Ireland and its counties are sub-divided in a unique way; counties into baronies, baronies into parishes, and parishes into townlands. The townland is a unique feature of the Irish landscape and is one of the most ancient divisions in the country. The origins of the townland remain obscure but they are undoubtedly of great antiquity, much older than parishes and counties.

There are other divisions including: Catholic Diocese and Parish, Church of Ireland Diocese and Parish, Poor Law Unions, Probate Districts and modern Council Districts. While many of these divisions appear may to be the same, extreme care is needed as naming of similar features (for example C of I, RC and Civil Parishes) is inconsistent and boundaries often do not align.

This is the earliest and largest administrative division in Ireland dating back into prehistory and early historic times. There were originally five Provinces in the island of Ireland with provincial 'overkings' who were supported by the kings of the smaller local kingdoms within them. However, by the 17th century this had been reduced to the four modern Provinces of Ulster, Connaught, Leinster and Munster.

Today Ulster is divided between the UK and Ireland. At the time of the split in 1921 six of the Ulster counties, Antrim, Down, Armagh, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone, opted to remain in the United Kingdom, while the remaining three elected, Donegal, Monaghan, and Cavan, joined what is now the Republic of Ireland.

A territorial unit equivalent to the English shire, it was created by the English administration in Ireland as the major subdivision of an Irish province and dates from the 13th to the 17th century. The counties as they are today were planned in 1584 but many existed long before this date and boundaries generally reflected areas controlled by the lordships of major Gaelic families.

Ulster has nine counties. Antrim and Down had been counties from the 13th or 14th centuries but their modern boundaries were not settled until 1605, while the modern boundary and the new county name of Londonderry did not come into existence until 1613 although it had existed from Anglo-Norman times with different boundaries and under the name of Coleraine.

Provinces & Counties of Ireland
Today there thirty-two Counties; twenty-six in the Republic of Ireland and six in Northern Ireland.
Originally the landholding of a feudal baron, the barony is now an obsolete administrative unit that is mid-way in size between a county and a parish. The system of bringing Irish local kingdoms into the feudal system of baronies began in the medieval period but did not extend to the whole of Ireland until the early 17th century.

Half-baronies are sometimes mentioned, these are baronies with parts in two counties.

There were 331 Baronies, for excellent maps and other fascinating information see Ireland's History in Maps.

Civil Parish
An ecclesiastical unit of territory that came into existence in Ireland in its present form in the 12th and 13th centuries and was continued by the Established Church of Ireland after the Reformation. It was then adopted as a civil administrative area but over time the boundaries of some civil and ecclesiastical parishes came to vary from each other.

Because civil parishes may extend across rivers that were often used to delineate the boundaries of counties and baronies, civil parishes can be in more than one county and in more than one barony.

The townland is an ancient unit, dating back to pre-Norman times, and is the smallest administrative division throughout the island of Ireland that is still in use. It is the common term or English translation for a variety of small local land units that varied in name and meaning throughout the island of Ireland. In the north there had been a large division called a 'ballybetagh,' generally divided into around 12 'ballyboes', but into around 16 'tates' in the area of Fermanagh and Monaghan. The 'ballyboe' was notionally of 120 acres and the 'tate', 60 acres, but these measurements clearly referred to useable land in an area that might also include marsh and mountain waste. The 'ballyboe' might be further divided into three 'sessiaghs' while the term 'carrow' (Irish 'ceathramh', a 'quarter') may refer to either a quarter of a 'ballybetagh' or a quarter of a 'ballyboe'. The 'ballybetagh' disappeared after the Plantation and the subdivisions became the modern townlands, the average size of which, in most of Northern Ireland, is now c.350 acres but c.180 acres in Fermanagh.
"When testifying before the Select Committee on County Cess, Griffith was asked whether the boundary of a townland is the boundary of a parish, are the boundaries in any degree commensurate? He responded: 'The boundaries of parishes are always boundaries of townlands; that is to say, one townland cannot be contained in two parishes; it sometimes happens that an estate may lie on both sides of the boundary of a parish, and that the townland in each parish is called by the same name, and is considered to be one townland, but in such cases I have always divided the townland, and added the word upper or lower, east or west, to the original name, to serve to distinguish them. As each parish will be separately assessed, it is necessary that no confusion should arise as to the boundaries of any denomination or division belonging to it, consequently in all cases the boundary of a parish must likewise be the boundary of a townland as far as that parish or the county assessment is concerned.'"

