Country Survey: Ireland


Q. Name of area


Q. Current status:

No current legal status for the whole unit, although the Republic of Ireland is a nation state and Northern Ireland is a region within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Q. If the area has no current legal identity, when was it defined and by whom?

It has a geographical definition – the island of Ireland and, until partition in 1921 had a legal definition also as part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

Q. Outline history: describe the historical development of the unit, as it affected its external borders and internal boundaries:

The external borders of Ireland were largely set by geography. Ireland is an island and this determined its external boundaries. However, at various times, islands off the Irish coast changed hands. In particular, Rathlin Island of the County Antrim coast fell under the control of Scotland before becoming Irish territory again. The greatest change to quasi-external borders occurred in 1922 when 26 of the 32 counties that comprise Ireland left the United Kingdom to become the Irish Free State and, in 1949, the Republic of Ireland. The remaining six counties in the north and east of the island became Northern Ireland. The partition of the island has been, and continues to be, a source of dispute. Until 1999, the Republic of Ireland’s constitution made formal claim on Northern Ireland although the constitution has now been amended.

Turning to internal territorial divisions, the island of Ireland was first colonised during the Iron Age. The earliest detailed account of Ireland was made by Ptolemy in around 100 in which a number of different tribal groups are identified. Ireland lay outside the Roman Empire and hence it had no influence on territorial divisions on the island. Records from the Dark Ages are probably better for Ireland than for any other area in Europe. From these sources, it is possible to construct a political map of Ireland for the period. Essentially the country was dominated by seven kingdoms, two of which lend their names to two of the four provinces of Ireland today. For example, Connacht takes its name from Conn Cetchathach – Conn of the hundred battles – who mythically led one kingdom. During the tenth, eleventh and twelfth century kingdoms grew and waned. With the exception of Brian Boru’s attempt to establish himself as high king of Ireland thus controlling the whole island, the period was marked by disputes between individual kingdoms for dominance. During the twelfth century, the Normans were able to take advantage of the political divisions within Ireland and they began to settle the island establishing lordships that were independent of the Irish kings. From 1167 a series of battles were fought that brought English control of much of the southeast and eastern seaboard of Ireland. Largely due to a shortage of land in England, once conquered, the English began to settle in Ireland. New towns were formed such as Carrickfergus, Dundalk, Drogheda, Sligo and Kilkenny and counties began to develop in these areas of settlement. By 1300 much of the south and east of Ireland had a county structure, which is not dissimilar from that in place today. The structure stretched as far west as Kerry and north as Louth, although the latter’s northern border was not defined. As English and Scottish colonisation continued so did the establishment of administrative boundaries that continued to exist into the nineteenth century and beyond. The county structure spread to the whole island and, below this, baronies were formed. Baronies, somewhat similar to English hundreds or wappentakes, remained in use until the end of the nineteenth century. In 1838 poor relief was organised in Ireland leading to the establishment of poor law unions. These remained in place until the early twentieth century when their boundaries were amended to create county districts and county boroughs. Townlands formed the smallest administrative division of land in Ireland. The smallest townland, of around one acre is Mill Tenement in County Armagh. The largest, at 7,0122 acres, is Sheskin in County Mayo. Townlands developed variously as Plantation divisions, Norman manors, or ancient clan lands.

The early church in Ireland did not have territorial parishes of dioceses. This changed during church reforms in the twelfth century. Dioceses were first formed in parts of the province of Munster in the southwest. By 1111 a diocesan system had been introduced for the rest of the country with two ecclesiastical provinces – Armagh and Cashel – and 12 diocese that reflected local territorial boundaries. In 1152 the system was amended through the creation of two additional provinces, those of Tuam and Dublin. Armagh held primacy replacing that of Canterbury in England. Whilst the diocesan system was established fairly quickly the development of a parochial system took far longer. Early parishes were coterminous with lands owned by Irish family groups. In areas colonised by the English parishes were linked to feudal tenureships. From the sixteenth century, Church of Ireland and Roman Catholic parishes began to develop separately. The Church of Ireland inherited the medieval parish structure whereas the Roman Catholic Church developed a completely new system. Civil parishes were based on those of the Church of Ireland.


Q. Describe the MODERN hierarchy of geographical areas used for civil administration:

Bottom layer: Townlands. 65,000 units.

Next layer: parishes. 2,445 civil parishes.

