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Article Published February 25, 2000

Locating Place Names in Ireland
By Kyle J. Betit, ProGenealogists

Land in Ireland is divided into different jurisdictions, religious and political, in a way that can be complicated to understand. Provinces are divided into counties which are divided into civil parishes. Civil parishes, in turn, are made up of townlands, each of which is an area of land with a certain acreage and set of boundaries. Within the official townlands there may be other smaller subdivisions such as field and farm names. There are also small communities within townlands not large enough to be towns; these communities have unique names and may only include a few houses.

In records of an emigrant (such as a tombstone, family papers, death certificate, or published biographical sketch), the most common Irish place names given are provinces, geographical regions, counties, parishes, townlands, and townland sub-denominations. Often, the place name can not be found on a road map or atlas or in a gazetteer. Not being able to identify the location of a place name will halt your efforts to find immigrant origins. Successfully identifying a place name in Ireland not only identifies the emigrant's origin, but it also opens up the possibility of searching a variety of other record sources.
    Counties: In the case of county names, a quick search of a map or reference book will tell you what the correct county name really is. For example, Caban is Cavan, Derri is Derry (or Londonderry), and Mao is Mayo.

    Townlands and Sub-denominations: Immigrants often identified either their townland of residence or a sub-denomination name within the townland as their place of origin.

    Provinces: Most often passed down in family lore are the provinces of Connaught and Ulster. This is especially true for Catholic immigrants from Connaught and of Protestant emigrants from Ulster.

    Geographical Regions: There are geographical region names in Ireland which an immigrant may have identified as a place of origin. For example, family tradition may hold that an ancestor was from Connemara, the mountainous and coastal region of western Galway; the "midlands" in the County Longford area; the "lake district" in County Fermanagh; or the Dingle peninsula in County Kerry.
Be cautious if you find that your Irish ancestor was supposed to be from a city or town. Immigrants often stated they were from a certain populated place such as Athlone (a town on the border of counties Roscommon and Westmeath), when in reality they were from outside the populated town in a nearby townland. Also beware of statements that an immigrant was from Cork, Dublin, or Londonderry (Derry). First, these are the names of both cities and counties and the distinction can become blurred in family lore. Second, these cities were ports from which emigrants left Ireland. What was stated in family tradition as the family's place of origin could have actually been the place of departure, and the emigrant may be from an entirely different county.

You may have a place name from a record where your ancestor settled, or a place name may have been passed down in your family tradition of where your ancestors came from in Ireland. The following are some sources to help you to figure out where exactly that place is and what kind of place name it is.

Townland Indexes
The 1851, 1871, and 1901 General Alphabetical Index to the Townlands and Towns, Parishes and Baronies of Ireland may be used to find the official spelling and the location of each townland in Ireland. The 1871 (FHL #476999 item 2) and 1901 (FHL #865092) indexes are available on microfilm. The 1851 edition has been reprinted by Genealogical Publishing Company. The townland names of Ireland are being placed in a computerized database on the Internet at the IreAtlas Project web site: . This database can be used to pinpoint the location of a townland. In some cases a townland name may be so misspelled that it can't be identified in the townland indexes. This often occurs in civil registration records. George B. Handran in Townlands in Poor Law Unions: A Reprint of Poor Law Union Pamphlets of the General Registrar's Office allows the researcher to search a list of townlands in a particular area to identify the correct official spelling .

Ordnance Survey Maps and Index
If a parish or townland is known, check the 6" to the Mile Ordnance Survey maps which date from 1833-1846. These maps are very detailed and often identify localized place names. The correct map can be found by locating the townland of interest or a nearby townland or town in the 1851, 1871, or 1901 townland index. The column "No. of Sheet of the Ordnance Survey Maps" in these indexes gives the map number(s) to locate the town or townland. If only a civil parish is known, the section in the back of the book can be used to determine the correct map number(s). More sub-denominations appeared on later editions of the 6" to the Mile maps than on the original edition.

The Ordnance Survey compiled a manuscript index to all place names listed on the original 6" to the Mile Ordnance Survey maps, titled "Manuscript Index to the Original 6" to the Mile Ordnance Survey Maps." This source alphabetically indexes the places within townlands or sub-denominations. The index is available on microfilm at the NLI in Dublin (p.4621-4625) and at the Irish Cultural and Heritage Center of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, USA. For each place name the civil parish and barony of location are given.

