Finding the home place of your ancestor is central to finding the records they left behind. However, those new to Irish family research often find the nature of the land-divisions used, and their names, very confusing. Even those who are experienced in Irish research often find difficulty in locating places identified in old records. It is not uncommon for researchers to know the name of the place from which a family originated, but not be able to locate it in any index or map. This is usually because they have a non-standard spelling of the name of the location. A point to note is that Ireland, like many other European countries, has a larger number of place-names than might be found within equivalent areas of North America. Smaller farms required names to differentiate smaller areas, which therefore resulted in a greater number of place-names. Even individual fields have names (see 5 below). In this article we deal with:
- Place-names and their derivation
- Administrative divisions of land
- Sources of information and assistance
- We also include a glossary of common place-related words and terms
2. Place-names and their derivation
Irish place-names (and divisions) are mainly of ancient origin. The vast majority are derived from the Gaelic or Irish language, which was spoken by most of the population until around 1800 and gradually reduced thereafter. Variations in the names of places arose when these ancient names were anglicised. The acknowledged authority on Irish place names is P.W.Joyce, author of ‘The Origin and history of Irish names of Places‘ (McGlashan and Gill, Dublin 1871) which details the origins of place names and is available on-line here. A flavour of the variety of word-roots is given by the extract from an index to ‘root words’ in this book below. These are a small sample of the many words on which Irish place names are built. Some useful aids in this process are in Section 3.
Ed Finn, who managed the wonderful Seanruad website (see below) noted that “more than 95% of the requests that come in to me for assistance in finding an elusive townland have resulted in the townland being spelled different from the way that the researcher entered it into the search engine”. This variation in the spelling of place-names mystifies many people who are unfamiliar with Irish history. How can there be several different spellings for one place? There are several factors which combine to produce this result.
The realities of Irish history are that those who recorded the names of places were very often English-speaking clerks, map-makers, land-agents or owners. These people often only spoke English, or worked for estates or state organisations that were English in allegiance and culture. Their purpose was often to anglicise the country. Making Irish place-names understandable to an English ear was part of this process. P.W.Joyce, who is referenced above, noted that current place-names “are derived from the ancient Irish as they were spoken, not as they were written. Those who first committed them to writing aimed at preserving the original pronunciation, by representing them as nearly as they were able in English letters.’
If this had been a coordinated national process, it might not have created so much confusion. However, until the Griffith Valuation (see Figure 3 below) the rendering of Irish place names into English was done independently and for different purposes by many different people. The local landlord, the tithe collector, the map-maker, priests, vicars and various others rendered what they heard according to their own understanding. Thus, if we use a fictitious example of a place historically called Baile Rua (literally Red Town): the mapmaker might anglicise the name as Ballyroe; the landlord’s agent might call it Ballaghroe; and the Tithe collector call it Balroe. Until the mid-1800s there was no ‘correct’ way to spell these names. Variable spellings will therefore occur in different records. The effect of this is that a townland can be listed in different records using various spellings. As a general rule, the older the record, the more likely they are to have a variant spelling. Some real examples are below which show the agreed version of the townland name (the first listed) and some other versions found. I have purposely selected some more complicated names for this purpose:
- Tonysillogagh, a small Monaghan townland, is spelled Tonnisillugagh in a rental, and Tonnysillago in the Tithe records.
- Lyracrumpane in Kerry is spelled Lyreacrompane in the Tithe records, and Lyeracroompane in a rental record.
- Mautiagh, a small townland in Leitrim is spelled Mautha in the Tithe records and Mattogh in a rental record
- Knocknakillew in Mayo, is spelled Cnucknakilloo in a baptismal record and Knocknakellue in the tithe records
- Mahernetraga This is a sub-townland (see below) in County Louth and the ancestral home of one of the Irish ancestors of US President Joe Biden. Variants that occur in church and other records include: Mornatray, Mornatraya, Mornatragha, Mornatraiah, Maranatray, Maranatraya, Marnathraga, Mahernetraga and Meyernatraga.
