Learn About Relevant Irish Land Divisions

Written By: Mike Collins & Jayne McGarvey.

Covered In This Lesson:

  • Types of Land Divisions in Ireland.
  • Essential-To-Know Land Division Types for Irish Research.
  • Which Land Division types are mentioned in each Irish Record Type?
  • A History and Timeline of Land Divisions in Ireland.
  • The Counties of Ireland.


I know from talking to our members how confusing the topic of “land divisions” in Ireland can be – especially when searching for the location of a long-lost ancestor in difficult-to-read records (sometimes written in English, sometimes Latin and sometimes in Irish!).

For example, what is a “Townland” anyway? It sounds like a name for the lands that surround a town! But, of course, it’s not that straightforward.

In this section, we are going to talk about the Irish land division types you will come across in both your family histories as well as the Irish record sets. They include land divisions with titles such as “province”, “county”, “barony”, “cantred”, “parish” (both ecclesiastical and civil), “village”/”town”/”city”, “townland”, “electoral district”, “Poor Law union” – shall I go on? 

However, don’t worry too much – as we shall sort out the “essential-to-know” land division types from the distracting and “nice-to-know” ones.


Types of Land Divisions in Ireland.

Land divisions in Ireland may appear complicated at first, especially as many overlap and cross county borders.  We will examine 2 different types of land division and then look at which land division you need to know about when examining a specific type of record.

Ecclesiastical Land Divisions (Church Divisions):

You will come across Ecclesiastical Land Divisions when searching through church records such as baptismal, marriage and death records.

The Established Church (Church of Ireland) used the following divisions on the island of Ireland:

  • DIOCESES: This was the primary church administrative division.
  • PARISH: Dioceses further divided into Parishes. Except for some minor differences in borders – Established Church Parishes have the same names and boundaries as the Civil Parishes (we’ll cover Civil parishes in the next section). 

The Roman Catholic used the following divisions on the island of Ireland:

  • DIOCESES: This was the primary church administrative division.
  • PARISH: Dioceses further divided into Parishes. Roman Catholic Parishes have often evolved to become much larger in size to Civil Parishes (we’ll cover Civil parishes in the next section).

Presbyterians do not follow the ecclesiastical boundaries of either church shown above but instead have “Presbyteries”.  From a genealogical point of view, their records can mostly be searched by the Civil Parish in which they are located.


Civil Land Divisions (Governmental):

You will come across Civil Land Divisions when searching through Civil records such as birth, marriage and death records – as well as census and land valuation records.

  • COUNTY: The island of Ireland was divided into 32 “Counties” for civil administrative purposes.
  • CIVIL PARISH: Each county was further subdivided into “Civil Parishes“. Some counties contained as few as 18 Civil parishes – which others contained well over a 100.
  • TOWNLAND: Each Civil Parish is further divided into can “Townlands“. The name “Townland” has nothing to do with towns, but was adopted in Norman times for administration and based on earlier Gaelic kingdom subdivisions. Townlands vary in size from less than one acre to thousands of acres. A minority of townlands may be subdivided into sub-townlands.
  • POOR LAW UNION (PLU):  I mention these as they are similar in boundary to the later “Registrar’s Districts” (which were used in Civil Registration of Births Marriages and Deaths) and were created with the advent of the Workhouse in 1838. They were centred on the market town  where a workhouse was built.  They vary in size depending on their population – smaller sized Poor Law Unions were established within higher density areas. 
  • DISTRICT ELECTORAL DIVISIONS: These are used for electoral purposes in census records. Each County was divided into District Electoral Divisions (DEDs) which were further divided into Townlands (rural) or streets (urban).  
  • CITIES, TOWNS and VILLAGES: These are urban areas – some have grown over time while others have shrunk.  Each town or village can be spread across several townlands or be contained within a single townland.

So, now that you have an overview of the names and types of land divisions used in the Irish records, which ones do you really need to learn about to search and view Irish records?


What is ESSENTIAL for you to know?

Let’s make things a little easier with two main points:

POINT 1: When your Irish ancestor was asked where in Ireland they came from or lived – they probably replied with:
  • The name of a townland and county if they lived in the open countryside – possible name-checking a nearby village or town
  • OR the name of a village/town and county if they lived in a small urban area
  • OR the name of a street, city area and city if they lived in a large urban area.

They may have mentioned a parish from time to time. They would rarely mention a province, barony, cantred, Electoral division, poor law union etc. However, many of those unmentioned types of divisions WERE used by various administrations through the centuries in Ireland – and do feature in how the records you will be researching were collected and organised.

POINT 2: The land division you need to know about depends on which Irish record set you are examining.

