In researching your Irish family history, you’ve likely come across a few interesting placenames for Irish townlands. These are essential for identifying locations in Ireland, a necessary yet sometimes challenging part of tracing your Irish roots.
Placenames and townlands are unique to Ireland and Northern Ireland, so learning about them can be a fun aspect of Irish ancestry research. To help you get started, we’ve created a guide complete with definitions, historical facts, and common Irish townland meanings.
Irish townlands are small units of land that make up a Gaelic land division system dating back as far as the 12th century. The system categorises land, using Irish words to create unique titles called Irish placenames. These names often describe the land’s features or purpose, like the type of farming activity that took place there.
There are more than 61,000 recognised townlands, still considered the smallest unit of land division in Ireland today. Townlands are especially useful in tracing ancestry, as they can help you narrow down clues for your family tree by location.
Some 90 per cent of placenames in Ireland stem from the original Irish language. Although the language has changed considerably in the last 1500 years, anyone literate in Irish can write and identify local placenames.
For at least 150 years after Ireland was first surveyed and mapped, the men who copied down placenames were not literate in Irish. They tackled these placenames in various ways.
Sometimes, they ignored the original Irish placename and gave the land a new name. This was particularly common for plantations. King’s County replaced Uibh Failghe, which is now County Offaly. Queen’s County replaced Laoighis, which is now County Laois.
Other times, surveyors would translate the name from Irish to the English language to try and preserve the original meaning. For example, Doire an Ghlastoir on the border of Tipperary and Offaly became Gloster Wood. Caislean an Ridire in Wicklow became Knight’s Castle.
In some cases, surveyors ‘murdered’ the name by attempting to transcribe it without knowledge of the Irish phonetic alphabet. So An Aill, meaning ‘cliff’, in north County Dublin became the Naul. An Uaimh, meaning ‘cave’, became Navan.
Early surveyors may have garbled placenames, but they left us a wonderful legacy and vital information for family history research. They were able to accurately measure the boundaries of townlands, civil parishes, and baronies in Ireland.
From 1824, surveyors in the Ordnance Survey worked from measurements taken in the Down Survey (1654 to 1656). They used more than 2,700 tracings to confirm precise locations of townland boundaries, as established 168 years earlier. This work created a strong continuity in property boundaries from the 1600s to the 21st century.
Today, this information is easily searchable online. The handy Logainm.ie website is an excellent resource for genealogists and family historians working to identify placenames. The site has a map showing townland divisions, scanned records from specific townlands, audio pronunciations of their Irish placenames, and more.
Learning about Irish town name meanings may help you unlock new information about your family’s origins. Here are a few of the most common words found in Irish placenames, along with some details on their meanings and origins.
In Irish, kil can mean ‘church’ if it stems from the root cill, or ‘wood’ if it comes from the root coill. Both of these Irish words are used descriptively in placenames. So, a townland with kil in its name may describe a wooded location or an area with a church.
In Ireland, baile, or the Anglicised term bally, means ‘place of’. It is a prefix in location names like Baile Átha Cliath, Dublin’s Irish name, meaning ‘town of the hurdled ford’.
When it comes to Irish placenames, Ráth means ‘earthen ringfort’. The name describes ringforts, which were settlements built with a circular structure of either earth or stone. Ringforts date back as far as the Bronze Age, the period from around 3300 BCE to 1200 BCE.
The Irish Family History Centre can help you find and make sense of historic maps to trace your family’s origins. Our genealogy experts are here to offer advice and resources to make the process easier.
Whether you’re just getting started or looking for one missing link, researching Irish townlands may reveal the answers you need. Contact us today to get support on your journey to discovering your Irish heritage.