Thursday, December 27, 2007

Irish Geography 101

Want to do genealogy in Ireland? First you need to brush up on your Irish geography - and I don't mean modern day cities and villages. Genealogical research in Ireland requires a familiarity with not only present day geographical names, but administrative divisions from various periods in the past history of the country. Consider the fact that not only are there provinces and counties to become familiar with, but townlands, civil parishes, baronies and even poor law unions.

I remember the moment very well when I learned that my great-great-grandfather Patrick Tierney hailed from County Tipperary. It was a thrill be able to say, "He was from Tipperary!" as opposed to just knowing that I had Irish ancestry.

After the excitement died down from the news, I realized that this fact opened up more questions for me than I might have imagined. Not only was it the largest county in Ireland but it was actually made up of two parts: North Tipperary and South Tipperary. My realization: If I was serious about tracing my roots back to Ireland, my work had just begun.

You may be feeling the same way. Here is a good place to start: a review of the basics and some further resources to get you familiar with Irish geography. Hopefully this little course will give you an advantage when it comes to searching for your roots in the Emerald Isle.

Before you start, you may want to check out The Family History Library's Ireland, How to Find a Place Name and Ireland, How to Find Information About the Place Where Your Ancestor Lived. These webpages offer some suggestions on narrowing down your search to a specific locale in Ireland and then using the microfilm gazetteers in their collection to learn more about the specific area.

Also see my series of articles at Small-leaved Shamrock on how to find your ancestors' places of origin. Getting to the roots of your Irish family tree: Part 1 provides suggestions on how to locate your ancestors' counties, and Getting to the roots of your Irish family tree: Part 2 offers help for finding the more specific areas where they originated.

Once you know at least the county of origin, it's necessary to familiarize yourself with Irish geography. You can't get much further into Irish research without understanding how Irish records are organized geographically.

Irish records can be broken down into various divisions:

Provinces & Counties - The four provinces of Ireland are the largest divisions of land in the country and may be the ones you are most familiar with. The counties date back to the 12th-century with the last one being added in the early 17th-century.

  • Ulster lies in the northeast, and is made up of counties Antrim, Arnagh, Cavan, Donegal, Down, Fernanagh, Londonderry, Monaghan and Tyrone. (Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan became part of the Irish Free State in 1922 and the Republic of Ireland in 1949. Antrim, Arnagh, Down, Fernanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone are today part of the United Kingdom's Northern Ireland.)

  • Connaught in the middle western part of the country includes Galway, Leitrim, Mayo, Roscommon and Sligo.

  • Leinster in the southeast is made up of counties Carlow, Dublin, Kildare, Kilkenny, Laois, Longford, Louth, Meath, Offaly, West Meath, Wexford and Wicklow.

  • Munster in the southwest includes Clare, Cork, Kerry, Limerick, Tipperary and Waterford.

Poor Law Unions - Established in 1838, these areas were typically named after a local town and were used for tax purposes to support the local poor.

Baronies - An old administrative division no longer in use, a barony is made up of a group of civil parishes within a county, although their boundaries do not always match. There are 273 baronies in Ireland.

Church Parishes - This term usually refers to Roman Catholic parishes, since the Church of Ireland parishes most often conform to civil parish boundaries. The Roman Catholic church parishes are usually larger than the civil parishes.

Civil Parishes - Not the same as church parishes, these divisions normally contain a couple dozen townlands and are important to know when searching for records in Ireland. There are more than 2,000 civil parishes in Ireland. Civil parishes often cross over county and barony boundaries.

Townlands - The smallest of Irish land divisions, these do not necessarily contain towns or residents at all. There are thousands of townlands in Ireland.

When I first started looking to understand the geographic regions of Ireland, I was excited to find Brian Mitchell's A New Genealogical Atlas of Ireland, 2nd Edition. Not only does his book explain the various administrative divisions of the land, but it provides an extensive assortment of maps covering each county. Large counties, such as Tipperary, are broken down into two sections. The maps break the county down into baronies, civil parishes, church parishes/dioceses and poor law unions. This is a true treasure of a book for those of us who appreciate visual aids.

A nice companion resource to place on your desk along with Mitchell's atlas is James Ryan's Irish Records: Sources for Family & Local History, Revised Edition. Ryan's book is a sort of encyclopedia of source listings for Irish records, arranged county by county. Take your county of interest and you can use this book to learn what records are available, where they are held, and even what dates the records cover. Listings include census and census substitutes, church records, commercial and social directories, family histories, gravestone inscriptions, newspapers, wills and more.

Found the name of the townland your ancestor may have come from but wondering about its corresponding barony, civil parish and poor law union? Try a search using the IreAtlas Townland Database. A similarly helpful online resource is this Irish Times search page for the 1851 General Alphabetical Index to the Townlands and Towns, Parishes and Baronies of Ireland.

Digging deeply into places, maps and records can get tiring after awhile. A nice break might be to take some time to read up on the interesting backgrounds of Irish placenames. Ever wondered what a bally, dún, croagh or lough is? This page has a nice listing of the original Gaelic meanings in common elements in Irish placenames. The list is taken from the book Handbook of Irish Genealogy: How to Trace Your Ancestors & Relatives in Ireland. Another online assortment of Gaelic place meanings can be found here. If you want to look for a familiar location in particular, try looking it up within this alphabetical list.

I hope that my little introductory course in Irish geography and the recommended resources above will help to get you further into your search for roots so that you can make an A+ in Irish family history!

The image of Lough Cowey above is courtesy of Jordan McClements.

Map of Irish provinces and counties courtesy of

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