Instead of giving you an exhaustive list of all types of land divisions, their history and use (our lives are short enough as it is) – let’s instead go through the relevant land division types you need to know about based on the Irish record set you are examining. That should save us some time! However, I do give a potted history and timeline of land divisions at the end of this article – if you really want to go there!

So, let’s start by looking at each of the Irish record types that are covered in this guide – and the land divisions referred to in each record set.


Land Divisions types you need to know about depending on the type of Irish Record you are examining.

There are five main Irish record sets that you will be examining for Irish family history research:

  1. Irish Church Records (Baptism, Marriage, Burial).
  2. Irish Civil Records (Birth, Marriage, Death).
  3. Tithe Applotment Land Records.
  4. Griffith’s Valuation Land Records.
  5. Irish Census Records.

Let’s go through each of the above in turn. We will consider which land divisions you need to know about for each record set and take some examples.


1. Irish Church Records (Baptism, Marriage, Burial):

Land Divisions that you will see named on this type of record:

Here is a sample of a Roman Catholic Church Baptism Record (which was transcribed on RootsIreland):

Want to Jump Straight in? If you are new to Irish Church Records – a warning! They are not as easy to search, or browse, as the other record sets mentioned on this page as they’re not located in one place. They are spread across a wide range of online and offline locations. I suggest you go to this module of the Irish Research Wheel to better understand how to find different Church records.


2. Irish Civil Records from the 1864 onwards (Birth, Marriage, Death – Note: Non-Catholic civil marriage records commenced in 1845).

Land Divisions that you will see named on this type of record:

Here is a sample of a page of Civil Birth Records (which can be accessed at IrishGenealogy.ie):

Want to Jump Straight in? Browse or Search the Irish Civil Records online here.

Want to learn a little more first? See the relevant Green Room training links at the end of this lesson.


3. The Tithe Applotments of the 1820s/1830s.

Land Divisions that you will see named on this type of record:

Here is a sample of a results page from a search of the Tithe Applotments (which can be accessed here):

Want to Jump Straight in? Browse or Search the Tithe Applotments online here.

Quick Win Training: Using the Irish Tithe Applotments Records.

NOTE: While the Tithe Applotment books are relatively complete for the 26 counties that comprise the Republic of Ireland using the link shown above, only some of the Tithe Applotment books are available for the historical six counties of Northern Ireland at that location. Jayne has put together a guide on how to access the Tithe Applotment books here.

Want to learn a little more first? See the relevant Green Room training links at the end of this lesson.


4. Griffith’s Valuation of the 1850s and 1860s.

Land Divisions that you will see named on this type of record:

Here is a sample of a page from a search of the Griffith Primary Valuation of Tenements (Griffith’s Valuation) (which can be accessed here):

You can also search for a surname on Johngrenham.com here – and the resulting map will show you where the surname featured in Ireland for Griffith’s Valuation.

Barony and Poor Law Union were also used but not really relevant in your search.

Want to Jump Straight in? Browse or Search the Griffith Valuations Here.

Want to learn a little more first? See the relevant Green Room training links at the end of this lesson.


5. Census records of 1901 and 1911:

Land Divisions that you will see named on this type of record:

Here is a sample of a page from a search of the 1901 Census of Ireland (which can be accessed here):

See the tags in blue at the top of the record? Well, starting with (in this case) “Cork” and moving from left to right, they are:

  • County (e.g. Cork): Click here to see a map of each Irish County. 
  • District Electoral Division (DED) (e.g. Ballydehob) – these were derived as subdivisions of Poor Law Unions. Each county was divided into a number of DEDs for the purpose of census and electoral administration. You can see a list of counties here – and click on a county to see the DEDs for that county. 
  • Townland or street name (e.g. Foilnamuck) if village or town, electoral ward if a city. You can see a list of counties here – then click on a county and you will see a list of DEDs in that county. Click on a DED and you will see the townlands and streets/city areas included in that DED.

Want to Jump Straight in? Browse or Search the 1901/1911 Irish census here.

Want to learn a little more first? See the relevant Green Room training links at the end of this lesson.

Right, if you would like to learn a little more about the history and formation of various land divisions in Ireland, then the following section is for you. Otherwise, jump to the bottom of this lesson where you can find suggestions on what to do next.


History and Timeline of Land Divisions in Ireland.

From the period in Irish history when the Normans first established themselves in Ireland (commencing about 1180AD) to the mid-1600s, the land-division system for administration and taxation had evolved to a point that would be familiar to an Irish person today. Here is a “potted” history of the land divisions in Ireland – the sequence of their adaptation and their meanings:


All of the Irish lands outside the Hiberno-Norse cities of Dublin, Wexford, Waterford, Cork and Limerick were in the hands of local Gaelic kings. Each of these small-kingdoms was known as a “Tuath”. The lands of each Tuath were further divided and each of those units were in the hands of individual extended families. These smallest divisions were probably around since the 600s and still form the basis for the “Townland” system we know today.