Next layer: districts. The number of units varies significantly over time but between 130 and 350.

Next layer: counties. 32 units

Next layer: provinces. 4 units.

Q. How long has this system existed?

The spatial units were largely imposed following Norman colonisation. They developed, in the east and south of Ireland first, from the twelfth century. Some boundaries were based those of earlier territorial units.

Q. Describe earlier administrative geographies:

See the description of the development of Irish boundaries.

Q. Can we identify a hierarchy of broadly similar units that exist for all countries?

I am not qualified to comment. It should be noted, however, that Ireland’s territorial hierarchy is not dissimilar to that of Britain.


Q. When was the first national census of population carried out?

There was an abortive attempt to organise a census between 1813 and 1815. The first census to be successfully completed took place in 1821.

Q. Outline the later history of the census. Have censuses been carried out at regular intervals, and if so with what frequency?

Censuses in Ireland were organised regularly, every 10 years, except in cases of national emergency. Hence, there was no census in 1921 during partition, and again in 1941 during the Second World War. Further, the legacy of partition, whilst not preventing censuses being taken, did disrupt the decennial pattern for a time.

Irish census data is merely restricted to demographic statistics. Throughout the nineteenth century, and into the twentieth, the Irish census gradually became more complex both in terms of the breadth of statistical data collected and the numerous ways in which this information was presented. Increasingly the censuses did not restrict themselves simply demographic matters but included a host of other data embracing occupational information, statistics on language and literacy and information on agriculture. In many ways Irish censuses were more comprehensive in their concerns than corresponding censuses for Great Britain. For example, early Irish censuses included information on quality of housing, dividing each property in Ireland in to one of four classes ranging from ‘all mud cabins having only one room’ in the fourth class. Irish censuses also regularly collected information on religious persuasion from 1861 whereas in Great Britain such information was only collected once, in 1851.

Q. What are the main geographical units used in published reports? Have these changed over time?

Data were provided for a number of different units. Data are consistently available for townlands, counties and provinces. Changes in townland boundaries over time are relatively minimal. Province and county boundaries did not change in any significant way with the exception of changes to county boundaries following the Local Government (Ireland) Act of 1898. As a result, towns, which had straddled county boundaries, were moved into the county where most of their population resided.

Statistics are also available for baronies for all censuses between 1821 and 1891 and for poor law unions (and later county boroughs and county districts) from 1841. Both barony and poor law union boundaries changed over time. For example, there were 323 baronies in 1841, 334 in 1851 and 339 in 1861. There were 130 poor law unions in 1840, 131 by the time of the 1841 census and 163 in 1851. Parish data is available from 1821 to 1891 when it was replaced by district electoral divisions.

Q. Is there access to more detailed unpublished information? If so, what geographical units do these refer to? Here again, have these units changed over time?

Enumerators’ returns for early Irish censuses have generally been lost. Either they were simply not retained at the time the census was compiled, or were destroyed by fire during the Irish civil war. Returns for later censuses do exist but have access restrictions. For example, in Northern Ireland, records are not released until 100 years after their collection. Where available, the returns relate to individuals.

Q. What publications describe the history of the census, and of census geographies? Are any available in English?

All Irish censuses, with the exception of the 1831 census, contain a comprehensive report by the Registrar General including, amongst other things, the development of the census.

See also:

Joseph Lee, ‘On the Accuracy of the pre-Famine Irish Censuses’, in J.M Goldstrom and L.A Clarkson, eds, Irish Population, Economy, and Society: Essays in the Honour of the late K.H. Connell, 1981.

W.E. Vaughan and A.J. Fitzpatrick, Irish Historical Statistics: Population, 1821-1971, 1978.


Q. When was the recording of vital events (births, marriages and deaths) first required by law?

Law first required civil registration in 1864. Estimates for births, marriages and deaths for the pre-1864 period are, however, published in the 1841, 1851, 1861 and 1871 censuses based on enumerators’ questions to heads of families concerning the occurrence of these events in their families over the previous 10 years.

Q. What organisation was responsible for recording vital events? How has this changed over time?

The Registrar General’s Office was responsible for registering births, marriages and deaths. Parish-based ecclesiastical registration was in place before this but the data are poor. For example, Church of Ireland registers only survive for between 600 and 700 parishes and in these parishes records mostly date from the early nineteenth century. The Council of Trent required that Roman Catholic registers be kept. In fact, in Ireland, few registers exist for the eighteenth century and, mainly in the west, registers were not established until the 1840s.

