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Historical Land Units

Territorial Divisions in Ireland

The old administrative system, used in the arrangement of these books, consisted of land units in descending order of size: province, county, barony, parish and townland. Theoretically at least the units fit inside each other, townlands into parishes, parishes into baronies, baronies into counties. This system began piecemeal, with the names of the provinces dating back to prehistoric times, while the institution of counties and baronies dates from the 13th to the 17th century, though the names used are often the names of earlier tribal groups or settlements. Parishes originate not as a secular land-unit, but as part of the territorial organization of the Christian Church. There they form the smallest unit in the system which, in descending order of size, goes from provinces to dioceses to deaneries to parishes. Some Irish parishes derive from churches founded by St Patrick and early saints, and appear as parish units in Anglo-Norman church records: parish units are thus older than counties and baronies. Townlands make their first appearance as small land units listed in Anglo-Norman records. However the evidence suggests that land units of this type (which had various local names) are of pre-Norman native origin.

The 17th-century historian Geoffrey Keating outlined a native land-holding system based on the tríocha céad or ‘thirty hundreds’, each divided in Ulster into about 28 baile biadhtaigh ‘lands of a food-provider’ or ‘ballybetaghs’, and about 463 seisrigh ‘six-horse plough-teams’ or ‘seisreachs’ (Céitinn iv 112f.). The term tríocha céad, which seems to relate to the size of the army an area could muster, is not prominent in English accounts, though there is a barony called Trough (< Irish tríocha) in Co. Monaghan. The ballybetagh (land of a farmer legally obliged to feed his lord and retinue while travelling through the area) is mentioned in Plantation documents for west Ulster, and there is some evidence, from townlands grouped in multiples of three and four, that it existed in Armagh, Antrim and Down (McErlean 1983, 318).

Boundaries of large areas, such as provinces and dioceses, are often denoted in early Irish sources by means of two or four extreme points (Onom. Goed. 279- 280; Céitinn iii 302). There was also a detailed native tradition of boundary description, listing landmarks such as streams, hills, trees and bogs. This can be demonstrated as early as the 7th century in Tírechán’s record of a land grant to St Patrick (Trip. Life (Stokes) ii 338-9),1and as late as the 17th century, when native experts guided those surveying and mapping Ireland for the English administration. The boundary marks on the ground were carefully maintained, as illustrated in the Perambulation of Iveagh in 1618 (Inq. Ult. xliii), according to which the guide broke the plough of a man found ploughing up a boundary. However very often Irish texts, for example the ‘Book of Rights’ (Lebor na Cert), the ‘topographical’ poems by Seaán Mór Ó Dubhagáin and Giolla-na-naomh Ó hUidhrín (Topog. Poems), and ‘The rights of O’Neill’ (Ceart Uí Néill), refer to territories by the names of the peoples inhabiting them. This custom has been preserved to the present in some place-names. particularly those of provinces and baronies.

Secular Administrative Divisions


Twelfth-century charters provide the earliest documentary evidence for the existence in Ireland of small land units although we do not know what these units were called. Keating’s smallest unit, the seisreach, a division of the ballybetagh, is given as 120 acres. The size of the seisreach seems to have been approximately that of a modern townland, but the word does not occur much outside Keating’s schema. Many other terms appear in the sources: ceathrú ‘quarter’ (often a quarter of a ballybetagh), baile bó ‘land providing one cow as rent’ (usually a twelfth of a ballybetagh), seiseach ‘sixth’ and trian ‘third’ (apparently divisions of a ballyboe). In most of Ulster the ballyboe and its subdivisions are the precursors of the modern townlands, and were referred to in Latin sources as villa or carucata, and in English as ‘town’ or ‘ploughland’ (the term used for similar units in 11th-century England in the Domesday Book). The Irish term baile (see below) seems to have been treated as equivalent to English ‘town’, which had originally meant ‘settlement (and lands appertaining)’; and the compound term ‘townland’ seems to have been adopted to make the intended meaning clear. It was used in 19th-century Ireland as a blanket term for various local words. In the area of Fermanagh and Monaghan the term for the local unit was ‘tate’. In an English document of 1591 it is stated that the tate was 60 acres in size and that there were sixteen tates in the ballybetagh (Fiants Eliz. $5674). Tate appears in place-names in combination with Gaelic elements, but was regarded by Reeves (1861, 484) as a pre-1600 English borrowing into Irish.

