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Map showing the townlands of the Thurles civil parish, County Tipperary. The townlands of Thurles are typical: of widely varying shapes and sizes with irregular borders, forming a patchwork over the countryside. The townlands have a mean area of 64 ha (158 ac).
A road sign in County Antrim Northern Ireland, noting that this part of the road lies within Teeshan townland
A (rare) townland boundary marker in Inishowen, County Donegal.
File:Ballycuirke townland sign.jpg
Townland sign in Irish for Baile na Coirce (Ballycuirke), Moycullen, County Galway, a Gaeltacht townland.

A townland (Irish: baile fearainn) is a small geographical division of land used in Ireland. The townland system is of Gaelic origin, pre-dating the Norman invasion,[1][2][3][4] and most have names of Irish Gaelic origin.[2] However, some townland names and boundaries come from Norman manors, plantation divisions, or later creations of the Ordnance Survey.[5][6] The total number of inhabited townlands was 60,679 in 1911.[7] The total number recognised by the Irish Place Names database is 61,098, including uninhabited townlands, mainly small islands, as of 2014.[8]


In Ireland, a townland is (generally) the smallest administrative division of land, though a few large townlands are further divided into hundreds.[9] Whilst the concept of townlands is based on the Gaelic system of land division, it was in the 1600s that they became mapped and defined by the English administration for the purpose of confiscating land and portioning it out to English investors or grants to English planters.[9] The first official evidence of the existence of this Gaelic land division system can be found in church records from before the 12th century.[10]


The term "townland" in English is derived from the Old English word tun, denoting an enclosure.[11] The term describes the smallest unit of land division in Ireland, based upon various kinds of Gaelic land division, many of which had their own names.

The term baile, anglicised as "bally", is the most dominant element used in Irish townland names.[12] Whilst today the term "bally" denotes a town or urban settlement, its precise meaning in ancient Ireland is unclear, as towns had no place in Gaelic social organisation.[12] The modern Irish term for a townland is baile fearainn (plural: bailte fearainn). The term fearainn means "land, territory, quarter". It is from the Proto-Indo-European root *wer-, which is also related to the English word ware, a valuable commodity.

The Normans, despite not having a serious influence on townland names, adapted some of them for their own use, possibly seeing a similarity between the Gaelic baile and the Norman bailey, both of which meant a settlement.[13]

Historical land divisions and etymology

Throughout most of Ulster, townlands were known as "ballyboes" (Irish: baile bó, meaning "cow land"),[14][15] and represented an area of pastoral economic value.[14] In County Cavan, similar units were called "polls", and in counties Fermangh and Monaghan they were known as "tates" or "taths".[12][14][15] These names appear to be of English origin, but naturalised long before 1600.[14] In modern townland names, the prefix pol- is widely found throughout western Ireland, with "hole" or "hollow" its accepted meaning.[14] In County Cavan however (which contains over half of all townlands in Ulster with the pol- prefix) some of those should be translated as meaning "the poll of...".[14] In regard to tates, modern townlands with the prefix tat- are confined almost exclusively to the diocese of Clogher (which covers counties Fermanagh, Monaghan, and Clogher barony in County Tyrone),[14] and it cannot be confused with any other Irish word.[14]

In County Tyrone the following hierarchy of land division was used: "ballybetagh" (Irish: baile biataigh, meaning "victualler's place"), "ballyboe", "sessiagh" (Irish: séú cuid, meaning sixth part of a quarter), "gort" and "quarter" (Irish: ceathrú).[12] In County Fermanagh it was: "ballybetagh", "quarter" and "tate".[12] Further sub-divisions in Fermanagh appear to be related to liquid or grain measures such as "gallons", "pottles", and "pints".[16]

In Ulster the ballybetagh was the territorial unit controlled by an Irish sept, typically containing around 16 townlands. Fragmentation of ballybetaghs resulted in units consisting of four, eight, and twelve townlands. One of these fragmented units, the "quarter" (representing a quarter of a ballybetagh), was the universal land denomination recorded in the 1608 survey for County Donegal.[17] In the early 17th century, 20% of the total area of western Ulster was under the control of the church. These "termon" lands consisted likewise of ballybetaghs and ballyboes, but were held by erenaghs instead of sept leaders.[17]

Other units of land divisions used throughout Ireland include:

