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Founding document from the 12th century of Holy Cross Abbey , in which the townlands of the lands donated by King Domnall Ua Briain are named, some of which have retained the name to this day.

A townland ( Irish baile fearainn ) is the smallest administrative area in Ireland , roughly comparable to a district in Germany. Townlands are made up of constituencies , and townlands are used for postal addresses and population statistics . Likewise, the parishes were formed from townlands and in the 19th century the tax assessment of the land was based on the townlands. Even if the systematic documentation of the country in Ireland did not begin until the 17th century, the origins of the Irish townland system are much older. Many of the townlands and the structures associated with them can be traced back to before the Anglo-Norman invasion in the 12th century and probably go back to the Iron Age . Townlands are often closely related to the locally resident families and are therefore identity-forming and their names and demarcations form an important basis for research into regional history.

Although the origins are older, the final determination of the townlands goes back to the Ordnance Survey , which published the first series of 6-inch maps for Ireland from 1833 to 1846, in which the boundaries of all 62,205 townlands were drawn. Since 2007 there have been intensive efforts to research the correct Irish names of the townlands and to make them available in a database.


Before the founding of cities by the Vikings (such as Waterford in the 9th century) there were no city-like settlements in Ireland. Instead, there were at least 150 small kingdoms ( Irish tuath ) with about 3,000 inhabitants each, which typically settled on a contiguous agricultural area. These areas were the most important resource of early medieval society in Ireland and their division served not only to distribute resources appropriately, but also to organize taxes. Most of the country belonged to family associations ( Irish fine ), which were defined by the male line of a great-grandfather.

The division of the land took place within a Tuath on several levels, which were regionally different. In the area of ​​Counties Derry , Donegal and Tyrone , for example, the largest unit was the Ballybetagh ( Irish baile biataigh ; literally translated: a territory that gives food), each with four quarters ( Irish ceathrú , "quarter") and 16 Ballyboes ( Irish baile bó , "cow country") or 32 sessiaghs ( Irish seisíoch , "sixth", originally one sixth of a quarter), the Ballyboes roughly correspond to today's townlands. A Ballybetagh was assigned to a Tuath and thus to a ruling family group and corresponded to an extraordinarily large property. For example, in Tyrone, the size of a ballybetagh is estimated to be approximately 5760 acres (approximately 23.3 km²). It should therefore not be assumed that a Ballyboe (in Tyrone an average of 360 acres = 1.45 km²) corresponds to a farm run by a small family. It is possible that a Ballyboe was assigned to a family that did not manage this property alone, but in association with other families who did not own any land.

Surveys in modern times

Map of the Barony of Oneilland , County Armagh , made by Josias Bodley in 1609, showing the townlands and their names

The flight of the counts after the Nine Years' War (1594 to 1603) opened the way for James I to confiscate the land holdings in Ulster in order to settle immigrants from Scotland, England and Wales there . In order for this extensive land allocation to be made possible in an orderly manner, the land first had to be measured and mapped. By the end of the 16th century, Ulster had been divided into counties, each of which was divided into several baronies that corresponded to the previous Ballybetagh . The other intricacies of the Irish land division were not yet understood by the surveyors at the time. The surveyors tried to compare the dimensions of the divisions and assumed, for example, that a Ballybetagh would be about 1,000 acres . Under the direction of Josias Bodley, maps of all the baronies in Ulster were made in the summer of 1609. Bodley's team turned to the help of the local population and learned from them the names and approximate locations of the townlands.

Further measurements and mapping were carried out in the 17th and 18th centuries, each of which was very regionally limited and not suitable for reliably documenting the demarcation of the townlands. Analysis of the available maps at the beginning of the 19th century found that four baronies of County Armagh were best mapped with maps of 8 inches by one mile. The next best available maps were from David Aher for County Kilkenny on a scale of 4 inches for a mile, but they were already too imprecise to determine the area of ​​a townland. Some of the cards had already been lost and only lists of townlands were available that were used for taxation purposes.

In 1824 and 1825, Ireland laid the legal basis for surveying and mapping the entire island. Richard Griffith was in charge of the project and he left the actual surveying to Thomas Frederick Colby , head of the Ordnance Survey . Colby was already a respected expert in the use of triangulation , astrogeodesy, and the technique of basic measurements . The tasks included mapping Ireland to a scale of 6 inches for a mile and specifically mapping the townlands and their borders. The cost of the project were initially to a total of 300,000 pounds estimated, with one third of the sum was intended for the measurement of the townlands.

