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Irish Genealogy:  Irish Administration Divisions: Townlands

"Pat" Moughty Land Barnacor

Townland of Barnacor in County Westmeath

As I mentioned in my last blog, the most important information for finding your ancestors in Ireland is knowing the location, preferably the townland, where they lived.

So what’s a townland?  It’s the smallest administrative division and in size, could be anything from a few acres to thousands of acres.  There are over 60,000 townlands in Ireland, and by the way, the Irish were not particularly creative in naming these...it’s not uncommon to find the same townland name multiple times, even in the same county!  (I’ve written a couple of times on trying to discover which “Irishtown” my husband’s Daly ancestors were from.) You might be thinking, I’d be happy if I only knew the county, but that may not be enough to get you to the correct records.

One of the difficulties in searching for Irish ancestors is the duplication of names.  Irish naming patterns (which are not cast in stone, but were frequently used) name the oldest son after the paternal grandfather.  If a family had four sons, the next generation would typically have four individuals in the next generation, all close in age, with the same given name.   For example,  James Moughty, the son of Patrick, had six sons and four daughters.  The oldest son was named Patrick after his grandfather.  One of the sons became a priest, and one remained a bachelor.  The other four sons named their first son James after the grandfather.  Since the Irish tended not to be very  mobile, that meant that there were now four James Moughtys, all within a few years of each other, living in the same area.  Add to the equation the fact that the Irish were not particularly good with ages or birth dates. One of these James emigrates to the U.S., but which one?  Multiply this by generations and you start to see the problem.  If you’re not careful,  you’ll end up with former ancestors...the ones you’ve researched for years only to discover they’re from a different family!   When Griffith’s Valuation was done in the mid-19th century, the enumerators were required to give individuals with the same name, living in the same townland an agnomen, or second name to help identify them.  If you’re lucky, they may have used the father’s name, but unfortunately, there were often multiple fathers by the same name, so you might see an agnomen of “tall” or “red” (had red hair) or something else descriptive.  Be careful of Sr. or Jr. as they may simply mean older and younger, and not necessary indicate a relationship.  These identifiers can also be used with women and may indicate a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law.

As the farms became too small to support the family, some of the children may have been evicted or moved to an adjoining townland which may or may not have been within the same civil parish (I’ll get to that next week) or even county.

If the information about where your ancestor came from in Ireland is to be found, it will most likely be on some record left in their new homeland.  It’s very important to look at every record they might have left to find that all important piece of information.  If you can’t find it, expand your research to include relatives (sometimes a sibling left the information); witnesses to life events such as baptisms, marriages or naturalizations; neighbors from the census or if the name is not too common, other individuals living in the same area with the same name (be creative about spellings).  Ask the question, what brought your ancestor to a particular place...they probably knew someone there who had emigrated before them.  

Once you have discovered the name of the townland, other records will open up to you.  An important resource is the General Alphabetical Index to the Townland and Towns, Parishes and Baronies of Ireland.  This book, published in 1861 (968 pages), was an attempt to standardize the names of the townlands, and lists the 60,000+ townlands, along with the other administrative divisions associated with them (the county, barony, civil parish and poor law union which became the registration district). It included the number of acres and the sheet numbers of the location of the townland on the Ordnance Survey Maps.  The book can be found in most libraries with a genealogical collection and has was republished by Genealogical Publishing Company.  A word of warning...make sure you have a magnifying glass to read it <g>.  GoogleBooks has recently published it as an ebook which has become a favorite addition to my electronic library.  I love being able to enlarge the print on the screen!

Hopefully you know where (specifically) in Ireland your ancestors lived.  If not, keep searching for the information.

Happy Hunting!


© Donna M. Moughty 2007- 2013