  • In County Tipperary, "capell lands" and "quatermeers" were used. A "Capell land" consisted of around 20 great acres, of which an acre equalled 20 English acres.[12]
  • In the province of Connacht, "quarters" and "cartrons" (Irish: ceathrú mír, also anglicised as "carrowmeer") were used, quarter being reckoned as four cartrons, and each cartron being 30 acres.[12] The quarter has also been anglicised as "carrow", "carhoo", and "caracute" (Irish: ceathrú cuid).[12]
  • In County Clare, as in Connacht, the most common land divisions were "quarters", "half-quarters" (Irish: leath-ceathrú), "cartrons" and "sessiagh". Here a "half-quarter" equated to around 60 acres, a "cartron" equated to around 30 acres, and a "sessiagh" to around 20 acres.[12]

"Cartrons" were also sometimes called "ploughlands" or "seisreagh" (Irish: seisreach, meaning a team of horses yoked to a plough).[12]

Thomas Larcom, the first director of the Ordnance Survey of Ireland, made a study of the ancient land divisions of Ireland and summarised the traditional hierarchy of land divisions thus:[9][12]

10 acres – 1 Gneeve; 2 Gneeves – 1 Sessiagh; 3 Sessiaghs – 1 Tate or Ballyboe; 2 Ballyboes – 1 Ploughland, Seisreagh or Carrow; 4 Ploughlands – 1 Ballybetagh, or Townland; 30 Ballybetaghs – Triocha Céad or Barony.

This hierarchy did not apply uniformly across Ireland; for example, a ballybetagh or townland could contain more or less than four ploughlands.[9] Further confusion arises when it is taken into account that, whilst Larcom used the general term 'acres' in his summary, terms such as 'great acres', 'large acres', and 'small acres' were also used in records.[9] Writing in 1846, Larcom remarks that the 'large' and 'small' acres had no fixed ratio between them and that there were various other kinds of acre in use in Ireland: the Irish acre, English acre, Cunningham acre, plantation acre and statute acre.[9][12] The Ordnance Survey maps used the statute acre measurement.[9] The quality and situation of the land affected the size of these acres.[12] The Cunningham acre is given as intermediate between the Irish and English acre.[12]

Many of these land division terms have been preserved in the names of modern townlands, for example: the term "cartron" in both its English and Irish form has been preserved in the townland names of Carrowmeer, Cartron, and Carrowvere, whilst the term "sessiagh" in those of Shesia, Sheshodonell, Sheshymore, and Shessiv.[12] The terms "ballyboe" and "ballybetagh" tend to be preserved in the truncated form of "bally" as a prefix for some place names. Lesser known land division terms may be found in other townland names such as Coogulla (Irish: Cuige Uladh, "the Ulster fifth"), Treanmanagh (Irish: an train meánach, "the third middle"), and Dehomade (Irish: an deichiú méid, "the tenth part").[12]

A problem with the term "bally" in some place names is that it can be difficult to distinguish between the Irish terms baile meaning "townland" and béal átha meaning "approach to a ford". An example of the latter is Ballyshannon, County Donegal, which is derived from Béal Átha Seanaidh.[18]

Size and value

The average area of a townland is about 325 acres (132 ha),[19] but they vary widely in size. William Reeves' 1861 survey states the smallest was Old Church Yard, near Carrickmore, in the parish of Termonmagurk, County Tyrone at 0.625 acres (0.253 ha)[nb 1][20] and the largest at 7,500 acres (3,000 ha) is Fionnán, parish of Killanin, County Galway.[21] In fact, the townland of Clonskeagh in the barony of Uppercross (abutting the main Clonskeagh townland in the barony of Dublin) was only 0.3 acres (0.12 ha)[nb 2][22] although the area is now urbanised such that townlands are unused and their boundaries uncertain;[23] and the townland of Finnaun in Killannin, County Galway was and is 7,550 acres (3,060 ha).[24][25]

The ballyboe (a townland unit used in Ulster) was described in 1608 as containing sixty acres of arable land, meadow, and pasture; however, this was misleading as the size of townlands under the Gaelic system varied depending upon their quality, situation, and economic potential.[12][15] This economic potential ranged from the extent of land required to graze cattle to the land required to support several families.[15] The highest density of townland units recorded in Ulster in 1609 corresponds to the areas with the highest land valuations in the 1860s.[15]

It seems that many moorland areas were not divided into townlands until fairly recently. These areas were "formerly shared as a common summer pasturage by the people of a whole parish or barony".[26]