The boundaries of the Townlands always match the Parish boundaries.

A townland name in its original Irish form often referred to an easily identifiable feature of the landscape such as Carraig (meaning rock) or Tullagh (meaning a hill) or a botanical feature such as Annagh (meaning marsh). The social customs or history of the people who have lived in a particular place can also be reflected in the name of the townland. Often these names are the only records which survive of the families who held the land in pre-plantation times. Bally or Baile (both meaning settlement) are usually compounded with personal or family names and examples can be found all over Ireland, including such names as Ballywalter, Ballyrussel and Ballysavage. Many townlands throughout Ireland took their names from early habitation sites, both ecclesiastical and secular. Examples in this category include names with Rath (meaning fortification), Dun (meaning fort) or Chill (meaning church) in them.

The original Irish names were eventually written down in anglicised form as they sounded to English court scribes. A good example of names being written down in anglised form as they sounded can be found in the Raven maps (T.510/1). It is possible to trace how they became increasingly anglised in the General Alphabetical Index to the Townlands and Towns, Parishes and Baronies of Ireland and in the Ordnance Survey maps.

Three ecclesiastical synods in the 12th century, around 1101-1152, imposed a diocesan structure of four provinces: Armagh, Cashel, Dublin, and Tuam, with each province headed by an Archbishop. Under them were 22 bishops, each in charge of a diocese. The boundaries of the diocese have remained constant and are used by both the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches. Diocese boundaries have no relation to county boundaries, however. In 1834, the four provinces were reduced to two: Armagh and Dublin.
Roman Catholic Parish
While the Church of Ireland used the Civil Parish as its unit of administration, the Roman Catholic Church, as a result of the Reformation of the 16th century, developed its own parish structure to suit the needs of their parishioners.

A bishop's diocese was comprised of parishes. Many parishes were villages with a church and a clergyman. Larger towns and cities would contain several parishes.

Poor Law Union
Poor Law Unions were the areas of administration for poor relief established under the Poor Relief (Ireland) Act, 1838. Because these areas centered on large market towns to a radius of approx. 10 miles, they often tended to cross county boundaries. They became Superintendent Registrars' Districts at the end of the 19th Century.

The intention of the act was to hold the inhabitants of each district financially responsible for their paupers. In effect a tax system whereby the tax payers paid for the poor.

Initially there were 130 poor law unions, which expanded to 163 by 1850. The workhouse was usually located in the market town and people came to it from the surrounding district.

They provided relief for the unemployed and destitute, generally under very harsh conditions. Records were kept of the inhabitants. These can provide useful research material.

In 1898, the Local Government Act adopted the Poor Law Unions as the basic administrative unit in place of the civil parishes or baronies. The unions were subdivided into 829 Registration Districts and 3751 district Electoral Divisions. Townlands were arranged according to these divisions, with parishes and baronies being retained only to make comparisons with records gathered before 1898.

District Electoral Division/Ward
The District Electoral Divisions (D.E.Ds) were originally established under the Poor Relief (Ireland) Act 1838 as poor law electoral divisions but their present names up to 1972 were fixed under the Local Government (Ireland) Act 1898. They formed the territorial units in rural districts for the election of members of Rural District Councils. The equivalent territorial unit for the purpose of elections in county boroughs, municipal boroughs and urban districts is the Ward. In the larger urban areas there will be a number of Wards but in the smaller urban areas the entire urban district acts as a Ward.

In 1973 new district councils were set up and these 26 districts were subdivided into 526 Wards which were in turn grouped into 98 District Electoral Areas for local government elections. However, these District Electoral Areas and Wards are different in composition from pre-1973 D.E.Ds and Wards.

Probate District
In 1858 a principal registry and eleven district registries were established to prove wills and grant administrations. The boundaries of these districts were either baronies or counties.
Dispensary District
Poor Law Unions were subdivided into dispensary districts following the 1851 Medical Charities Act.
District Councils
Current councils are a modern structure, see Oultwood, Councils within Ireland and Oultwood, Councils within Northern Ireland for maps and links to the council websites
Notes & References
  1. PRONI Geographical index
  2. A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland Samuel Lewis (MDCCCXXXVII / 1837)
  3. Ireland's History in Maps.