There is no evidence for the use of the word baile in the formation of place-names before the middle of the 12th century. The earliest examples are found in a charter dating to c. 1150 in the Book of Kells which relates to lands belonging to the monastery of Kells. At this period baile seems to mean ‘a piece of land’ and is not restricted to its present-day meaning ‘hamlet, group of houses’, much less ‘town, village’. After the coming of the Normans, baile appears more frequently in place-names, until it finally becomes the most prevalent type of townland name. By the 14th century, baile had acquired its present-day meaning of ‘town’, probably in reference to small medieval towns, or settlements that had arisen in the vicinity of castles. Price (1963, 124) suggests that the proliferation of the use of the word in place-names was a result of the arrival of settlers and their use of the word ‘town’ (tun) in giving names to their lands. When the Irish revival took place in the 14th century many English-language names were translated into Irish and ‘town’ was generally replaced by baile. The proportion of baile names is greatest in those parts of Ireland which had been overrun by the Anglo-Normans but subsequently gaelicized, and is lowest in the counties of mid-Ulster in which there was little or no English settlement (ibid. 125).

Despite attempts at schematization none of the units which predated the modern townlands was of uniform size, and it is clear from the native sources that evaluation was based on an area of good land together with a variable amount of uncultivated land. Thus townlands on bad land are usually larger than those on good land. The average size of a townland in Ireland as a whole is 325 acres, and 357 acres in the six counties of Northern Ireland, though these averages include huge townlands like Slievedoo (4551 acres, Co. Tyrone) and tiny townlands like Acre McCricket (4 acres, Co. Down). There is also considerable local variation: townlands in Co. Down average 457 acres (based on the ballyboe), compared to 184 acres (based on the tate) in Fermanagh (Reeves 1861, 490).


Early accounts of the lives of saints such as Patrick and Columcille refer to many church foundations. It seems that land was often given for early churches beside routeways, or on the boundaries of tribal territories. Some of the same church names appear as the names of medieval parishes in the papal taxation of 1302-06 (Eccles. Tax. (CDI)). Some parish names include ecclesiastical elements such as ceall, domhnach, lann, all meaning ‘church’, díseart ‘hermitage’ and tearmann ‘sanctuary’, but others are secular in origin. Parish bounds are not given in the papal taxation, but parishes vary considerably in size, probably depending on the wealth or influence of the local church. The medieval ecclesiastical parishes seems to have come into existence after the reform of the native Irish church in the course of the 12th century; in Anglo-Norman areas such as Skreen in Co. Meath the parochial system had already been adopted by the early 13th century (Otway-Ruthven 1964, 111-22). After the Reformation the medieval parish boundaries were continued by the established Church of Ireland, and used by the government as the bounds of civil parishes, a secular land unit forming the major division of a barony. (The boundaries of modern Roman Catholic parishes have often been drawn afresh, to suit the population of worshippers).

As well as the area inhabited by local worshippers, lands belonging to a medieval church often became part of its parish. These were usually close by, but it is quite common, even in the early 19th century when some rationalization had occurred, for parishes to include detached lands at some distance from the main body (Power 1947, 222-3). Kilclief in the barony of Lecale, Co. Down, for example, has five separate detached townlands, while Ballytrustan in the Upper Ards and Trory in Co. Fermanagh are divided into several parts. While an average parish might contain 30 townlands, parishes vary in the number of townlands they contained; for example, Ballykinler in Co. Down contained only 3 townlands, while Aghalurcher contained 237 townlands (including several islands) in Co. Fermanagh plus 17 townlands in Co. Tyrone. Although most of its townlands are fairly small, Aghalurcher is still much larger than Ballykinler. There were usually several parishes within a barony (on average 5 or 6, but, for example, only 2 in the barony of Dufferin, Co. Down, and 18 in the barony of Loughinsholin, Co. Derry). Occasional parishes constituted an entire barony, as did Kilkeel, for example, which is coterminous with the barony of Mourne. However parish units also frequently extended across rivers, which were often used as obvious natural boundaries for counties and baronies: Newry across the Newry River, Clonfeacle over the Blackwater, Artrea over the Ballinderry River, Blaris over the Lagan. This means that civil parishes may be in more than one barony, and sometimes in more than one county.