Q. What geographical units were used in recording vital events?

Initially parishes under ecclesiastical registration and, from 1864 counties. From the early twentieth century county districts and county boroughs. The geographies changed over time.


Q. What historical taxation records exist for your area?

Hearth Tax Returns irregularly from 1712.

Q. What geographical units do these use?



Q. What other major sources exist, and what geographical units do they use?

Ireland has few pre-census records available which would be suitable for mapping. There are some local surveys available such as the census of Carrick-on-Suir in 1799 and the census of the population of Armagh in 1770.


Q. When was the first computerised map of administrative units created?

Ordnance Survey Ireland began conversion of maps to a digital format in 1978. Ordnance Survey Northern Ireland began in 1983 and completed the process in 1995.

Q. What does it show?

Townlands, parishes, districts and counties.

Q. How easily is it to obtain a copy?

The coverages are subject to copyright and so they are not available easily to the academic community. Boundaries for Northern Ireland have not been included in the deal with UKBORDERS that makes boundary data for Great Britain freely available to scholars.


Q. Who was responsible for changing boundaries? How has this changed over time?

The church was responsible for changes in ecclesiastical boundaries. The Boundary Department was responsible for civil boundaries.

Q. Who was responsible for creating a legal record of boundary changes?

In July 1825 an Act of Parliament was passed establishing a Boundary Department charged, initially, with producing descriptions and sketches of parishes and townlands in Ireland. The Department liaised with Ordnance Survey to enable the mapping of boundaries.

Q. What records have been preserved of boundary changes? Are they published or unpublished? How do they describe the old and new boundaries? How accurately do they give the dates of changes?

Some Irish censuses, from 1861, record, for each townland the parish, poor law union and county it was in. There is not record of change over time, however, except that changes can be seen in the list from census to census.

Q. Who was responsible for mapping your area? When was this organisation created?

The UK Ordnance Survey, created in 1791, and subsequently the Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland and the Ordnance Survey of Ireland from 1922.

Q. When did systematic mapping of boundaries begin?

In June 1824 at a scale of 6 inches to 1 mile.

Q. What maps are available showing boundaries?

There are many maps of Ireland, some in copyright, showing boundaries.

The first comprehensive mapping of Ireland, commissioned in 1824, led to a set of 6 inch to 1 mile maps, published from the 1830s starting with parts of Ulster. The series plots field, townland, parish, barony and county boundaries. In some counties these maps were revised from 1845. The Irish 1 inch to the mile series was authorised in 1851 and the first map published in 1855. The series was based on the original 6-inch series, or its revision, and included the same administrative boundaries with the exception of field boundaries. In 1887 a 1:2500 survey of Ireland was authorised. Not completed until 1913, the series consists of more than 19,000 maps and plots field, townland, parish, poor law union and county boundaries.

In 1922 separate Ordinance Surveys were formed. The original body, based in Southampton, became responsible for Great Britain only. In Northern Ireland the Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland was established and, in the Irish Free State, the Ordnance Survey of Ireland was created. In 1938 OSNI introduced a new 1 inch to the mile series for Northern Ireland mapping townland, parish, county borough, county district and county boundaries. In the Republic of Ireland four new one inch maps were produced at around the same time of major tourist areas. In 1958 in the Republic the one inch maps were compressively resurveyed for the new third edition. In 1978 the third series was phased out by the 1:50000 series.

Q. For periods before maps are available, are there descriptions of boundaries in words? Where are they preserved? How easy are they to interpret?



Q. What research projects have gathered information on HISTORICAL boundaries for your area?

The Database of Irish Historical Statistics Project.

(J) ASSOCIATED METADATA (Gazetters, etc)

Q. What historical gazetteers are available for your area, in published or unpublished form? How do they indicate the location of the places listed? Do they cover variant forms of names?

The Northern Ireland place-names project is working on the creation of a series of gazetteers for Northern Ireland. See, for example, Place-names of Northern Ireland: The Northern Ireland Place-name Project: County Down. - 1 : Newry and South-West Down. This project is ongoing with 7 books published so far.

Q. Are more specialised geographical thesaurii available?

Some Irish censuses, from 1861, record, for each townland the parish, poor law union and county it was in. There is not record of change over time, however, except that changes can be seen in the list from census to census.

© Paul Ell (Belfast, May 2000)

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