Historical use

Until the 19th century, most townlands were owned by a single person and occupied by multiple tenants. The cess, used to fund roadworks and other local expenses, was charged at the same rate on each townland in a barony, regardless of its size and productive capacity. Thus, occupiers in a small or poor townland suffered in comparison to those of larger or more fertile townlands. This was reformed by Griffith's Valuation.[27]

Irish Ordnance Survey and standardisation

During the 19th century, an extensive series of maps of Ireland were created by the Irish division of the Ordnance Survey for taxation purposes, which documented and standardised the boundaries of the more than 60,000 townlands in Ireland. This process often involved dividing or amalgamation of existing townlands, and defining townland boundaries in areas such as mountain or bog land that had previously been outside the townland system.[10] Slight adjustments are still made; there were 60,679 in 1911 compared to 60,462 townlands in 1901.[7]

Current use

A typical road-sign in County Tyrone, noting that this part of the road passes through the townland of Cavanreagh

Townlands form the building blocks for higher-level administrative units such as parishes and District Electoral Divisions (in the Republic of Ireland) or wards (in Northern Ireland). Before 1972, townlands were included on all postal addresses throughout the island. However, in 1972 Royal Mail decided that the townland element of the address was obsolete in Northern Ireland.[10] Townland names were not banned but were deemed "superfluous information" and people were asked not to include them on addresses.[10] They would be replaced by house numbers, road names, and postcodes.[10] In response, the "Townlands Campaign" emerged to protest against the changes. It was described as a "ground-level community effort". Taking place in the midst of "The Troubles", the campaign was a rare example of unity between Catholics and Protestants, nationalists and unionists.[10] Townlands and their names "seem to have been considered as a shared resource and heritage".[10] Those involved in the campaign argued that, in many areas, people still strongly identified with their townlands and that this gave them a sense of belonging. Royal Mail's changes were seen as a severing of this link.[10]

At the time, the county councils were the government bodies responsible for validating such a change. However, as local government itself was undergoing changes, Royal Mail's decision was "allowed ... to become law almost by default".[10] County Fermanagh is the only Northern Ireland county that managed to resist the scheme completely.[10] Nevertheless, many newer road signs in parts of Northern Ireland now show townland names (see picture on the right). In 2001 the Northern Ireland Assembly passed a motion requesting government departments to make use of townland addresses in correspondence and publications.

In the Republic of Ireland, townlands continued to be used on addresses. However, in 2005 the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources announced that the postcode system is to be introduced (see Republic of Ireland postal addresses). In 2015 postcodes are still not in use in Ireland and townland remains the predominant address identifier in rural areas.

Other townland-like systems


England had similar pre-medieval land divisions to that used in Ireland, however unlike the Irish system it has failed to survive into the 20th century. In England the system included: vills (from which we get the term villages); trefs; towns; townships; baileys; hundreds; and shires.[13]


In Scotland, townland boundaries were generally disregarded and lost during 19th century agricultural improvements. Townlands were called also fermlands and many names remain identifiable in farmstead names which include the word Mains, and "Bal-" (Baile) in placenames, such as Balerno or Balmoral.

Townlands in Scotland were often in contradistinction to kirktouns (Clachan), which were settlements with a church, sometimes of ecclesiastical origin.

See also Township (Scotland) for the crofting context.

Isle of Man

There may be similarities between the notion of townlands in Ireland and the traditional land divisions of treens (c.f. the Irish word trian, a third part) in the Isle of Man. Treens are subdivided into smaller units called quarterlands.[28]

United States Virgin Islands

The United States Virgin Islands are divided into districts, quarters, and townland-like estates.