The process of bringing Irish tribal kingdoms into the feudal system as baronies under chieftains owing allegiance to the English crown began during the medieval period, although the system was not extended throughout Ulster until the early 17th century. Many of the baronies established in the later administrative system have population names: Oneilland, Irish Uí Nialláin ‘descendants of Niallán’ (Arm.); Keenaght, Irish Cianachta ‘descendants of Cian’ (Der.); Clankelly, Irish Clann Cheallaigh ‘Ceallach’s children’ (Fer.). Others have the names of historically important castles or towns: Dungannon (O'Neills, Tyr.), Dunluce (MacDonnells, Antr.), Castlereagh (Clandeboy O’Neills, Down). The barony of Loughinsholin (Der.) is named after an island fortification or crannog, Loch Inse Uí Fhloinn ‘the lake of O’Flynn’s island’, although by the 17th century the island was inhabited by the O’Hagans, and the O’Flynn area of influence had moved east of the Bann.

The barony system was revised and co-ordinated at the same time as the counties, so that later baronies always fit inside the county bounds. Both counties and baronies appear on maps from 1590 onwards. These later baronies may contain more than one older district, and other district or population names used in the 16th and 17th centuries, such as Clancan and Clanbrasil in Armagh, Slutkellies in Down, and Munterbirn and Munterevlin in Tyrone, gradually fell out of use. Baronies were not of uniform size, though in many cases large baronies have been subdivided to make the size more regular. The barony of Dungannon in Co. Tyrone has three sections (Lower, Middle and Upper) while Iveagh in Co. Down has been divided into four (Lower, Lower Half; Lower, Upper Half; Upper, Lower Half; Upper, Upper Half). The number of baronies in a county in Ulster varies between five in Co. Monaghan and fifteen in Co. Antrim. Armagh, Fermanagh and Tyrone have eight.


Over the centuries following the Anglo-Noman invasion the English government created a new administrative system in Ireland, adapting the native divisions of provinces, tribal districts (as baronies), parishes and townlands, and dividing each province of Ireland into counties. The counties were equivalent to the shire in England, where a sheriff exercized jurisdiction on behalf of the King. To begin with, the county system applied to only those areas where English rule was strong, but was eventually extended, through the reigns of Elizabeth and James I, to cover the whole of the country. Although a commission to shire Ulster was set up in 1585 (Fiants Eliz._ $4763), the situation in 1604 was expressed, rather hopefully, in a document in the state papers:

‘each province, except Ulster and other uncivil parts of the realm, is subdued into counties, and each county into baronies and hundreds, and every barony into parishes, consisting of manors, towns and villages after the manner of England.’ (CSP Ire. 1603-6, 231).

Most of the counties created in the north were given the names of important towns: Antrim, Armagh, Coleraine (later Londonderry), Down, Donegal, Monaghan and Cavan. Fermanagh and Tyrone, however, have population names. Fir Manach ‘the men of the Manaig’ (probably the Menapii of Ptolemy’s Geography) had been important in the area before the Maguires. Tír Eoghain ‘Eoghan’s land’ derives its name from the Cenél nEógain branch of the Uí Néill, who had expanded southwards from Inis Eógain (Inishowen) during the centuries and whose dominant position continued right up until the Plantation. Counties were generally formed out of an amalgam of smaller territorial units, some of which were preserved as baronies within each county.2 The bounds of these older units were often of long standing, and usually followed obvious physical features, like the lower Bann, the Blackwater, and the Newry River.

Down and Antrim, as part of the feudal Earldom of Ulster (see below) had been treated as counties since the 13th or 14th century (Falkiner 1903, 189; Inq. Earldom Ulster ii 141, iii 60). However other districts within the earldom could also be called counties, and up to the mid-16th-century the whole area was sometimes called the ‘county of Ulster’ (Cal. Carew MSS 1515-74, 223- 4). The settling of Down and Antrim with their modern bounds began in 1570-1 (Fiants Eliz. $1530, $1736). Coleraine had also been the centre of an Anglo- Norman county (Inq. Earldom Ulster iv 127). Jobson’s map of c.1590 shows Antrym, Armagh, Colrane, Downe, Manahan, Farmanaugh, Terconnel, and Upper and Nether Terone as the names of counties (Jobson’s Ulster (BM)). However, Ulster west of the Bann was still referred to as ‘four seigniories’ (Armagh? plus Terreconnell, Tyren, Formannoche) in 1603 (Cal. Carew MSS 1601-3, 446-454), although Tyrone had been divided into baronies from 1591 (Colton Vis. 125-130). Armagh was settled into baronies in 1605 (CSP Ire. 1603-6, 318). The nine historic counties of Ulster were first listed in 1608: Dunegal or Tirconnel, Tirone, Colraine, Antrim, Downe, Ardmagh, Cavan, Monoghan, and Fermanagh (CSP Ire. 1606-8, 401), and these counties are shown on Hole’s adaptation of Mercator’s map of Ireland for Camden’s atlas Britannia (Mercator’s/Hole’s Ire.). The county of Coleraine was renamed as a result of the plantation grant to the London companies. Under the terms of the formal grant of the area in 1613, the barony of Loughinsholin, which had hitherto been part of Tyrone, was amalgamated with the old county of Coleraine, and Londonderry was made the new county name (Moody 1939, 122-3).


