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Common Sense Research

Updated 27 June 1999

Submitted by Jane Lyons and posted here with her kind permission.

© Copyright Jane Lyons 1999

Irish Geography

People tend to pen their ancestors in, they have a townland name, a parish name, a county name and no matter what is said to them they will focus on that once name. It wasn't until I began to look at maps for other countries that I understood this. If I take a map of America and look at that, the states, they all have nice straight boundaries. Then, within states, the roads are straight, organised, hardly a space which looks unoccupied to my Irish mind. If I look at a map of Ireland and our counties, they're all over the place, no such thing as a straight line, they blend together, meander into one another. Not only can one county look like there are bits of it in another county, but part of a county can lie between two counties. There is no fixed definite shape or pattern to Irish counties.

Over the years I've been on the various newsgroups one thing has always struck me and that is that the searchers have a tendency to almost 'fence' in the Irish who lived here. If they have a townland or Parish name they will stick to that like limpets and refuse to be pointed at any other place. Particularly to a county outside the one they think theirs came from.

People despair because they realise that there were 4 or 5 townlands of the same name in one county....just which one did my ancestors come from? what parish...things like that.

Maybe it's because other countries are so big.....our divisions can be confusing...and you don't know our geography...what maps it is possible to get ..and what they can tell you....and how our townland names changed, even county boundaries changed depending on who was in charge at the time, politics, small little things like that.

The first thing you need to remember is that the Irish moved about...maybe not very far in some instances, but great distances for those days in others...from one end of the country to the next, but usually many members of a family were to be found living close together....maybe in different counties, but right next door to brothers and sisters or parents. Townland A might have been beside townland B and each one in another county.

So,...get yourselves a copy of Brian Mitchels "A new genealogical Atlas of Ireland". ISBN: 0 8063 1152 5, publ: Genealogical Pub. Co. Inc..

It's very good.....shows counties, baronies, parishes. Get a regular map of Ireland to help you see how the counties lie against one another. How a bit of one may lie in between two others..if someone tells you that a particular surname was prevalent in a county and you know that this is a surname you are searching for, but you know it from another county...then check these two refs....see how the place you know it from lies in relation to where it was prevalent. Chances are that all these people were related.

Don't just concentrate your search on a particular parish for through whatever information is available for parishes which surround yours...remember distances had to be walked and while it may be a contradiction for me to say these people moved about..if you lived 10 mins walk from a church which was in one Parish....and 50 mins walk from the parish church your family actually belonged to...which one would you carry the baby to for baptism?

If you are sure of your county....get some of the Irish Ordnance Survey maps for that county. Unfortunately they aren't indexed, you have to spread them out and read through the whole thing to find the area you want...and there are a number for each county....these cost between four pounds and twenty pence to five pounds Irish here in Ireland, they can be found on various book shop web pages around the world...overall they are much cheaper than the old copies of OS can get one of those when you finally really identify where it was your family lived and see what the land was like back then.

When you have the OS maps, you will be able to see where the Churches were in relation to the townlands.....this will give you an idea of something to go looking for...if the county had four townlands of the same name,....then home in on the areas where there were churches (old unused ones shown in red usually on these maps)...and go a hunting for information from this church..usually associated with whatever film will have the nearest post town or bigger town/village from the area. Towns with post offices will also be on these maps.....and normally they were the post town way back then. Draw yourself circles around the townland you are interested in and work your way from there out. The maps will also show graveyards in the area.....some of these might have been transcribed..check out the rootsweb pages for the county, see if it is possible to get hold of never know...these might just hold a fortunes worth of information to you. Some stones have family on them going back to the early 1700's...

There are various web sites which deal with Irish townlands and parishes. In the main these are based on the names as found in the 1851 census. The thing about townlands is that the names changed often enough and those which would have been listed in earlier censuses may have differed from those listed in the 1851 for the same bit of land. So, if your ancestors left Ireland prior to 1851..and you can't find where they came're still not 'done for' . There is another book on placenames from 17th C Ireland I think it is...I'm not sure about the title or the author here but I can check it up for anyone who is interested. Usually it will only be a reference book in any library....but if you are determined enough, you will find a library which holds it and you may be able to get it on interlibrary loan.

The trick is to be logical and methodical and work your way around a county using whatever information is available on that as if from a bulls eye out..round a dart board..the county being your board..and places in other counties being part of that dart board depending on exactly where your point of interest in the main county is.

As if this wasn't bad enough, counties are further subdivided, we have Baronies, Religious Dioceses which spread over a few counties, Catholic and Protestant Boundaries for somewhere of the same name not being in the same place, the Religious Dioceses are subdivided into Religious Parishes, we have civil parishes, we have towns and townlands. We also have names for houses or farms. There are Poor Law Unions, legal divisions. The numbers of religious parishes may have changed over the years, increasing or decreasing depending on how many parishioners there were in an area, depending on whether or not there were religious in the area to serve that parish.

