IreGaz:  Why Townlands ?

What are Townlands ?

Townlands are denominations (named areas of land), whose boundaries were first defined for administrative purposes in the 1820s and 1830s. Ireland is divided into 4 Provinces, which are subdivided into 32 Counties, seeming to form a neat hierarchy. Perhaps you might expect to find that Counties were subdivided into Baronies, Baronies into Parishes, and Parishes into Townlands.

Unfortunately things were not quite as simple as that - each form of land-division had its own particular purpose, and came into existence fairly independently of other forms of land-division. In the 1830s the different forms of land-division were brought together into a unified system; but the system was not fully hierarchical. For example, 16 Parishes (0.7%) included Townlands in more than one Province; and 122 Parishes (5%) included Townlands in more than one County. 3 Baronies (0.9%) included Townlands in more than one Province; and 13 Baronies (4%) included Townlands in more than one County.

Only in the following sense was there anything like a hierarchy: the Townland (as defined in the 1830s) was the smallest rural subdivision of most other administrative land-divisions recognised in the 19th century; not only of a Parish, Barony, County or Province, but also of an Electoral Division (ED), Dispensary District (DD), District Electoral Division (DED), Poor Law Union (PLU), Registrar's District (RD) or Superintendent Registrar's District (SRD).

Townlands had existed long before their boundaries were defined in the 19th century. Some estate maps of earlier centuries show Townlands, though deeds and other text documents (maddeningly) usually refrain from defining the location and extent of any denomination. It seems likely that in earlier ages Townlands were not necessarily co-terminous with Parishes, judging by the way Parish boundaries often seem to divide similarly-named Townlands.

Why are Townlands important ?

Townlands appear in many documents as denominations (named areas of land). Townlands of residence are recorded in many Parish registers. Many villages, houses and landed estates were known by the name or names of Townlands. Townlands (as defined in the 1830s) are shown on early Ordnance Survey maps.

Researchers need to be aware of the location and extent of Townlands, so that efficient strategies can be formulated for searching in documents and on site.