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IRELAND: HISTORICAL GEOGRAPHY OVERVIEW

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SUBDIVISIONS OF IRELAND

The island of Ireland is historically subdivided into a hierarchy of Provinces, Counties, Baronies, Parishes and Townlands, as explained below.

 

IRELAND

Since 1922 the island of Ireland has been divided politically into two parts. Six counties in the northeast of the island (Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone) remain politically linked to Great Britain, whilst the remaining counties form the Republic of Ireland. For simplicity, and since most people researching genealogy will be focused on the period prior to 1922, the GENUKI web pages treat the island of Ireland as one entity, with one main Ireland webpage.

The GENUKI main Ireland webpage holds information that applies to the whole of Ireland, rather than to specific counties, parishes or towns. It also has links to the pages for each of the counties (see below).

 

PROVINCES

The island of Ireland has been divided into these four Provinces since at least 1610, as shown on the map below. These are:

  • Munster, in the south.
  • Connaught (Connacht), in the west.
  • Leinster, in the east.
  • Ulster, in the north.

Note that, although Northern Ireland is often referred-to as “Ulster”, the Province of Ulster consists of nine counties; much larger than the six counties that make-up “Northern Ireland” today.

As Provinces are of comparatively little interest in genealogical research, they are not included in the GENUKI webpage hierarchy.

 

COUNTIES

The island of Ireland is divided into 32 counties (see map below), which have been in-place since at least the early 17th century although, as with all administrative divisions, minor changes in boundaries may have occurred at various points in time.

There is a GENUKI webpage for each county (for example Cavan), which holds information that applies to the whole of that county, rather than to specific towns or parishes within the county. Each county page also has links to the webpages for each civil parish within that county, and also to any towns within the county that have their own webpage.

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BARONIES

In the 17th century, the counties were given smaller administrative subdivisions called Baronies. For expediency, many Baronies were based on existing baile biataigh (Anglicised as “ballybetagh”), which was a Gaelic Irish land division. However, since Baronies are of comparatively little interest in genealogical research, they are not included in the GENUKI webpage hierarchy. Nor is there (usually) a GENUKI Gazetteer entry for individual Baronies.

 

CIVIL PARISHES

Civil parishes are usually based on the historical boundaries of Church of Ireland ecclesiastic parishes, although present-day Church of Ireland and Catholic ecclesiastic parishes are often much larger in rural areas. Civil parishes usually take their name from that of the townland in which a medieval church stood.

There is a GENUKI webpage for each civil parish, which holds information specific to that civil parish (for example Killevy). It includes a map showing the civil parish boundary and a list of the townlands within its boundaries (with links to their GENUKI Gazetteer entries). Where compiled, there will also be a list of the churches & graveyards within its boundaries (with a links to their GENUKI webpages where those exist). Where a civil parish straddles a county boundary, there will usually be two GENUKI webpages for that parish (one for each county). Each webpage may show the boundary for both parts of the parish, but will list only the townlands, churches & graveyards on one side of the county boundary.

PLEASE NOTE: You may find that different sources appear to disagree on the make-up and/or boundaries of some civil parishes. This is because it is not uncommon for civil parishes:

  • to have one (or more) separate detached sections.
  • to have boundaries that have changed at various points in time.
  • to have had townlands added (or removed) at some point in time.
  • to straddle barony and/or county boundaries.

Also be aware that there are sometimes two civil parishes with the same name within the same county.

 

TOWNS & VILLAGES

Many towns (and some villages) have their own GENUKI webpage covering information specific to that place. For the larger towns that webpage will be similar to that of a civil parish (see above). Please also note that:

  • Most towns and many villages (even small ones) straddle several townlands and may straddle two - or more - civil parishes.
  • Some villages bear the name of a townland that they are near to, but not within.

 

TOWNLANDS

Townlands are the smallest subdivision of land in Ireland and vary enormously in shape & size. They are not an administrative subdivision, so should be thought of as a “locality”. However, until postcodes were introduced, the townland functioned as the “street address” in rural areas, and so are often named in church registers and other historical documents.

Many townlands were created as part of the surveys that took place to apportion land in connection with the plantation of (mainly Protestant) settlers in the 17th century. For expediency, many of those were based on an existing Gaelic-Irish land division, which was intended to support an extended family group. Those were called ballyboes in most of Ulster, tates in Fermanagh & Tyrone, polls in Cavan and other local names elsewhere in Ireland.

Each townland has a GENUKI Gazetteer webpage, showing its location details, including on a map (for example: Ballyagherty). Any other information about that townland is on the GENUKI webpage for the civil parish of which it is a part.

PLEASE NOTE: You may find that different sources appear to disagree on the townland boundary, or as to which civil parish a townland belongs. This is because it is not uncommon for townlands:

  • to have one (or more) separate detached sections.
  • to have boundaries that have changed at various points in time.
  • to have moved from one civil parish to another at some point in time.
  • to straddle the boundary of two (sometimes three) civil parishes.
  • to straddle barony and/or county boundaries.

Also be aware that there are often two townlands with the same name within the same county and, sometimes, townlands bear the name of a village which is in an adjacent townland.