Provinces (4) -- Of ancient origin, corresponding to the jurisdictions of each of the High Kings of Ireland, confirmed when the medieval church adopted a provincial organization along similar territorial lines. Clockwise from the north they are Ulster, Leinster, Munster and Connacht (Connaught).

Dioceses (26) -- Church administrative units headed by a bishop; four are designated as archdioceses. Originating before the county structure, boundaries of dioceses seldom coincide with those of later political subdivisions. All wills and testaments were filed in diocesan courts and some marriage records can be found only at this level.

Counties (32) -- An English "shiring" structure was begun in the 13th century and completed in 1606 with the organization of County Wicklow. Six counties of Ulster today retain association with Britain (Northern Ireland); the remaining twenty-six constitute the Irish Republic (Eire). Knowledge of an ancestor's county origin is a prerequisite for successful searching of any Irish records.

Baronies (331) -- Divisions probably once rooted in Irish family and clan structure, later converted into administrative districts. Created during English rule, and often divided or combined, they numbered 325 when Sir Richard Griffith made them the basis of organizing land evaluation in the mid nineteenth century. Valuation records were maintained by county and subdivided by barony.

Poor Law Unions (163) -- Established in 1838 to facilitate relief programs, these social service boards reflected economic reality of that time by drawing into the union an area within a ten mile radius of each regional market town. Boundaries sometimes cut through parishes or crossed county and barony lines. Useful for defining probable limits of social and business contacts and for records of public assistance.

Parishes (2500+) -- Local Christian communities organized into formal parishes by the 12th century. These parishes later assumed taxation and civil government functions, but when the church reorganized the state might not, hence the importance of distinguishing between Irish civil parishes and ecclesiastical ones. From Elizabethan times until recently, Church of Ireland parishes and civil parishes usually coincided, while Catholic parishes ordinarily covered a larger area. The names of an area's three distinct parishes were sometimes the same, but boundaries often differed; the reverse, with common boundaries but different names, could also be true. The parish and the townland were the units with which most Irish traditionally identified. Parishes maintained all vital records prior to the introduction of civil registration in 1864.

Townlands (60,462) -- The most ancient and numerous of Irish subdivisions, ranging in area from a scant one acre to over 7000 acres, these designations provide a specific "address" in rural areas. Names with Irish root-words abound, memorializing a local geographic feature (cnoc, hill), vegetation long decayed (garran, shrubbery) or some ancient structure (dun, fort). Others bear English labels such as "Goldengarden" or "Piercetown." Names recur from parish to parish, and the profusion of similar and identical names can be confusing, but these terms are essential for interpreting leases and deeds, or deciphering census reports.

Copyright 2001 Edward J. O'Day
Last revised: August 20, 2001