It should be noted that not all of the place-name confusion was created within Ireland. To further compound the variation, many emigrants were illiterate and unable to write the name of their home place. This remembered name may have been written down decades later by their literate children or friends who were unfamiliar with Irish name forms. This lead to further variations such as (using our fictitious example of Baile Rua above) Belliroo or Billiroo. These variations created problems for many organisations including map-makers, and legal authorities involved in land administration. There have been two major programmes designed to to put some order on this confusion:
1. The first was by the Ordnance Survey Office, which was established in 1824 to undertake a townland survey of Ireland and to map the entire country at a scale of 6 inches to one mile. They also undertook the laudable project of establishing the original name of every place to be mapped. For this purpose they hired John O’Donovan (1806-1861) to lead the process. He and other Irish-speaking researchers walked all over the country recording place names and other landscape details. However, politics also played a role. The version of local names defined by local landed estate owners tended to be accepted in the names formalisation process. In addition, there were many areas where traditional sub-townland names were in common use: these were simply ignored by the Ordnance Survey. Nevertheless, the process was a major contribution to recording of place-names. In addition to the place names they contributed to the maps, their work is recorded in:
- Name Books recording the names of each townland, the variations (if any) known to exist at the time and the commonly used form of the name. They are available on www.askaboutireland.ie. They have no particular relevance for family history other than clarifying some place name variations.
- The O’Donovan’s Ordnance Survey Letters. These were written by O’Donovan to the Ordnance Survey head office staff to report on his progress and include names and details of places visited. They were written between 1834 and 1841 and exist for twenty-nine counties (excluding Cork, Antrim and Tyrone). Digital versions are also accessible on www.askaboutireland.ie. Once again, they have no specific relevance for family history other than elucidating place names.
.2. The second (and continuing) programme to manage place names began in 1946 when the Irish Government established a ‘Placenames Commission‘ to define their official names. This had both a cultural purpose (to establish the original Irish name), and also a practical purpose (to define the formal legal spelling of each place for a range of administrative purposes). The agreed name is given legal status by ministerial order. This body was succeeded in 2013 by the Placenames Branch of the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht (advised by a Placenames Committee). They have created the Placenames Database of Ireland (www.logainm.ie) which provides the formal legal name of all Irish places. It is continually being updated with new names, particularly of smaller places and contains a wealth of information. It is the official source of place-name information for lawyers, journalists, translators, students and teachers, historians and researchers in genealogy. Among the useful features of their website are:
- Regional guides to local pronunciation of place names in 22 counties (in case you plan a visit).
- An enquiry service on the origin and variants of individual place names.
- Maps showing the distribution of different word components within the country
Further information on this and other sources of information on place-names is in Section 4 below.
3. Administrative Divisions
Places have boundaries, and these boundaries were drawn up over centuries for different administrative purposes. Evolving systems of public health, governance and social welfare required new administrations and new areas of operations. The evolution of land divisions therefore matches the development of society. The new divisions defined the areas within which new forms of records were collected and it is therefore important to understand how they are organised and, to some extent, their purpose. The areas into which all countries are divided may be roughly defined as:
- Land divisions; These are the legal divisions used to define the location of units of land for legal purposes. They include the divisions from county to townland described below. In this article I have not dealt with the old Gaelic land divisions simply because they do not often occur in the major records used for family history research. These divisions included ballybetaghs, sessiaghs, ballyboes and others.
- ‘People’ Divisions: these are divisions set up for management of public functions (healthcare, voting, census-collection etc). They are geographically based, but are more concerned with the people occupying the land, rather than with the land itself. These include Poor Law Unions, Registrar Districts etc. They overlay the land divisions above but generally do not share borders.
- Ecclesiastical divisions. The divisions used by churches for their internal administration. Like ‘people’ divisions they are concerned with people rather than territory.
In predominantly agricultural communities, land is the main resource and access to land is the basis of power. A system to define land boundaries, and to name the areas of land within them, has therefore been in existence since ancient times. Understanding these land divisions is important in conducting family history as they are the basis for organisation of records on land ownership, rent and occupancy such as Griffith Valuation, Tithe records and rentals. The main land divisions, starting with the largest, are:
- Province: These are rarely of relevance in finding family records but useful to know. The four provinces are Ulster in the North; Connaught in the West; Munster in the South-West and Leinster in the South-East.
