be made. This brief overview discusses how the various placename systems found in Ireland are grouped and structured and the relevance of each one to genealogical research. In addition to discussing the relevance of placenames to genealogy I also discuss the origins of each placename system as this exploration is of interest to understanding Irish history.


Ireland has 32 counties, twenty six in the Republic and six in Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. Counties are important for genealogy as the basic superdenominational spatial unit. Counties are the first locative unit met with in many cases, sometimes where no more precise address is known. Irish counties originate at various times from the twelth to the sixteenth centuries. The original twelve counties were introduced by the Anglo-Normans in the thirteenth century and this number was increased to thirty two in total by the newly arrived Tudor administration during the 1550s to 1606. Therefore in one sense the Irish county was established by the English, but in another sense in many cases by the Irish as the English-established counties were based on ancient Irish kingdoms. The local government model that included the county was imported from England, with its sheriff or ‘shire reeve’ and other lesser officials. A similar local government system was established by the English in America, but here the county is a much smaller unit than the Irish or British county. The county can still have local government functions as we have seen recently where as part of the Covid 19 crisis Irish people were not allowed to travel outside of their county.

Administrative Barony

The barony is an entirely fascinating unit. Early medieval Ireland, say from at least the seventh century onwards, had several layers of kingdoms and under kingdoms. At the top there was the high-kingship, the next layer down were the provincial kingdoms, half a dozen or more in total, under which were the regional kingdoms, often the ancestor to the county as described above. There were perhaps two dozen or more of these kingdoms, under which were the lowest layer of kingdoms, the local kingdoms, of which there were approximately 180 or so. These local kingdoms changed somewhat in function during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, often being managed by stewards or managers for purposes of military levy and tax collection, although many still retained ‘kings’, in reality mere administrators but descended from ancient ruling lines.

Under the Anglo-Normans these local kingdoms became ‘cantreds’, spatial units of local government under which local courts operated and taxes were raised. The cantred was abolished under the Tudors in the later 1500s but this was in name only, as their descendant, the administrative barony (not to be confused with a much rarer beast, the fuedal barony), bore many of the features of the cantred. These new baronies were partly based in area upon the older cantreds, but also to a degree upon the descendant territories of the local lords, be they of Irish descent or Norman descent. The administrative barony was finally abolished as a unit of local government in 1898 when replaced by the county councils. The barony has some limited relevance for genealogy. Griffith’s Valuation is organized by barony while the placename indexing system of the Registry of Deeds is also organized by barony.

The administrative barony is not to be confused with the feudal barony. This was a type of ‘super’ manor whose lords held directly of the king. Although now abolished in Ireland there has been a market in these as ‘titles’ or lordships sold to gullible Americans over the last twenty years or so by the descendants of their onetime nineteenth century owners. Given as there is now no such thing in existence this is a very clever marketing ploy involving large sums of money. Remember the saying, ‘a fool and his money are soon parted’.


The diocese is the area under the religious rule of a bishop, comprised of a large number of parishes. At one time, not too long ago, the genealogist could only search the records of the diocesan parishes with the bishop’s approval, which was not given in many cases. The number and size of Irish dioceses are closely related in many cases to that of the county, but this correlation is far from absolute. The current Irish diocesan structure was largely established during the early to mid twelfth century. The diocese is important for genealogy as church baptism, marriage and death records are generally older than civil registration records (which begin 1864) and these records are arranged by diocese and in many cases will have been digitised by diocese as distinct from county. The Rootsireland database of church records has tried with some success to switch the focus of access to the county as against the diocese but one still for example finds nine parishes in Waterford diocese that actually lie in County Tipperary but come up on Rootsireland under County Waterford.