Gaelic Ireland, in prehistory and in early historic times, was made up of many small native kingdoms (called tuatha), but a sense of the underlying unity of the island is evident from the name of the earliest division in Ireland, that represented by the four modern provinces of Connaught, Leinster, Munster and Ulster. In Irish each is called cúige (older cóiced) ‘a fifth’, followed by a district or population name. Cúige Chonnacht means ‘the fifth of the Connaughtmen’, Cúige Laighean ‘the fifth of the Leinstermen’, Cúige Mumhan ‘the fifth of Munster’, Cúige Uladh ‘the fifth of the Ulstermen’. The connection between population and place-names is evident at this very early stage. The ancient fifth ‘fifth’ making up the whole was that of Meath, in Irish Midhe ‘middle’. The division into these five provinces was taken over when Henry II of England invaded Ireland: Leinster, (North and South) Munster, Connaught, Ulster and Meath quasi in medio regni positum (as if placed in the middle of the kingdom), but the number was reduced by the 17th century to the modern four (CSP Ire. 1603-6 $402, 231), by incorporating Meath in Leinster.

The Province of Ulster

As mentioned above, the province of Ulster took its name from the tribal name Ulaid ‘Ulstermen’ (Flanagan 1978d). The earliest record of the tribal name is the form quoted by the 2nd-century Greek geographer Ptolemy, as Uoluntii (O’Rahilly 1946, 7). The precise origin of the English form of the name is obscure, though it has been suggested that it derives from something like Ulaδstir, an unusual combination of the original Irish name plus the Norse possessive suffix -s and the Irish word tír ‘land’ (Sommerfelt 1958, 223-227). Ptolemy mentions various other tribes in the north of Ireland, but it appears that the Ulaid were the dominant group.

The ancient province of the Ulstermen, according to the native boundary description, stretched south to a line running between the courses of the rivers Drobaís (Drowse, on the border between Donegal and Leitrim) and Bóann (Boyne, Co. Meath). The ‘fifth’ of the legendary king of the Ulaid, Conchobar (Cóiced Conchobair) thus included modern Co. Louth (Onom. Goed. 279b). It became contracted in historical times, as a result of the expansion of the Uí Néill ‘descendants of Niall’, who drove the rulers of the Ulaid from the provincial capital at Emain Macha (Navan fort near Armagh) across the Bann into modern Antrim and Down.3 From the 5th century the area stretching south from Derry and Tyrone to Monaghan and most of Louth belonged to a confederation of tribes called the Airgialla, who have been described ‘as a satellite state of the Uí Néill’ (Byrne 1973, 73). Three groups of Uí Néill established themselves in the west, Cenél Conaill ‘Conall’s kin’ in south Donegal, Cenél nÉndae in the area around Raphoe, and Cenél nEógain in Inishowen (< Inis Eógain ‘Eógan’s island’). On the north coast, east of the river Foyle, the Cianachta maintained a separate identity, despite continuing pressure from Cenél nEógain.

East of the Bann the Dál Fiatach (the historic Ulaid) shared the kingship of the reduced Ulster with Dál nAraide and Uí Echach Coba, both originally Cruthin tribes.4 In the 12th century the Anglo-Norman conquest of Antrim and Down resulted in the creation of a feudal lordship of the area under the English crown called the Earldom of Ulster. During the same period the kings of Cenél nEógain had extended their influence eastward, and after the extinction of the Dál Fiatach kingship in the 13th century they assumed the title of rí Ulad ‘king of the Ulaid’ to forward their claim to be kings of the whole of the North. It is this greater Ulster which was the basis for the modern province, although there was some doubt at the beginning of the 17th century as to whether or not this included Co. Louth. By the time of the Plantation in 1609 Ulster had been stabilized as nine counties and Louth had been incorporated into the neighbouring province of Leinster.