- County: There are 32 counties and they are a major unit for record purposes. Dublin county is shown in the illustration above, with its internal division into the units below. This map also shows the modern division of Dublin County into 4 administrative areas equivalent to counties (these internal divisions are shown using same lines as county boundaries). Note that our publishing arm, Flyleaf Press, publish guides to family history research in 14 Irish counties – see here.
- Barony: These are the largest divisions within a county, and are based on ancient tribal divisions, or tuatha, of Celtic Ireland. They are no longer used for any administrative purpose, but important for some older records such as deeds.
- Civil Parish: Each county is divided into civil parishes and these are a major unit for record-keeping. There are around 2,500 in all and they are of variable size. Like all land divisions, their boundaries are of ancient origin and devoid of straight lines. A very small number are composed of units of land which are geographically separate.
- Townland: This is the smallest unit, of which there are 61,402. They are very variable in size, and average 325 acres, but vary from less than one acre to 7,555 acres. They are the basic unit of address used by rural people, even today. For rural dwellers, a townland is usually as specific an address as is required. Note that a townland has nothing to do with a town. Many are inhabited by nothing other than sheep or cattle. Townland sizes were probably delineated in pre-history on the basis of agricultural capacity. The smallest are in good agricultural areas and the largest on less productive uplands or bogland. This can be clearly seen in the townland map of Mayo in Figure 3. Smaller townlands are in the more productive eastern lowland areas and very large townlands are in mountain and bog areas unsuited to any tillage agriculture. Name variations are very common.
These divisions were created during the 19th century to manage civil affairs. They are concerned with the people within them, rather than ownership of the land itself. As different forms of public administration (health, voting, civil registration etc) were introduced, new areas for their administration became necessary. Most significantly, the Poor Law (1838) established a system to care for the poor. This created areas called Poor Law Unions within which a tax was collected, and services provided. These PLUs were based around major towns. There were about 162 in all. Each is named from the town at their centre but covers a very wide area around the town. These same areas later became used for other administrative purposes such as:
- Superintendent Registrars Districts, These are the areas within which births, deaths and marriages are recorded. The boundaries generally correspond to Poor Law Unions, and have the same name. There were 162 Superintendent Registrars Districts. Information on the establishment of the civil record system is in a separate blog.
- Dispensary Districts are a subdivision of the Superintendent Registrars District established for local health administration. Each of the 830 such districts had a ‘dispensary’ or medical office. The medical officer was also the local registrar and looked after the recording of Births, Marriages and Deaths, so these districts correspond to Registrar’s Districts in the Civil Records. See our blog on Civil Registration for further information on the establishment of the Civil Registration system.
- District Electoral Divisions (DED – approximately 3,500) were used for Electoral purposes and also as the areas for Census Enumeration.
Probate Districts. Prior to its disestablishment, the Church of Ireland was responsible for proving of wills. This was done within dioceses (see below). After 1858, a civil court system was established with 11 District Registries (which validated or proved wills involving property situated within the district) and a Principal Registry to cover wills with property located outside one district. The number of district registries has now been expanded to 14.
These are the areas used by the various religious denominations to manage their affairs. Within the Catholic church and Church of Ireland, these divisions are Dioceses and Parishes. However, other denominations had other systems of administration. Quaker administration was conducted within ‘Meetings’ and their excellent Irish records are organised accordingly; Presbyterian administration was within Synods and local Kirks; while Methodists were organised within Societies, which were divided into local Classes. The administration of the various Irish churches is detailed in Irish Church Records (see below left). While these divisions are mainly only relevant for the church itself, an exception is the Church of Ireland (C of I). Until 1871 the C of I was the ‘Established’ or State church which meant that it carried out certain civil functions (e.g. Probate or administration of wills). Church of Ireland dioceses were the administrative units for probate administration; and C of I parishes were also ‘civil’ divisions for the purposes of collection of tithes (a tax for support of the C of I) which was payable by people of all religions. Civil parishes and Church of Ireland parishes are therefore identical, whereas Catholic parishes were originally identical but their number and extent evolved to accommodate the needs of the church and its parishioners. Both Church of Ireland and Catholic parish names can be searched on the SWilson.Info website and a full list of Church of Ireland parishes is also available on the Representative Church Body website (with availability of records). For Catholic parishes a useful source of names and maps is the National Library Registers website.
