8 Days of Irish Research: Defining the Land

This is the second post in the series 8 Days of Irish Research.

When researching your Irish ancestors, it is very important to understand the land divisions.

Defining the landIreland has 4 Ancient Provinces1 and 32 counties, 6 belong to Northern Ireland and 26 to the Republic of Ireland. The counties then break down into Baronies, Parishes (ecclesiastical and civil), the diocese, cities or towns, townlands, Poor law unions, registrars district and electoral district.

You can see there is a lot to know. I recommend that if you find the townland of your Irish Ancestors, you dig deep and find the other land divisions that the townland is a part of.

As an example, when I first found the townland of origin of my ancestors, all I knew is that they lived in Garravesoig, County Kerry. After some searching, I found out that Garravesoig is not part of County Kerry. It is actually in County Cork. The reason it is associated with County Kerry is because the church record that I found was part of the Kerry Diocese. You can see just from this example how important it is to find the correct information.

But what does all this mean to you and your genealogy research?

Usually, once you have a townland you can google it and find the answers. Sometimes you need to google in many ways to find an answer. Keep at it, the information will help you.

Registrar District

The registrar district was of little value until the release of Civil Registration records. Now, when you are searching for your ancestors in these records, it is easier to find them when you can filter the results with the registration district. Even if you just know the county, you can filter through each registration district to see if you can find your ancestors. A great place to find the civil registration districts is the Irish Genealogy Toolkit.

Electoral District

A subdivision of the poor law union. The cancellation books are arranged by the electoral district, so when you search the census and find your family, make note of the electoral district as well.

Poor Law Union

The PLU is important, especially for those who had ancestors still in Ireland during the Famine. The PLU is where your ancestors would have turned to for help when they could no longer survive on their own. The workhouse was part of the PLU, if you think your family received aide from the workhouse, find out which PLU was responsible for their townland and then see if you can find the records (some are online through FindMyPast), I recommend trying the libraries in the area your ancestors lived in.


Ecclesiastical: this division contains both Church of Ireland and Roman Catholic Churches, with different congregations and boundaries. See the Irish Genealogy Toolkit for the history of this division.

Civil: Each civil parish has an average of 24 townlands, they are normally responsible for the maintenance of land and property taxes and records.


The diocese was first introduced in the 12th century and does not hold much for genealogical purposes. The reason to know this is to help you find the correct church of your ancestors. Once you have the Diocese and the townland, there is usually one to two churches that will be of interest to your research. This will help you when looking at the church registers.


Though obsolete since 1898, the Barony is still important for genealogists because old land and property valuations were organized by barony. Make sure you still look for this information.


The smallest land division and the oldest. It is important to know that the townland can have unofficial names as well. Also, the townland name can also be a description of the land. More information on the descriptions of townland names can be found on Wesley Johnston’s website.

Garravesoig’s unofficial name is Fairy Hill. Fairy Hill is referenced in my families church records. I thought it was another townland. But when I was in Ireland, a local told me that most do not know the townland by it’s official name, they know it by Fairy Hill. The lady I spoke with only knew the official townland name because she happened to live in Garravesoig.

Towns or Cities

Urban neighborhoods, not to be confused with the townland. Most documents will have a street address for those living in these areas.

You can see that each land division is important for one reason or another. Take the time to find this information once you have the townland (or town or city). It will help you in the long run.

For my ancestors, this is the information I found:

Townland: Garravesoig
Barony: Duhallow
Poor Law Union: Kanturk
Civil Parish: Dromtariff
Diocese: Kerry
Electoral District: Still looking for this info.
Registration District: Boherboy

  1. Counties and Provinces of Ireland. [Accessed 8 Nov 2016] 



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