Irish Place Names
The county name is the one most often remembered or recorded by emigrants as the place of origin in Ireland. The island is made up of thirty-two counties. After 1922, the six north-eastern counties became Northern Ireland, and remained part of the United Kingdom. The remaining 26 counties became what is now the Republic of Ireland. Queen's County became County Laois (or Leix) and King's County became County Offaly. Derry and Londonderry are used interchangeably for the same county.
There are two types of parishes in Irish research, the civil parish and the church (or ecclesiastical) parish. These are quite different and should not be confused. The Church of Ireland and the Roman Catholic Church had separate parish systems. Since the Church of Ireland was the Established Church, in effect an instrument of government, its parish boundaries were often the same as the civil parishes.
The civil parish is the most important boundary for land and taxation purposes before the 20th century. Above townland level (see below) it was the basic geographical unit for Griffith’s Valuation.
As the Roman Catholic Church re-emerged from persecution in the later eighteenth century, and especially after full Catholic emancipation in 1829, the Catholic parish system rapidly expanded. Many new Catholic parishes were established, often centred on new, growing population centres. Many Catholic parishes thus include parts of more than one civil parishes. The Catholic and civil parish names may or may not be the same.
Many emigrants recorded the civil parish as a place of origin in official documents. A Catholic parish is more likely to be listed in church records or on a tombstone in a Catholic cemetery.
Maps of the civil parish boundaries of all counties are online.
Approximate maps of Roman Catholic parishes are also available.
The townland is a peculiarly Irish creature. Based in some parts of the country on the daily grazing needs of a single cow and elsewhere on traditional plough-lands, at its simplest a townland is a rural area seen as a unit by the people living there. This is a long, long way from the mathematical precision of a postcode. One result is that the size of a townland can vary hugely, from a few small fields to several thousand acres. Nonetheless, since they were standardised by the Boundary Commission and the Ordnance Survey in the 1820s and 1830s, townlands have been the basic units of rural addresses in Ireland. Since the vast majority of the population was rural until quite recently, a townland address is thus one of the most important aims of Irish research.
The standard reference work, the 1851 Townlands Index, is based on the 1851 census returns and lists more than 60,000 townland names; it is available online.
The Irish Placenames Commission website includes many local names not included in the 1851 Townlands Index.
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