The parish is important to genealogists for reasons outlined under the diocese above. This applies to both Catholic and Protestant parishes but these generally differ in area. Protestant parishes are generally based on much older, pre-Reformation Catholic medieval ancestors, while Catholic parishes tend to have eighteenth-century roots as the Catholic Church emerged from Penal persecution and took cognizance of modern demographic patterns as distinct from the 700 year ancestry of the Protestant records. The parish itself has ancient roots. Something like a parish system was in existence as early as the tenth century, based on the tuath, a local community division, and this system was altered to some degree by being sub-divided by the Anglo-Normans during the thirteenth century, at least in Munster and Leinster. In Connacht and even more so Ulster many areas saw the parish retaining the older tuath shapes. The shape of the Catholic parish is relevant to genealogists as in many cases no address is recorded in the baptism or marriage records and so all we can say about many parishes is that the address of the relevant person(s) lay somewhere within the area of the Catholic parish.

Yet another facet of the parish is what is called the ‘civil parish’, of which there were around 2,500 in existence around 1840. This unit has its roots in the seventeenth century land surveys arising from the confiscation of Catholic owned lands by the English. The civil parish was originally based on the later medieval parish structure. It is a local government administrative unit used for tax collection and spatial location data, largely land boundaries, census details and land ownership. The essential Irish spatial hierarchy, from top to bottom, is: townland – civil parish – administrative barony – county. The modern civil parish boundaries are based on the Protestant parish boundaries as formally defined in the Ordnance Survey six inch national mapping project of the 1820s to the 1840s. The civil parish has never actually been abandoned as a spatial unit. For genealogists the civil parish will be familiar from its use in Griffith’s Primary Valuation. Most of the remaining features of the civil parish were replaced by the establishment of the Poor Law structures in 1898.


Ireland has over 60,000 townlands ranging in size from a couple of acres to several thousand acres (to convert to hectares, 2.4 statute acres to one hectare approx.) In many cases the size of the townland is directly related to the agricultural quality of its land, the bigger the townland the poorer its land quality. This of course gives us a strong hint as to the origins of the townland, as we note the tendency for each townland to have the same agricultural value regardless of size. The townland only fossilized or came to have static areas with the first OS mapping in the 1830s and 1840s. Despite this, the evidence suggests that townland boundaries tend to be very old. Our first detailed accurate mapping program, the Down Survey of the 1650s, shows a close correlation between the townlands of the 1650s and modern townlands. Even beyond this however, we can find evidence to show that similar linkages exist between the modern townland and the Anglo-Norman vill, detailed evidence for which survives from the period of the 1290s to the 1320s. These indicators are further illuminated by records of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, showing as they do that the townland was in fact a sub-division of the baile, where we see a ratio 1:4:16 where one is the baile, four are its quarters, and sixteen are its townlands. Here the baile or bally is the basic kinship estate held by the various branches of a single kin-group or clan, which is sub-divided among the kin-group each generation. The baile varies in size as does its constituent townlands and quarters, ranging from perhaps one thousand acres to six or seven thousand acres, depending on land quality. Under this structure the townland had various technical names, such as the ballyboe, cartron, pottle, tate, etc. It is helpful to understand that to all intents and purposes the townland operated like a large farm with fixed and often ancient boundaries.

The townland is the basic spatial unit of Ireland. In rural areas, until modern reforms the townland was the address of the residence just as in urban areas it was the street. As the basic spatial building block the townland came in at the bottom of the Irish spatial hierarchy as noted already, above which are the civil parish, barony and county. To the genealogist knowledge of the townland is vital. All major surveys are based on the townland: valuation records, census records, rural BMD records and so on. All efforts to identify the spatial history of a homestead or farm in rural areas begins with the question, what townland is it in?

Civil registration district

This is a vital unit for the genealogist. Civil registration of births, marriages and deaths began in Ireland between 1845 and 1864. The indices for these records are grouped by registration district, therefore it is important for the genealogist to know in what district the target dwelt as this will cut down the number of ‘hits’ significantly. There are several online maps available of the registration districts. Such districts bore little relationship to the older baronies, copying as they did the area of the Poor Law Unions (PLU), themselves established during the 1830s and centred on the bigger towns. Their business was taxation and provision of poverty relief and of medical services.

District electoral division

The district electoral division, or DED for short, originated as a sub-unit of the PLU. Its role was electoral and has limited relevance for genealogists. This mainly lies with the census, whose entries are grouped by DED.