Northern Ireland Place-Name Project
The Northern Ireland Place-Name Project of the Celtic Department of Queen's University in Belfast studies the history of and variations found in Ulster place names. It has compiled a computer database with names from the Ordnance Survey Place Name Books for the six counties of Northern Ireland. If a place name in the six counties cannot be found, the Place-Name Project may be of some assistance since it accepts inquiries from the public. The project is also publishing a series of books called Place-Names of Northern Ireland. Four volumes for County Down, two for Antrim, and one for Londonderry (Derry) have been published in this ongoing series. The books include variations in townland names and spellings compiled from various sources including the Ordnance Survey Place Name Books. Sub-denominations are also included.

Ordnance Survey Place Name Books
The Place Name Books were compiled by John O'Donovan, an Irish scholar whose detailed studies of Irish place names helped to standardize the names and spellings of townlands. The name books were compiled in the 1830s when survey teams went to each townland, interviewed local people, noted variations in names people called a townland and in the spelling of names, as well as consulting historical works and maps.

The Ordnance Survey Place Name (John O'Donovan) Books show the different names that were used for the same townland as well as spelling variations in townland names. One name and spelling was standardized and used officially after the survey of the 1830s. Once standardized, the names appeared in the subsequent 1851, 1871, and 1901 townland indexes.

The Name Books for all counties are available at the NLI. Microfilm copies for Ulster are at Queen's University in Belfast (Mic. A/1-13). The Name Books may also provide information regarding townland sub-denominations and geographical features within the parish.

Additional Sources
1. The Topographical Dictionary of Ireland by Samuel Lewis, first published in 1837, gives sketches of each civil parish, town, barony and county in Ireland (FHL #599557).

2. The Parliamentary Gazetteer of Ireland, published in 1844, is similar in its content to Samuel Lewis' work [FHL: volumes 1-2 (#824043 items 4-5); volumes 3-6 (#824044); volumes 7-10 (#824045)].

3. The Registry of Deeds geographical indexes ("Lands Indexes") can be used for a county to identify a localized place name which does not appear in other geographical sources and indexes. If the place name, such as an estate house name, is mentioned in a deed it is indexed in the "Lands Index." By reading the deed itself where the place name appears, a parish or barony where it is located should be discovered

Irish Cultural and Heritage Center of Wisconsin: 2133 West Wisconsin Avenue, Milwaukee, WI 53233, USA; Tel: (414) 345-8800; Fax: (414) 345-8805.

Northern Ireland Place-Name Project: Department of Celtic, School of Modern and Medieval Languages, Queen's University of Belfast, 7 University Square, Belfast BT7 1NN, Northern Ireland; Tel: (01232) 273689; Fax: (01232) 324549.

Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland: Colby House, Stranmillis Court, Belfast BT9 5BJ, Northern Ireland; Tel: (01232) 255755; Fax: (01232) 255700; e-mail:; Internet:

Place Names Branch: Ordnance Survey of Ireland, Phoenix Park, Dublin 8, Ireland; Tel: (01) 8206100; Fax: (01) 8204156.

References and Further Reading
Andrews, J. H. History in the Ordnance Map: An Introduction for Irish Readers. Kerry, Wales: David Archer, 1993.

Andrews, J. H. Shapes of Ireland: Maps and Their Makers 1564-1839. Dublin: Geography Publications, 1997.

General Alphabetical Index to the Townlands and Towns, Parishes and Baronies of Ireland. Based on the Census of Ireland for the Year 1851. 1861. Reprint, Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1984.

Grenham, John. Tracing Your Irish Ancestors: The Complete Guide. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, Ltd., 1992.

Handran, George B. Townlands in Poor Law Unions: A Reprint of Poor Law Union Pamphlets of the General Registrar's Office. Salem, MA: Higginson Book Company, 1997.

Lewis, Samuel. Topographical Dictionary of Ireland: Comprising the Several Counties, Cities, Boroughs, Corporate, Market and Post Towns, Parishes and Villages with Historical and Statistical Descriptions. London: S. Lewis, 1837.

Mitchell, Brian. A New Genealogical Atlas of Ireland. Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1986.

Parkhill, T.J. "Ordnance Survey Maps in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland," Ulster Local Studies (Journal of the Federation for Ulster Local Studies) 14 (2) (Winter 1992): 72-82.

The Parliamentary Gazetteer of Ireland. 10 vols. Dublin: A. Fullarton, 1844. Radford, Dwight A. and Kyle J. Betit. "Irish Place Names and the Immigrant," The Irish At Home and Abroad 5 (1) (1st Quarter 1998): 7-14.

Stockman, Gerard, gen. ed. Place-Names of Northern Ireland. 7 vols. Belfast: The Northern Ireland Place-Name Project, Department of Celtic, The Queen's University of Belfast, 1992-1998.

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