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Irish Administrative Divisions: Townlands 


"Pat" Moughty Land Barnacor

 Townland of Barnacor in County Longford

   As I mention frequently, researching in Ireland is all about time and place. For the past month I’ve discussed creating a strong foundation for your research…understanding the Genealogical Proof Standard and the importance of having a plan.  Now it’s time to turn to actual research. 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 hundred 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 them…it’s not uncommon to find the same townland name multiple times, even in the same county!  You’ve probably seen references in earlier blogs about trying to discover which “Irishtown” my husband’s grandfather, Michael Daly was 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.  As you do your preparatory work in US records you might come across different locality information. Your ancestor may have named the townland, the parish or the poor law union (registration district).  They might even have given the name of the largest recognizable town closet to where they lived, which could throw off your research.  Write it all down, as it will be helpful in putting the locality information together.   

   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 child’s 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 US, 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! Knowing the townland is one way that you can begin to separate people of the same name into family units. 

   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).   It was Michael Daly’s half brother’s obituary where I found the name of the county…Mayo.  Also look at 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 spelling).  Ask the question, what brought my ancestor to this 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 1851 (968 pages), used the standardized names of the townlands which had been created in the 1830’s, and lists the 60,000+ townlands, along with the other administrative divisions associated with them (the county, barony, civil parish and the poor law union which became the registration district for civil registrations). It includes the number of acres and the sheet numbers from the Ordnance Survey maps.  The book can be found in most libraries with a genealogical collection.  

   An alternative online source for this information is the Index of Townlands (1901). This site from The Irish Genealogical Research Society provides a searchable database with similar information. It changes the Poor Law Union designation to the Superintendent Registrar’s District (for civil registration) and adds the District Electoral Divisions (DED) which was used in the census returns. It can sometimes be difficult to find the correct location in the online databases because of variations in spellings.  IrishAncestors a website created by John Grenham, author of Tracing Your Irish Ancestors also provides a searchable database of “places.”

   Hopefully you’ve been able to find where (specifically) in Ireland your ancestors lived.  If not, keep searching!

   Next up…parishes.  Happy Hunting!


© Donna M. Moughty 2007- 2017