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Irish Administrative Jurisdictions

Mitchell, Brian, A New Genealogical Atlas of Ireland, Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., Baltimore, 1986

The most frequent question I get is how do I find the place in Ireland where my ancestor lived. All of the records just say "Ireland." Yes, it's frustrating because you can't be effective researching in Ireland without that piece of information. But, do you know what you're looking for? Ireland has multiple administrative jurisdictions and your ancestor could have named any of them on a record he or she left. They are all important for different reasons.

First the county. If you do have any information it might be just the name of the country where your ancestor was born. Here’s the bad records were kept at the county level. That’s not to say that the county isn’t important. Since the Irish were not particularly creative with names of parishes and townlands, knowing the county may help you identify the correct location in Ireland. My Dalys, for example, were from Irishtown. There are twenty-seven townlands with Irishtown in their name located in twelve different counties (some counties with multiple Irishtowns...Meath has seven), and then there are those locations with the “unofficial” name of Irishtown or that were boroughs and are not even listed. Many local names were lost after the surveys of the 1830s when the names were standardized. Until I was able to isolate the location to County Mayo (where Irishtown was unofficial) and obtain the additional information that there were relatives in Crumlin, I couldn’t find my Michael Daly. As it turned out, Daly was not a common name in Mayo and I was able to reconstruct the family from civil birth, death and marriage records.

Although the counties haven't changed much since 1605 when Wicklow was created there are some name changes...King’s County is now Offaly and Queen’s County is now Laois and Londonderry/Derry was once Coleraine. One other word of caution with might have information that your ancestor came from Cork. When asked the question of where they came from, the answer might have been interpreted as the last place they were in Ireland, and many Irish emigrated from Queenstown in Cork. Always try to verify this with other information you’ve collected.

Baronies originally related to tribal divisions in Celtic Ireland, and over the years were sub-divided or combined. They were standardized in the 1500s and sometimes overlap parish and county borders. For genealogical purposes, they were used primarily when researching land survey records such as the Tithe Applotment and Griffith’s Valuation of the nineteenth century. They are no longer in use. Prior to the digitization of the Griffith’s records you needed to know the Barony in order to view the records either on microfilm, or in the bound books. I rarely worry about this division any longer as I use the online records at AskAboutIreland or FindMyPast to do my Griffith’s research.

Parishes are groups of townlands which may overlap boundaries of the counties. The parish we are discussing is the civil parish, not the ecclesiastical (religious) parish Here it’s important to understand the history of Ireland.

The inhabitants of Ireland have been primarily Roman Catholic from the time of St. Patrick in the fifth century. In 1537, Henry VIII declared himself the head of the Church of England (Anglican), and in 1541 became the King of Ireland. During the reign of his daughter, Elizabeth I, in 1560, the Church of Ireland (Anglican) became the State Church of Ireland and remained so until it was disestablished in 1869. As the State Church, the Church of Ireland had civil as well as religious functions. At the time of its establishment, the Church of Ireland took over not only the former Roman Catholic churches, but also their parish designations. If you have Church of Ireland ancestors, the civil parish and the ecclesiastical parish will most likely have the same name. At the end of the penal laws when Roman Catholic churches were again being built, the Roman Catholic parishes frequently were larger covering more than one civil parish and the name of the ecclesiastic parish might have been changed.

Once you know the civil parish, you can determine the Roman Catholic Parish by going to IrishAncestor's Sitemap. Select the Civil Parish Map and click on the county. Next select the name of the civil parish and click on "church records" in the upper right. This will not only tell you the name of the ecclesiastical parish, but the dates and locations of any records.

For genealogists Townlands have a special importance...not because they hold records, but because it is one of the ways to identify specific individuals. When you have many individuals of the same name, their townland or address, is one way of separating them into families. The townland is the smallest administrative division and in size, could be anything from a few acres to thousands of acres. There are over 60,000 townlands in Ireland, and by the way, the Irish were not particularly creative in naming them…it’s not uncommon to find the same townland name multiple times, even in the same county! There are also Towns and Cities in Ireland, some of which contain multiple townlands.

The final jurisdiction is the Poor Law Union. The Unions were created beginning in 1838 typically around market towns and were where the Workhouses were located. They frequently crossed not only parish boundaries, but also county boundaries. Since their responsibility encompassed medical dispensaries, they became the Registration Districts for Civil Registration when it began in 1864. So when you are looking for birth, death or marriage certificates, you will be filtering your searches by the Registration District/Poor Law Union.

Here's an example of how this works. Michael Daly was born in Irishtown. That's all the known information. His half brother's obituary said he was from County Mayo. There are no "official" Irishtowns in Mayo. Michael's naturalization indicated he was from Claremorris. Claremorris is a Poor Law Union or Registration District. His immigration record stated his nearest relative in Ireland was his mother, Mary Daly of Crimlon, Irishtown. The official spelling of the townland is Crumlin of which there are twenty-one, including two in Mayo: one in the parish of Turlough and one in Kilvine. The Poor Law Union for Kilvine is Claremorris and Turlough is in the Poor Law Union of Castlebar. Putting the pieces together, Michael was from Crumlin (townland) in Kilvine (parish). The Poor Law Union or Registration District is Claremorris. Irishtown is a borough in Mayo, however it is also known as the "The Cradle of the Land League."

Information provided by our ancestors can also lead us astray. Patrick Moughty stated he was from Mullingar in County Westmeath. Now the difference here is that Moughty is a very unusual surname and only appears in a small cross border area of Longford and Westmeath. I was quickly able to obtain the birth registration for Patrick which gave the locality of Aghnabohy. This townland is in the civil parish of Piercetown and the Poor Law Union of Ballymahon. Mullingar, the closest large town (about 8 miles away) is in the civil parish of Mullingar and the Poor Law Union of Mullingar. Had this been a common surname, I might have found someone in Mullingar with the same name, and ended up following the wrong family. Beware!

Resources for identifying localities in Ireland are listed below.

Happy Hunting!


The General Alphabetical Index To the Townlands and Towns, Parishes and Baronies of Ireland, Dublin, 1861; Reprinted by Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., Baltimore 1984.

Mitchell, Brian, A New Genealogical Atlas of Ireland, Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., Baltimore, 2017

Still looking for the place in Ireland? Check out my Irish Quick Reference Guide,

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