There are other small land divisions which you may occasionally come across. These, and some of the terms which are found on maps and place-related records, are discussed in Section 5. (see above)
4. Sources of information and assistance
If you have been handed down a place name as the origin of your family, and it does not appear in the formal list of townlands in Logainm.ie (see above) what can you do? Firstly, play around with the obvious spelling variations and you can often find it. Nuckmore might be Knockmore, and Ballabig might prove to be Ballybeg etc. Be imaginative! What the above examples show is that there is a phonetic consistency to the names. Look for variant spellings that sound generally similar. The trick is to imagine what the original name might have been, and how a clerk of long ago may have written it down!
In choosing the spelling forms, there are some general rules that will help you. As in many languages, there are some very common beginnings and ends to place-names. Thus we have many beginning with Bally.. (settlement); Drum/Drom.. (ridge); Knock (originally Cnoc – a hill); Kill.. (Church); Cool.. (a corner) or ending with ..mór (big); …beg (small); ..bawn (white) or ..rua (red). If you know some of these common root words, it will be easier to find the correct combination. Note however, that the same townland names occur in different counties or parishes, so it is important to ensure that you have the right one. For instance, there are over 60 townlands called Dromore (big Hill) and almost 50 called Ballybeg (little town). Note also that priests or clerks sometimes abbreviate long local names in their records for convenience, but only if there are no other similar names in their area. For instance, Skeheenarinky may be listed as Skeheen; or Rathcormack as Rath.
The acknowledged expert on Irish place names is P.W.Joyce author of ‘The Origin and history of Irish names of Places‘ (McGlashan and Gill, Dublin 1871) which details the origins of place names and is available on-line here. An extract from an index to ‘root words’ in this book is shown above (Figure 1). These are a small sample of the many words on which Irish place names are built.
There are several useful on-line aids to finding townland name variations. Particularly useful are those that provide a facility to search using parts of the name, e.g. search for a particular beginning or ending. For instance, if you are searching for the name ‘Killara’, you will not find it in the Logainm index. However, this site will suggest possible synomyms. However, on websites such as Seanruad, and the Irish Genealogical Society website you can search for all of the places beginning with ‘Kil’, or ending in ‘ara’ until you find one that seems to match, e.g. Killarah in the illustration below. Clearly, this is not a proof that you have the right place, but it is a lead. You can also limit the search to the county or parish. John Grenham’s excellent website also provides a similar facility but a charge will be requested for continued access. Below are some of the useful websites for place-names and their particular features:
Seanruad A free site that provides a searchable index of place names by county, parish etc. It is particularly useful for finding place names using one part of a name e.g. beginning with, containing, or ending in …x…
Irish Genealogical Society Somewhat similar to Seanruad in finding place names using one part of a name e.g. beginning with, ending in etc. However, it also provides the reference for an Ordnance Survey map containing the place of interest.
Townlands Index. This is an excellent resource if you are certain of the spelling of a placename. It only lists the currently accepted name form. It will provide a map of the townland (or parish etc), precise location details, names of surrounding townlands and links to the 1901 and 1911 census returns for the townland.
GeoHive The official government mapping agency, Ordnance Survey Ireland provides maps of all sorts and sizes, both on paper and also on-line. It also provides a facility for finding locations of places (including streets) through their Geohive service. As with the townland index, it only responds to currently accepted names. The search will find the location, and you can then overlay the area with modern maps, or with old maps. An example of a map search for the townland of Killarah in the above list is shown in Fig 5. It usefully allows identification of surrounding townlands and current roadways for access to the area.