Ecclesiastical Administrative Divisions


Under the Roman Empire Christianity developed an administrative structure of dioceses led by bishops based in the local towns. In early Christian Ireland a bishop was provided for each tuath, but since the main centres of population were the monasteries established by the church, the bishop often became part of the monastic community, with less power than the abbot. The invasion of the Anglo-Normans in the 12th century encouraged the re-organization and reform of the native church along continental lines, and by the beginning of the 14th century the territories and boundaries for Irish bishops and dioceses had been settled. Most dioceses are named after important church or monastic foundations: Armagh, Clogher, Connor, Derry, Down, Dromore, Kilmore and Raphoe in the North. The ancient secular province of Ulster was included in the ecclesiastical province of Armagh, which became the chief church in Ireland. The bounds of individual dioceses within the province reflect older tribal areas, for example Derry reflects the development of Cenél nEógain, Dromore Uí Echach Coba. In the 8th century Dál Fiatach, who had settled in east Down, pushed northward into the land of Dál nAraide, and the bounds of the diocese of Down reflect their expansion as far north as the river Ollarba (the Larne Water). The diocesan bounds differ from those of similarly-named later counties because by the time the county boundaries were settled in the 17th century the leaders of many of the larger native territories had been overthrown. County boundaries were generally not based on large native kingdoms but were put together from an amalgam of smaller districts.


The medieval church divided dioceses into rural deaneries, the names of which often derive from old population names. Blaethwyc (modern Newtownards) in the diocese of Down, for example, derives from Uí Blathmaic ‘the descendants of Blathmac’, whereas Turtrye, in the diocese of Connor, derives from Uí Thuirtre ‘the descendants of (Fiachra) Tort’. The deaneries of Tullyhogue (Irish Tulach Óc) in the diocese of Armagh and Maulyne (Irish Mag Line) in Connor are named after royal sites. Mag Line was the seat of the Dál nAraide and Tulach Óc was probably the original seat of the Uí Thuirtre, whose area of influence had by this time moved east across the Bann, as the deanery name reveals. The deanery of Inishowen reflects the earlier homeland of the Cenél nEógain. Deanery names are often a useful source of information on important tribal groups of medieval times. Some of these same population names were used later as the names of baronies, while in other cases the earlier population group had lost its influence and the area had become known by another name.

Tribal and Family Names

Many personal or population names of various forms have been used as place-names or parts of place-names in Ireland, from provinces, counties, deaneries and baronies to townlands. As with different types of land divisions, different types of family names have come into being at various times.

The names of early Irish tribal groupings were sometimes simple plurals, for example Ulaid, Cruthin, and sometimes the personal name of an ancestor or some other element in composition with various suffixes: Connachta, Dartraige, Latharna. Other types prefixed uí ‘grandsons’, cenél ‘kin’, clann ‘children’, dál ‘share of’, moccu ‘descendants’, síol ‘seed’, sliocht ‘line’ to the name of the ancestor, for example Dál nAraide ‘share of (Fiacha) Araide’, and Uí Néill ‘grandsons of Niall’, who are supposedly descended from the 5th-century Niall Noígiallach ‘Niall of the Nine Hostages’.

In early Ireland individuals were often identified by patronymics formed by using mac ‘son of’ or Ó (earlier ua) ‘grandson’ plus the name of the father or grandfather, rather than giving by the name of the larger group to which the individual belonged. Thus the most straightforward interpretation of Eoghan mac Néill is ‘Eoghan son of Niall’, Eoghan Ó Néill ‘Eoghan grandson of Niall’. Sometimes the same formation can occur with female names. However, in the course of the 10th and 11th centuries patronymics began to be used as surnames. In Modern Irish orthography surnames are distinguished from simple patronymics by using capital M or Ó: Eoghan Ó Néill ‘Eoghan O’Neill’, Eoghan Mac Néill ‘Eoghan MacNeill’. However, in early documents, in either Irish or English, it is often difficult to distinguish between surnames and patronymics. This is particularly true of sources such as the Fiants of Elizabeth where a name such as Donagh McDonagh may represent the patronymic Donagh, son of Donagh, or the surname Donagh MacDonagh.

As families expanded it was common for different branches to develop their own particular surnames. Some of these have survived to the present, while others, which may have been important enough in their time to be incorporated in place-names, have either died out or been assimilated by similar, more vigorous surnames. In cases such as this the place-name itself may be the only evidence for the former existence of a particular surname in the locality.

Kay Muhr (Place-names of Northern Ireland, Vol. 1, 1992)