Celebrating Ulster's Townlands

 

 

Signpost: Townlands

  3. Land Division in Ireland
 

The River Drowse remains the boundary between the provinces of Connaught and Ulster, and between counties Leitrim and Donegal: monument to the Four Masters: Keiran Clendinning

The River Drowse remains the boundary between the provinces of Connaught and Ulster, and between counties Leitrim and Donegal: monument to the Four Masters: Keiran Clendinning

Logo: Townlands

The oldest land division in Ireland is the province. Although Ireland now has only 4 provinces, Ulster, Leinster, Connaught and Munster, it seems there were once 5, centred on Meath which means “the middle”. The townland formed the smallest unit in the 19th century administrative system in Ireland, while the province was the largest.   

According to tradition the ancient province of Ulster extended from the rivers Drowse “muddy one” to the Boyne “she who has white cows”, thus including the modern counties of Donegal, Cavan, Monaghan, and Louth. However, when county bounds were fixed in the 17th century, the province of Ulster was defined as 9 counties, and Louth was left outside. The United Kingdom re-organisation of counties in the 1970s was less thoroughgoing in Northern Ireland, which is still 6 counties as far as its people are concerned. 

 

The Ulster Counties were created in the 17th century, but like other divisions called parishes and baronies they were built up of townlands. Parishes were often based on earlier churches, but we do not know how they were organised before the 14th century. Townlands must have existed before the 12th century, when some are listed as Church property. 

 

Townlands are thus very early. In origin they seem to be to be like the Old English hide, “the amount of land which would support a family and its dependents… on average 120 acres” (K.Cameron, English Place-Names 1961,1969 edn p.138). The Ulster Gaelic name baile bo seems to mean land that could raise the rent of a cow. At the Plantation the ballybo was reckoned as 120 acres (of good land) while the tate in the south-west was only half of that. Like Irish baile (Bally- in place-names) the Old English word tun originally meant “farmstead, settlement” rather than “town, village”. The term town - land was created to translate the Irish concept and does not occur in spell-checkers. There are about 9500 townlands in Northern Ireland, 62,000 in the whole of the island.

Provinces and counties of Ireland (adapted from M. Duignan, Shell Guide to Ireland).

Provinces and counties of Ireland (adapted from M. Duignan, Shell Guide to Ireland).

 

 

Townlands might take their name from any feature within them, of natural or human origin. There is no doubt that people took much more note of landmarks in the past, and many ancient tombs and forts owe their survival to the belief that the faries would take revenge if they were interfered with, or to the Old Testament command "Thou shalt not destroy thy neighbour's landmark" (Deuteronomy 19.14, Proverbs 22.28). Townland names had a function to mark out a particular unit of land, in Ulster now an average 350 acres in size. They form a fine network over the country, smaller on good land, larger on poor. Boundaries often run from landmark to landmark and were carefully maintained, so that 17th -century surveyors witnessed a local guide breaking the plough of a man who was ploughing across a townland boundary. (Ulster Inquisitions xliii).

The River Boyne was the boundary between the provinces of Ulster and Meath, now between the counties of Louth and Meath: Aero films

The River Boyne was the boundary between the provinces of Ulster and Meath, now between the counties of Louth and Meath: Aero films

 

 

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