S Wilson.info. This is a treasure trove of genealogical information of all sorts, including specific aids for finding Church of Ireland and Catholic parishes; Registration Districts; and townlands (including a facility to search by part of the name)
One classic published source of information on townlands is the “General Alphabetical Index to the Townlands and Towns, Parishes and Baronies of Ireland”. It has been republished many times (e.g. by the Genealogical Publishing Co., Baltimore) and is widely available. It is also available on-line at www.swilson.info and on Googlebooks. This index was drawn up for administration of the 1851 census, i.e. to ensure that census enumerators used accepted place names in making their returns. An example of part of a page is shown in Fig 4.
If you know the (accepted) name of a townland, you can establish from this index where it is located, its size and a map reference. The page above also shows that certain names occur many times. In this example, there are 7 occurrences of the name Killard – in 7 different counties.
When you have established the correct name, you can then search for maps of the location. If you have the currently accepted spelling of the place, the site www.townlands.ie will provide a map, precise location details, names of surrounding townlands and links to the 1901 and 1911 census returns.
The Townlands.ie site is particularly useful in location of streets, which can often prove difficult due to name changes which occurred for commemorative purposes, particularly after Irish independence in 1922. Streets and lanes have also sometimes disappeared in urban developments.
A further popular source of information is ‘A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland’ by Samuel Lewis (1837). It is a well-known resource for contemporary information on Irish places in the 1830s. It does not include townlands, but does list many villages and provides some name variations. It is widely available, including on-line here. Its value is that it describes a village or parish as it was in the 1830s, which may be very different than it is now. A typical entry is shown in Fig. 6.
However, there are also names for units smaller than a townland. Irish farmers subsisted on very small holdings. Therefore, it was sometimes necessary to distinguish between different parts of a larger townland, so a specific place name was born. These are called sub-Townlands. Some of these names for small local features have been captured in scholarly works which describe their derivations, and they will also be locally known. However, there is no complete central source which contains all of these non-townland local names. The Townlands Index site (see above) is gradually compiling information on them. In any case, they are unlikely to be of much value to you in finding your ancestor as they do not usually appear in records. However, if the name you are seeking is not a townland name, it may be a sub-townland. The ancestral home of Joe Biden, for instance, is the sub-townland of Mahernetraga in Louth. If you do find the location, it may be very useful in precisely locate where your ancestor once lived if you do visit the area.
5. A Glossary of further place-related words and terms
Below are some of the words and terms that may be found in your research on finding places, and in using Irish maps.
In towns and Cities:
Street Address. Many street names have been changed over time, particularly after Irish independence in 1922. If you cannot find your street, it may have been changed. A Google search with ‘ X Street – new name’ will usually prove successful.
Terraces can be a particular challenge. These are often a line of houses within a longer street. So, for instance, Longford Terrace, may be a line of houses on Davitt Street! The official address will be the street name, although many people will use the terrace name as their address. (If it was easy, would it be as much fun?). Best solution is to Google the terrace address and you may find a modern website (typically a real estate site) which gives the street address.
Wards were the smallest administrative divisions within cities and some large towns. They were used for local elections, and also for reporting of census returns. They were changed to District Electoral Divisions (DED) under the Local Government Act (1994). They are not commonly found in family history records, but occasionally occur in lists of householders, or in valuations.
Boroughs were historically self-governing urban areas which had mayors and elected councils. They were also electoral areas for local elections, and were composed of a number of wards. Almost all Irish boroughs were abolished in the Local Government Reform Act 2014. They occasionally occur in records.
Sub-townlands. Some areas within large townlands were named for practical purposes. They have no formal status as administrative areas, but they were nevertheless occur in many records simply because they are the address used by many people. They particularly occur in records where individuals dictated their address information, e.g. church and civil records. They can cause difficulties in location because there is no formalised and complete list. The website Townlands.ie has undertaken the process of mapping these sub-townlands.
Dispensary districts. These are not generally used for family history as they do not usually produce records relevant to family history. They are areas set up to administer early forms of public health. They are equivalent in area to the Registrar’s Districts used for Civil Registration. The Medical Officer in charge of the Dispensary District was almost always also the local Registrar for Civil records.
