Brian Mitchell – Irish Placenames

Brian Mitchell

Derry Genealogy Centre

Irish placenames and their importance in tracing family history

The key to unlocking Irish family history origins is the knowledge of place. In tracing your roots in Ireland the most important piece of information to treasure, to be gleaned from either family folklore or record sources, is any information as to a place of origin of your ancestors.

From a family historian’s perspective, the most effective way to view Ireland is as a country that is subdivided into counties, which in turn are subdivided into parishes, and which in turn are subdivided into townlands. A driving force among most people tracing their family history is to identify an ancestral home; to stand on land where the family house would have stood centuries ago. In Ireland this, in effect, means identifying the townland your ancestor lived in.

County Ireland is divided into 32 counties. This division, begun in the 12th century, reflected the imposition of the English system of local government in Ireland. Their boundaries reflected the lordships of the major Gaelic families.
Parish From the seventeenth century the so-called civil parish, based on the early Christian and medieval monastic and church settlements, was used extensively in various surveys. There are 2,508 civil parishes in Ireland. Many record sources of value, both civil and church, to family historians were compiled and recorded by parish.
Townland The townland is the smallest and most ancient of Irish land divisions. It was named at an early period, and it often referred to a very identifiable landmark in the local area such as a mountain, a bog, an oak forest, a village, a fort or a church. There are 60,462 townlands in Ireland. In identifying a townland address you have effectively identified the ancestral home.

The single most important tool in identifying Irish place names is the Townland Index, full title General Alphabetical Index to the Townlands and Towns, Parishes and Baronies of Ireland (Alexander Thom, Dublin, 1861; reprinted by Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore, 1984). It is a record of townland names, their size and location – by county, barony, civil parish, poor law union and 1st edition Ordnance Survey map number – as recorded in the 1851 census and as they have been officially spelt and designated ever since.

The “Placenames” search option at enables researchers to search the Townland Index, together with street listings from Dublin, Cork and Belfast cities, to pinpoint county, civil parish and poor law union locations for more than 65,000 place names.

Realistic genealogical research, in the absence of indexes and databases, generally requires knowledge of the parish in which your ancestor lived. Church of Ireland parishes normally conform to the civil parish, though Roman Catholic parishes do not, as they are generally larger. The Roman Catholic Church, owing to the Reformation of the sixteenth century, had to adapt itself to a new structure centred on towns and villages. The Presbyterian Church doesn’t have a parish structure, with the congregations generally forming where there was sufficient demand from local Presbyterian families. Thus it is very noticeable that the Presbyterian congregations in Ireland are very much associated with the nine counties of the northern province of Ulster.

With identification of a townland in the Townland Index, and noting its county and civil parish location, you can then consult A New Genealogical Atlas of Ireland (2nd edition, Brian Mitchell, Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore, 2002). This atlas locates for every county in Ireland the following administrative divisions: baronies, civil parishes (Church of Ireland parishes normally conform to the civil parish), dioceses, Roman Catholic parishes, Presbyterian congregations (for the nine counties of Ulster), poor law unions and probate districts. Hence, civil parish locations can be translated into Church of Ireland parishes, Roman Catholic parishes and Presbyterian Congregations; and by using A Guide to Irish Parish Registers (Brian Mitchell, Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore, 1988) civil parish locations can also be translated into a listing of surviving church registers of all denominations and their commencement dates.

Finally, it must also be stated that there are many place names in Ireland (some of which appear on maps and others that don’t) which are even more localised than a townland name. Seoirse Ó Dochartaigh, a Gaelic-speaking musician, artist and genealogist of Mossyglen, Carndonagh (in Inis Eoghain: The Island of Eoghan: The Place-Names of Inishowen, published 2011) has identified 452 place names (many of them not recorded on any map) within the 30 ‘official’ townlands and one island (Glashedy) that make up the civil parish of Clonmany!