Ireland and its counties are sub-divided in a unique way; counties into baronies, baronies into parishes, and parishes into townlands. The townland is a unique feature of the Irish landscape and is one of the most ancient divisions in the country. The origins of the townland remain obscure but they are undoubtedly of great antiquity, much older than parishes and counties.
Townlands orginally consisted of a number of sub-divisions such as gneeves and ploughlands but they are now recognised as the smallest administrative division in the country. There are approximately 62,000 townlands in Ireland and great variations are evident in townland sizes due to the fact that their shapes and sizes are related to local topography and farming practices. Anything from five to thirty townlands may be grouped together to form a civil parish. From the seventeenth century onwards, land was let by landlords on a townland basis and townland names were recorded in a variety of documentation concerning land. For instance, the rentals of estates were organised according to townlands, the Tithe Applotment Books used the townland as its smallest division, and the townland was also used as a distinct unit in the Census and Valuation Books.
Townlands existed long before the parishes and counties. The original Irish names were eventually written down in anglicised form as they sounded to English court scribes. A good example of names being written down in anglised form as they sounded can be found in the Raven maps (T.510/1). It is possible to trace how they became increasingly anglised in the General Alphabetical Index to the Townlands and Towns, Parishes and Baronies of Ireland and in the Ordnance Survey maps.
A townland name in its original Irish form often referred to an easily identifiable feature of the landscape such as Carraig (meaning rock) or Tullagh (meaning a hill) or a botanical feature such as Annagh (meaning marsh). The social customs or history of the people who have lived in a particular place can also be reflected in the name of the townland. Often these names are the only records which survive of the families who held the land in pre-plantation times. Bally or Baile (both meaning settlement) are usually compounded with personal or family names and examples can be found all over Ireland, including such names as Ballywalter, Ballyrussel and Ballysavage. Many townlands throughout Ireland took their names from early habitation sites, both ecclesiastical and secular. Examples in this category include names with Rath (meaning fortification), Dun (meaning fort) or Chill (meaning church) in them.
The easiest way to find the name of your townland is to consult the Alphabetical Index to the Townlands and Towns, Parishes and Baronies of Ireland. These indexes were compiled during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries after each census and lists all the baronies, parishes, towns, villages and townlands that existed at the time. They are available on the Search Room shelves. Once you have located your particular townland you should consult the Computerised Geographical Index, available in the reception area. It lists the records available for the vast majority of townlands in Northern Ireland.