In Ireland, loyalty to a place of origin is unusually strong. The history of that loyalty goes back thousands of years, as reflected in the vast collection of traditional place-name lore, dinnseanchas, stories explaining how townlands and parishes got their names.
Townlands, of which there are more than 60,000, are still the basis of rural addresses and are unique to Ireland. It seems likely that similar place-name systems existed elsewhere in Europe in the Middle Ages and earlier, but Ireland today is the last place they exist.
Of course, place-names are also important for family history research - almost all the records of value depend on knowing where people were living, so identifying the relevant place can be vital. It can also be quite difficult.
How Irish place-names have evolved and deformed
The main reason for this is the way place-names were transposed out of the Irish language into English. This happened in the first three decades of the nineteenth century, after the Act of Union (1800) had brought the administration of Ireland under the control of London. The first step in that administration was to measure the country, a process which the Ordnance Survey began in the 1820s. But there was no systematic listing of where places were or what they were called. So one of the Ordnance Survey's first tasks was to standardise the spelling (in English) of all of the rural place-names on the island of Ireland.
... Place-names are also important for family history research - almost all the records of value depend on knowing where people were living, so identifying the relevant place can be vital. It can also be quite difficult.
Photo: Courtesy of the National Library of Ireland
The Topographical Section of the Ordnance Survey, charged with carrying out this standardisation, went to great lengths to research local traditions and customs and any documentary references to the place in early histories before settling on an English-language version. In fact, their research preserved a great deal of place-name lore. But the process also inevitably impoverished local place-name traditions. For one thing, if there was a difference between the local landed estate owner and his tenants about the correct name, the owner's version was accepted. For another, there were many areas where traditional sub-townland names were in common use: these were simply ignored by the Ordnance Survey.
But the standard works we still use to identify a historical place-name, the 1851 and 1901 Townlands Indexes came out of the work of the Ordnance Survey.
Get some idea of the background to your family surnames and have a look at some of the recommended basic guides to tracing family history. Your library's Online Public Access Catalogue will show relevant material available in Public Libraries. Most county libraries now also have their catalogues available on the internet. The National Library and National Archives both run walk-in genealogical advisory services, where you can get personal advice on records and research. There are detailed guides to starting out at the John Grenham's Irish Ancestors site and at Seán Murphy's Directory of Irish Genealogy.
Origins of parishes and counties
Civil parishes were the geographical units used in almost all state records before the twentieth century. Their boundaries were set in the twelfth century, at the Synod of Kells. After the Reformation, the Anglican Church of Ireland became the state Church, and retained the old, medieval parishes. These then became the administrative areas used by government.
Counties came into existence in two distinct phases. In areas where Norman and English influence was strongest, counties were introduced as administrative divisions between 1169 and 1300, in a process known as 'shiring'. Counties Dublin, Louth, Meath, Wexford, Carlow, Kilkenny, Kildare Waterford, Cork, Kerry, Tipperary, Limerick and Roscommon were created in this period. The remainder of Ireland was shired during the Tudor reconquest of Ireland, between 1534 and 1603. The last county to be created was Wicklow, in 1606.
Common elements of Irish place-names
Variation (in English)
Agha-, Ath-, Aha-, Agh-, A-
Bally-, Bal-, Ball-, Ballina-, Ballyna-
Carra-, Carrow-, Curra-, Curragh-, Car-, Curry-
Donny-, Dunna-, Donna-
Drum-, Drim-, Drom-
Inis-, Inish-, Inch-, Insh-
Tulla-, Tul-, Toll-
Searching for a place-name online
The two main historical sources for place-names are the 1851 Townlands Index (www.johngrenham.com/places/) and the 1901 Townlands Index (www.irishancestors.ie). At the former you can use wild-cards: remember that vowels are much likelier to change than consonants. Take out the vowels and replace them with '*'. The latter doesn't allow wildcards, but is slightly more comprehensive.
The Townlands indexes often omit sub-townland names and the names of geographical features such as rivers and mountains. The fullest contemporary list of these is at www.logainm.ie.