One thing I have noticed over the years, is that people don't realise the size of the area they are dealing with. Take for example a map of Ireland, compare it to a map of the States. As an Irish person, regardless of the key telling me what distance is equal to a mile, I still tend to relate the two maps in one way or another. I once told someone that a place was only a little bit away from where they were, relatively speaking. It turned out that the friend laughed at the good of it, told me he would buy me a map and that the two places were 600 miles apart. I think Irish, the searchers from outside Ireland will generally tend to think in a manner which will suit their country. I think small, they generally think big. There will be a few who manage to get over that mental hurdle, and who will comprehend the size differences, but not many.

The first thing searchers have to do is think 'small', think Irish, and always remember that here in this country for any small town or village there will be a core number of people who are descended from those who left. Twenty or thirty years ago, when someone moved in to any town or village, they were 'blow-in's'. They still are today, but not as noticeable this isn 't, because we move around more often, work brings us from place to place. Today, fewer will leave their home town permanently, they will travel home at the weekends, they will commute to wherever they work. The towns and villages are not dying as they did in the past, their populations are not necessarily shrinking like they did in the past, and so it is harder to find that original 'core' group of families. To go back through the genealogical information on any core group of families in any town or village it will be found that each of these families is related to the other in some way, somehow.

Contradicting, or seeming to everything I have said above, that the searchers should not pen their ancestors in, believe that these people did not move around, and that there are core families in any area, there is the fact that yes, they did move from place to place, or some of them did.

You need to become familiar with our geography. For any county that you have a townland name for, you need to check out the various division names associated with that place. This you can do by visiting one of the townland sites available on the net. These really show you nothing, tell you little other than to give you more place names to be concerned with. However, then you can also visit various sites available which 'sell' Ordnance Survey maps for Ireland. Each county is broken up into a number of divisions. Each county has a number of OS maps associated with it. These do not necessarily cover only the one county, there may be information or bits of three or four counties on a map. The maps themselves are not indexed so it is necessary for you to go through them square by square looking for the townland/placename in which you have an interest. While the maps are not indexed, there are indices available at some of the sites and using these you can find out which map you actually need. These maps are relatively cheap. People ask about copies of original OS maps which can be bought from the Irish OS office, containing great detail and dating from the mid 1800's, showing the layout of the land, houses on it etc. These are expensive, but nice to have and look at. However, I don't recommend that you go out and buy any of these until you have positively identified the area in which you are interested using the cheaper, smaller OS maps. Then, do so. The placenames on the current OS maps have not changed that much from the names used on the 18??


One of the problems encountered with townland names is that any county may have had three or four townlands of the same name. This makes it hard to decide exactly where you should be interested in for definite. With the aid of these maps, you can judge the size of townlands, the closest local market town, the locations of churches and graveyards in the area. You still have to find and work your way through any records which would be available for that area, but you can make the journey smaller by concentrating initially on the biggest townland. Some of our townlands are no more than the size of a field.

If you have a place name and there is only one of that name occurring in a county, then you treat this as the centre point on a dart board. The Bulls Eye so to speak. Remember our geography, the way counties sit together, mix in with one another. You work your way round that area, making the circle bigger and bigger as your search goes on, as time passes, taking into account any places in those rings which are found in other counties.

Remember this, they were not penned in, just because someone said they came from this place or that place, doesn't mean that the closest church for their religion was actually found in that parish. You could live in one parish and the closest church could be in another parish, another county, but sit in the field next door. How many of us would walk miles and miles to our Parish church if we had another church 5 minute's walk down the road? Think small, simple, easy, shortest route.

Something people might like to think of doing....

An awful lot of towns in Ireland produce a Christmas magazine of sorts...not a Parish newsletter. These cover various events which happened during the year, who died, was born, played against who, photographs...

Some of these publications carry stories about the past....about families who lived in the area and who have left, about teh last remaining members, about those who were never heard from again. Some stories on the history of the town.

Most of these will also cover outlying villages..maybe not even in the same county, but with that town as the closest big town.

Now, I know that the one from my home town does this....and I've seen others in the libraries from other counties. I don't know how many would do it, and I don't have a clue in this wide and earthly world how any of you would find out if the main town in an area you are interested in do this or not......

*But* if you do know the name of a decent sized town (pop c. 1500-2000) in the locality you are interested might be an idea to set about trying to find out if the town has a yearly pubication of sorts....and an address for the editor..and then write to this person asking would they carry a letter, story from you about your ancestors and the names you are researching.

The only suggestion I can make re trying to find out is through the local parish priest...please make it as easy as possible for him - enclose a self addressed envelope and a few postage reply coupons ....just ask for an address for someone to contact.

You could try seeing if the town has a web page.....

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