Griffith laid down the procedure for mapping the townlands. For each barony, the previous townland lists were taken as a basis, which were first checked with the help of the landowners and the existing maps, if available. Townlands that were previously missing from the lists but had been known in the neighborhood for at least 50 years were also taken into account. Then the local population recruited helpers who were familiar with the demarcation of the townlands. During the on-site visit, employees of the Ordnance Survey immediately made sketches to document the townland borders. This was not always possible without any problems; in the case of border disputes or wasteland , the borders often had to be set relatively arbitrarily by the employees themselves. This also led to unexpected increases in the townlands. For example, in Inishowen , originally only 180 were surveyed as 304 townlands. This also contributed significantly to the cost increase of the project. Sometimes townlands were also merged or split up if the sizes appeared unsuitable. In the case of subdivisions, the original names were mostly taken over and supplemented with east , west , upper , lower etc. Starting with County Londonderry in 1833 and up to County Kerry in 1846, the topographic maps for each county were published successively. The townlands were drawn in very cautiously in the first edition with names in italics and dotted borders. Directly under the name of the townlands, the areas were specified in Acres , Roods and Perches (1/160 acre).


  • August Meitzen : Settlement and agriculture of the West German and East German, the Celts, Romans, Finns and Slavs (=  migration, cultivation and agricultural law of the peoples of Europe north of the Alps . Volume I ). Wilhelm Hertz , Berlin 1895, Chapter III National Settlement and Agriculture of the Celts , p. 174-232 .
  • Thomas McErlean: The Irish Townland System of Landscape Organization . In: Terence Reeves-Smyth, Fred Hamond (Eds.): Landscape Archeology in Ireland . British Archaeological Reports, Oxford 1983, ISBN 0-86054-216-5 , pp. 315-339 .
  • Fergus Kelly: A Guide to Early Irish Law . Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, Dublin 1988, ISBN 0-901282-95-2 .
  • Paul Connell, Denis A. Cronin, Brian Ó Dálaigh (Eds.): Irish Townlands . Studies in Local History. Four Courts Press, Dublin 1998, ISBN 1-85182-319-0 .
  • John Harwood Andrews: A Paper Landscape . The Ordnance Survey in Nineteenth-Century Ireland. 2nd, revised edition. Four Courts Press, Dublin 2002, ISBN 1-85182-664-5 .
  • Jonathan Bardon: The Plantation of Ulster . Gill & Macmillan, Dublin 2011, ISBN 978-0-7171-4738-0 .

Web links

Commons : Townlands of Ireland  - Collection of pictures, videos and audio files


  1. Geraldine Carville: The Heritage of Holy Cross . Blackstaff Press, Belfast 1973, pp. 27-28 . Marie Therese Flanagan: Irish Royal Charters Texts and Contexts . Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-926707-3 , pp. 307-314 .
  2. Population figures recorded by townland in 1841 were first published in 1851, see Andrews, p. 141, footnote 6.
  3. McErlean, pp. 332-333, 335.
  4. ^ Connell et al, pp. 9-11.
  5. on the type of presentation: Andrews, p. 86; on the period: Andrews, p. 333; on the total number: Connell et al., p. 9.
  6. ^ Project Information. Placenames Database of Ireland, accessed May 25, 2019 .
  7. Kelly, pp. 3-4.
  8. ^ TM Charles-Edwards: Early Christian Ireland . Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2000, ISBN 0-521-03716-6 , pp. 102 .
  9. McErlean, pp. 326-328.
  10. Kelly, pp. 12-13, 100.
  11. Bardon, p. 114.
  12. McErlean, p. 317.
  13. McErlean, p. 323.
  14. McErlean, p. 330; Bardon, p. 114.
  15. McErlean, p. 323.
  16. McErlean, p. 330; Bardon, p. 115.
  17. Bardon, p. 111.
  18. ^ Bardon, p. 115.
  19. Bardon, p. 123; Annaleigh Margey: Representing plantation landscapes: the mapping of Ulster, c.1560-1640 . In: James Lyttleton, Colin Rynne (Eds.): Plantation Ireland . Four Courts Press, Dublin 2009, ISBN 978-1-84682-186-8 , pp. 152 .
  20. Andrews, pp. 14-15.
  21. a b Andrews, p. 33.
  22. Andrews, p. 20.
  23. ^ Andrews, p. 62.
  24. ^ Andrews, p. 84.
  25. ^ Andrews, p. 119.
  26. Andrews, p. 333.
  27. ^ Andrews, p. 86.