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Irish Genealogy - Step One- Determining Where Your Ancestors Lived

(In honour of St. Patrick's Day this week I will be reposting a series on Irish Genealogy. I began this series last year and will be adding to this series in the weeks to come. However, this week we will take a look at how to start your  Irish genealogy along with some of the best websites on the internet today for searching your Irish Genealogy.)


Before you begin googling surnames, and seeking church records and vital statistics for your Irish ancestors you must establish the single most important piece of knowledge about them, where did they live, their precise place of origin, their place name.

In order to establish an ancestor’s place name you must understand the landscape of Ireland through its administrative and political divisions. Not only will this help in identifying an ancestors hometown, but it will also open up the possibility of a variety of other Irish record sources you may not have considered.

The administrative and political boundaries are confusing to say the least; provinces are divided into counties, which are divided into civil parishes. Civil parishes are made up of townlands, all of which can cross each other. Baronies can cross civil parishes, Catholic parishes and civil parishes cross each other, poor law unions cross county and parish boundaries. Are you confused yet? Let’s break it down in very simple terms.

Ireland is divided into four provinces – Ulster, Connaught, Munster and Leinster. However there was once five, the fifth being Meath which is now part of Leinster and Ulster.

Each province is divided in counties, there are 32 in all, from their they break down into poor law unions 163, baronies 331,civil parishes 2508, townlands 60, 462, and dioceses, 4 with 22 parishes in each. Therefore, it is not sufficient to know that your ancestors for example, lived in the county of Kilkenny. You must determine where in the county they made their home in order to find the appropriate records.

Poor Law Unions were a result of the Poor Relief Act of 1838. It divided the country into districts or “unions” for the purpose of tax collection. In 1898, the Poor Law Union replaced the civil parish and barony. The Poor Law Unions are the key to the electoral divisions and electoral divisions are the key to land records and finding your family. District Electoral District are subdivisions of Poor Law Unions and consist of a number of townlands. Some land records are arranged by DED, so important information to know. Census returns are also arranged by DED, inorder to find a census return for an ancestor you have to establish the DED for any relevant townland or urban street.


Baronies are a historical subdivision of a county. They were created, like the counties, in the centuries after the Norman invasion; Baronies are still used for land registration and have virtually remained unchanged since 1898.

In Ireland civil parishes originally coincided with ecclesiastical parishes of the Church of Ireland, the established church from the time of the Tudor re-conquest. Church parish boundaries changed after its disestablishment in 1869 but it did not affect the civil parishes. Civil parishes and church parishes are not the same. The Roman Catholic Church has a separate parish system. There may exist several congregations within each civil parish. One parish church could serve several civil parishes, or perhaps such as in Northern Ireland, where more than one Church of Ireland is within a civil parish.

Townlands are a unique feature of Ireland and is one of the most ancient divisions in the country. It is in the Townland you will find the location of the church where your ancestor’s births, deaths and marriages were recorded. To locate the Townland, you need to know the county and civil parish. Just to make life confusing, there could be many townlands of the same name in a county. Towns are not townlands. Towns or villages may be located within a townland. Townlands may range from a few acres to several thousand acres. Within townlands, are smaller communities some not large enough to be towns and may only include a few houses, these ‘fields’ or ‘farm names’ may be more commonly known to the local people.

Dioceses in Ireland - The diocesan system of the Catholic Church government in Ireland was set up by the Synod of Rathbreasail in 1111 and modified by the Synod of Kells in 1152. Ireland is divided into four ecclesiastical provinces each headed by a metropolitan archbishop. There are 26 dioceses in total, each led by a diocesan bishop.

Now that you have an understanding of the divisions of Ireland, with the help of some of the resources listed below, you can begin to uncover a more precise location of your ancestors.

The single most important tool in identifying an Irish place name is The General Alphabetical Index to the Townlands and Towns, parishes and Baronies of Ireland. It is based on the 1851 census, and offers an alphabetic list of townlands identifying the parish, barony, county and Poor Law Union to which they belong. It can be located in many libraries, at most large LDS family history libraries, you can find it online at IreAtlas Townland Database (this is a free site)

The Topographical Dictionary of Ireland by Samuel Lewis (1837) lists all the parishes, baronies, towns, villages, and counties in Ireland with some local information including an account of agriculture and industry and the major local houses and their owners. It can be viewed online at Library Ireland.com. 

Irishtimes.com offers you a view of maps showing the civil and Roman Catholic parishes in a county. By clicking under the place names tab, you can find the names of all townlands within a civil parish, where the parish is located in its county, names of neighbouring parishes, and the 10 most common surnames in the parish in Griffith’s Valuation. You can also cross-reference two surnames within the same parish. This is a pay-per-view site.

Once you have established, the province, county, barony, civil parish and or catholic parish along with Poor Law Union and Townland, you will have acquired some very valuable information in narrowing the exact location of your ancestors and therefore opening the window to understanding what records exist and where to find them.

4 comments:

  1. Thanks for explaining this so clearly.

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  2. Your welcome ladies, this series transpired through my own research and frustration in understanding how to find my own Irish ancestors. Hope it helps.

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  3. Where to start when all you know is that he was born around 1810 in Ireland and next was in Ontario, canada in 1831?

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