See also


  1. 2 roods, 10 perches
  2. 1 rood, 8 perches



  1. Barry, Terry (2000). "Rural settlement in medieval Ireland". A history of settlement in Ireland. Routledge. p. 114. She argued that Ireland's townland system, which pre-dated the Anglo-Norman conquest, worked against the creation of sizeable nucleated settlements.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. 2.0 2.1 Colfer, Billy (2004). "Prehistoric and early Christian landscapes". The Hook Peninsula. Cork University Press. p. 29. The townland network provides the most pervasive landscape survival from the Gaelic era. Most townlands, many retaining their Gaelic names, are believed to predate the arrival of the Anglo-Normans.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Graham, Brian (2003). "Ireland: Economy and Society". A companion to Britain in the later Middle Ages. Wiley-Blackwell. p. 149. The manor was the basic unit of settlement throughout the Anglo-Norman colony. Anngret Simms and others have argued that the constraint of the pre-existing Gaelic-Irish network of townlands (the basic subdivision of land in Ireland, a townland was originally the holding of an extended family) pre-empted the formation of large villages on the Anglo-Norman manors of Ireland.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Clarke, Howard; Prunty, Jacinta; Hennessy, Mark (2004). Surveying Ireland's Past. Geography Publications. p. 113. It is clear that the Gaelic townland system of territorial organisation exerted a powerful centripetal force on the evolving settlement pattern.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Connolly, S. J., Oxford Companion to Irish History, page 577. Oxford University Press, 2002. ISBN 978-0-19-923483-7
  6. Maxwell, Ian, How to trace your Irish ancestors, page 16. howtobooks, 2009. ISBN 978-1-84528-375-9
  7. 7.0 7.1 "Digitization of Irish 1901 and 1911 census records". Census of Ireland 1901/1911 and Census fragments and substitutes, 1821-51. National Archives of Ireland. Retrieved 22 May 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. " The Irish Placenames Database". The Irish Placenames Committee/Fiontar. Retrieved 19 September 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 9.5 9.6 Fossa Historical Society. "Chapter 23 – Of Gneeves" (PDF). Retrieved 3 January 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 10.5 10.6 10.7 10.8 10.9 Reid, Bryonie (2005). "Identity, locality and the townland in Northern Ireland". Senses of Place: Senses of Time. Ashgate Publishing. pp. 47–60. The first official evidence of their existence occurs in church records from before the twelfth century.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Ballymun, A History: Volumes 1 & 2, c. 1600–1997 by Dr. Robert Somerville-Woodward, BRL 2002.
  12. 12.00 12.01 12.02 12.03 12.04 12.05 12.06 12.07 12.08 12.09 12.10 12.11 12.12 12.13 12.14 12.15 12.16 Mac Mahon, Michael. "Townlands". Old Territorial Divisions & Land Measures. Clare County Library.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. 13.0 13.1 Canavan, Tony (1991). Every Stoney Acre Has a Name: A Celebration of the Townland in Ulster. Federation for Ulster Local Studies. ISBN 9780951827901.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 14.3 14.4 14.5 14.6 14.7 Robinson 2000, p.25
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 15.4 Robinson 2000, pp. 13–14
  16. Robinson 2000, p.26
  17. 17.0 17.1 Robinson 2000, pp.22-23
  18. Toner, Gregory: Place-Names of Northern Ireland, page 120. Queen's University of Belfast, 1996, ISBN 0-85389-613-5
  19. Adams, G. Brendan (1978). "Prolegomena to the study of Irish place-names". Nomina. 2: 49–50.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>; cited in Dolan, Terence Patrick (2006). "townland". A dictionary of Hiberno-English : the Irish use of English (2nd ed.). Dublin: Gill & Macmillan.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. Reeves 1861, p.476
  22. 1861 townland index, p.258
  23. "Written Answers, Q.424: County Dublin Townland Populations". Dáil Éireann debates. Oireachtas. 20 February 1980. pp. Vol. 318 No.1 p.41. Retrieved 21 May 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  24. 1861 townland index, p.462
  25. "Galway" (XLS). Categories of Disadvantaged Areas. Department of Agriculture. Retrieved 21 May 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  26. Evans, E Estyn (2000). "Bally and Booley". Irish Folk Ways. Courier Dover Publications. pp. 28–29. Their size varies considerably, since they were based on the fertility of the land rather than its acreage, and it seems that many moorland tracts were not divided until fairly recent times, for they were formerly shared as a common summer pasturage by the people of a whole parish or barony.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  27. Meghen, P. J. (Autumn 1958). "The Administrative Work of the Grand Jury" (PDF). Administration. Institute of Public Administration. 6 (3).<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  28. Coakley, Frances (2000). "Treens and Quarterlands". A Manx Notebook.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

  • Crawford, W. H.; Foy, R. H. (1 January 1998). Townlands in Ulster: Local History Studies. Ulster Historical Foundation. ISBN 9780901905840.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • McErlean, Tom (1983). "The Irish townland system of landscape organisation". In Reeves-Smyth, Terence; Hamond, Fred (eds.). Landscape Archaeology in Ireland. BAR British Series. 116. pp. 315–39. ISBN 0860542165.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links

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