The names given to these Tuath sub-divisions changed depending on the part of the country. Sometimes called “Baile” (pronounced Bal-ya) or Ballyboes, Tates and so on – their title was only uniformly changed to Townland (baile is the Irish for town/home/place) in the 19th century.

Each Tuath had a local King – who was often subservient to a local over-King. Further up the pecking order, the country was divided into 5 provinces (there are 4 today – Leinster, Munster, Connaught and Ulster) – each with a provincial King.

1200s – 1400s.

The Normans established land divisions to award lands to their Knights and to allow for subsequent taxation. They renamed many of the existing Tuatha as “Parishes”, and created “Cantreds” from groups of Tuatha/Parishes – often by using existing boundaries and anglicising the existing Irish names for the family territories. There were about 180 Cantreds across the parts of the island held by the Normans.

The Norman administration also formed many of the Counties we know today by grouping together many of these cantreds. Each County had its own royal official – the Sheriff – responsible for the governing of the county.

1500s onwards.

With the onset of the Tudor conquest in Ireland, the Parishes were formalised as land divisions and the existing Cantreds were renamed as Baronies. As the conquest of Ireland continued into the 17th century, the divisions in Ireland increased from about 180 Cantreds to over 250 baronies – spread over the 32 counties of the island of Ireland. Smaller baronies often covered fertile land, while the larger baronies extended over areas of poor land. The various plantations of settlers in Ireland were generally awarded and organised by Barony.

By 1649:

The island of Ireland was divided into administrative counties, each county was further divided into Baronies for valuation purposes and each Barony comprised a group of Civil Parishes – which themselves often honoured the boundaries of ancient Tuath lands. Each Civil Parish was made up of a series of townlands. At this point, cities, towns and villages were also becoming prominent across Ireland. The first significant mapping of baronies took place in 1656 following the Cromwellian conquest. This was known as the Down Survey of Ireland and can be accessed online.


Ireland was divided into “Poor Law Unions allowing paupers to receive poor relief . Their boundaries were not related to those of the existing civil parishes (more is the pity). The Poor Law union was named after a town within its environs – where its workhouse was located.


When the Irish General Register Office was established in 1864 to administer Civil records –  each “Poor Law Union” (PLU) became a “Superintendent Registrar’s District (SRD), made up of groups of electoral divisions.


Northern Ireland was created in 1921, when the island of Ireland was partitioned into Northern Ireland (which remained part of the United Kingdom) and Southern Ireland. Northern Ireland comprised the six counties of Londonderry, Antrim, Down, Armagh, Tyrone and Fermanagh. Southern Ireland went on to become the Irish Free State in 1922. The Irish Free State was officially declared a republic in 1949.

The county boundaries of Northern Ireland have shifted quite a lot over the subsequent decades for administration purposes. The use of townland names has diminished in many of these counties since the 1970s with the introduction of official post codes (although there have been grass-roots initiatives to ensure the names of townlands are kept in regular use).

In the Republic of Ireland, the ancient county and provincial boundaries have remained intact – and townland names remain in use to the extent that most of them can be found on modern Google Maps.

Like to hear a little more? How about we now have a look at a timeline showing the formation of the 32 counties of Ireland.


The Counties of Ireland.

Which county did your Irish ancestors come from? When we think of Ireland, we often think of names like County Cork, County Galway, County Louth and so on – all the way through the 32 traditional counties on the island of Ireland. In this section, we’ll look at those administrative slices of Ireland that we have come to know as the counties of our heritage.

So, what was the first county in Ireland? Well. It’s true to say that up to the time of the arrival of the Normans in the late 1100s, Ireland did not really have “counties”. That was an administrative invention of the Normans who needed a system to allocate lands to adventurers and planters, and to enforce taxes and the other aspects of their feudal society in a more efficient manner.

Today, things have become a little more complicated with the existence of two political entities on the island – as well as newer administrative “counties” springing up in recent times. In this article, however, we are going to work towards the model of the 32 counties that would have been familiar to most of our ancestors up to the early 1900s. They are:

In the Province of Munster:

  • Counties Cork, Kerry, Clare, Tipperary, Waterford and Limerick.

In the Province of Leinster:

  • Counties Dublin, Kildare, Meath, Louth, Westmeath, Wicklow, Wexford, Carlow, Kilkenny, Longford, Offaly (formerly King’s County) and Laois (formerly Queen’s County).