Half-barony. Where baronies extend across county boundaries, the part in each county is referred to as a half-barony. An example is Rathdown, which is partly in Dublin and part in Wicklow.
Fields and field names. Individual fields within Irish farms are irregular in shape and have boundaries that are usually of ancient origin. The boundaries themselves are composed (depending on region) of stone walls, or of ‘hedgerows’ or ditches which are earthen banks planted with small trees and bushes. These fields also have names, and there are many projects now underway by Logainm and County Heritage groups to catalogue them.
Demesne. Within large estates, the Demesne was the part of the estate that the landlord reserved for their own use, as distinct from the land that was rented or leased to tenants.
Estate. During the 16th to 19th centuries almost all Irish land was divided into large estates that were rented to tenants. A full account of the management of these estates, and the resultant records, is in our article on Rentals.
Big house. A colloquial term for the house of the landlord on an estate.
OSi / Ordnance Survey Ireland. The national Mapping agency for Ireland – see www.osi.ie
Gazetteer: a dictionary or index of places, usually with descriptive or statistical information.
Grantor/Grantee: Grantor is the person selling or giving a lease to a property; Grantee is the person buying, or taking a lease on, a property
Conveyance: A deed transferring ownership of property from one party to another
Tenement. Nowadays this term has taken on some negative connotations. However, in older records it simply means a ‘holding’.
Denomination. A name or designation of type of land division. For instance Townland and Civil parish are both denominations of land divisions.
Valuation. A ‘valuation’ or ‘rateable valuation’ in the sense that it is commonly used in family history records (particularly Griffith’s Valuation) is a figure (e.g. £1) indicating the productive potential of a property. It was defined for the purpose of levying a local tax. The potential income of each property was estimated and the payable tax was based on a multiple of this (see Rates below).
Rates. A ‘rate’ is the metric used by local authorities in calculation of local taxes (usually called ‘striking a rate’). Each property had a ‘Valuation’ (see above). The ‘rate’ was the factor which converted this valuation to a tax, usually expressed as x pence per pound. For instance, if a property had a valuation of £2, and a rate of 9 pence was ‘struck’, the tax payable was 2 x 9 pence = 18 pence or 1 shilling and 6 pence (1s 6d).
Electoral Divisions. Administrative units consisting of groups of townlands were created in the 19th century for voting purposes. The term ‘District Electoral Division’ was changed to ‘Electoral Division’ in 1994.
Electoral Divisions (EDs) are the smallest legally defined administrative areas. There are 3,440 legally defined EDs in the State.
District Electoral Divisions (DEDs) are sub-divisions of Poor Law Unions originally established for the purpose of electing members of the Boards of Guardians (who managed local poor law administration). They were later used for other electoral purposes until recent times. They were changed to Electoral Divisions in 2001 while retaining their statutory names. The Local Electoral Areas (LEAs) are a more recent introduction in 2018.
Hereditaments. In common law, it describes any kind of property that can be inherited (land, furniture, fittings, animals etc). It is frequently found in Encumbered Estates records, deeds etc.
Titulado. A person having title to a property.
Some further reading (in addition to the works noted above).
- That Place We Call Home: A journey through the place names of Ireland. John Creedon, Gill, Dublin 2020.
- Thirty-Two Words for Field: Lost Words of the Irish Landscape. Manchán Magan. Gill, Dublin 2020.
- Dictionary of Ulster Place-Names. Patrick McKay. Institute of Irish Studies.
Other articles in our series on Irish Family Sources:
- Petty Sessions– the records of local courts
- Grand Jury Presentments – records of local councils on payments for public works and staff
- Rentals – management of tenants by estates and the records created
- Middle names – the use (or non-use) of second or middle names in Irish records
- Guide to Irish Civil Records
- How comprehensive are Irish Civil Records?
- Catholic Church Records
- Travellers’ accounts of Ireland in the 18th and 19th centuries
- Census returns in Gaelic or Irish language
- 60+ blogs with names extracted from manuscript sources. A handy map index to these is available here.