In the Province of Connaught:

  • Counties Galway, Mayo, Sligo, Roscommon and Leitrim.

In the Province of Ulster:

  • Londonderry (also referred to as Derry), Antrim, Down, Armagh, Tyrone, Fermanagh, Monaghan, Cavan and Donegal.

Right! That’s all 32 counties. Although I divided these counties into Province groupings, it’s worthwhile noting that a province is an ancient division – not administrative. Today we mostly use provinces to organise sporting teams and events.

Let’s have a look at a timeline for the formation of those counties up to 1649AD. This timeline quite accurately reflects the colonial ambition of the Normans and England as they widened their administration across the island of Ireland. The “shiring” of Ireland started in the late 12th centuries as the newly-arrived Normans imposed a similar system to their previous work in England and Wales.

The Normans divided their portion of the island by amalgamating the smaller Gaelic Kingdoms or “Tuatha” of the time. These “Tuatha” were made up of smaller family lands that often had many of the same boundaries we see in the “Townland” system of today.

  • By 1200 AD – Counties of Dublin, Cork, Kerry, Limerick, Louth, Tipperary, Waterford, Kilkenny and Wexford are formed. These counties often contained the best land, and around the existing Viking port cities of Ireland (Dublin, Cork, Waterford, Wexford and Limerick). The lands were lucrative and worth holding from the native Irish.
  • 1292 AD – County Roscommon formed.
  • 1297 AD – Counties Kildare and Meath formed.
  • 1306 AD – County Carlow formed. Kildare, Meath and Carlow represent an expansion of the Norman lands. This time also marked a pause to the Anglo-Norman shiring of the island – as an Irish Gaelic resurgence won back a lot of this land over the next 230 years.
  • 1543 AD – County Westmeath formed by breaking Meath into two parts. When the Tudors came to power in England, it marked a renewed interest in “reclaiming” the lands in Ireland from the native Irish. This marked the start of movements of the native Irish out of their historic homes – and the start of a sequence of “plantations” from England (and later from Scotland) to replace the native Irish land-holders with English speaking farmers and adventurers of the Protestant faith.
  • 1556 AD – King’s County (modern Offaly) and Queen’s County (modern Laois) formed. Connaught is broken into the Counties of Galway, Mayo and Sligo.
  • 1565 AD – Counties Clare and Leitrim formed.
  • 1583 AD – County Longford formed.
  • 1584 AD – County Cavan formed.
  • 1585 AD – Counties Armagh, Donegal, Fermanagh, Monaghan, County Colerain (later documents show the spelling as Coleraine) and Tyrone formed.
  • Early 1600s – Counties Antrim and Down formed.
  • 1606 AD – County Wicklow formed.
  • 1613 AD – County Coleraine renamed as County Londonderry formed.

By the time Cromwell arrived in Ireland in 1649 AD, the historic counties that we know today were fully in place. They were further subdivided into a system of “Civil Parishes” (and for a while baronies) as well as towns cities and townlands.

However, the first mapping and surveying of the island did not take place until the early part of the 19th century.



It is important to remember that you don’t have to name and understand all of the Land Division types that have evolved over many centuries in Ireland. I find that the most practical way to understand Irish Land Divisions is in the context of the Irish record set you are viewing. So, work through some examples of Irish record sets – referring to our examples above, and you will gradually develop a solid idea of Irish Land Divisions and how they relate to the record sets that reference your Irish ancestors.

Action Plan For This Lesson:

  1. Review each of the 5 example record sets shown above. Click on the underlying maps and see if you can work through and understand the examples show.
  2. When you are ready, find some Irish record sets that relate to your own Irish ancestors (or come from the time they were in Ireland). View the original record image and see if you can follow and understand the Land Divisions mentioned.
  3. Take some of the Quick-Win and Training Modules listed in the box at the end of this section.
  4. Get Help along the Way! See the link below to jump to the correct section of the Ask The Genealogist section in the forum where you can ask your Land Division questions.


Click Here To Ask Our Genealogist a Question Related to This Module.



Related Quick-Wins and Training.







Irish Record Sets and Maps:


Other Green Room Resources:

  • We used the Griffith Valuation in this County Clare Homelands feature to find the homestead of one of our Green Room Members. Click here to see more.
  • This Genealogist report for a member whose ancestors came from County Down uses Griffith’s Valuation book extracts, Land Revision books and Tithe Applotments to look at the movements of a family with in an area. Click here to see more.
  • This Genealogist Report for a member whose ancestors came from Belfast illustrates the typical interplay between Irish Civil Records, census records and land records when researching a family member in a thorough manner.