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Areas, regions and land divisions

Northern Ireland landscape Map from the PRONI archives A local mill and water wheel
In Ireland there are a number of land divisions or territorial units that are/were used for administration by government, churches and landowners.
Whether you are researching family or local history, you will need to understand these divisions as many of the archives are based on them.
The main administrative land divisions (in descending order of size) are summarised below:
  • Province
    The province is the oldest and largest land unit in Ireland.  Ireland is currently divided into four Provinces - Ulster in the north, Leinster in the east, Connaught in the west and Munster in the south.

  • County
    The county is the territorial equivalent to the English shire.  It was created by the English administration as the major subdivision of an Irish province in the years following the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland.

  • Barony
    The barony is a now obsolete administrative unit that is mid-way in size between a county and a parish.

  • Parish
    The present day civil parish was once an ecclesiastical unit of territory based on early Christian and monastic settlements in Ireland.  It was later adopted as a civil administrative area.

  • Townland
    The townland is the smallest administrative division throughout the island of Ireland that is still in use.  The significance of the townland today is to help identify small local rural areas.  It is referred to in most local and family history sources.
In theory these units should fit inside each other - townlands into parishes, parishes into baronies, baronies into counties, and counties into Provinces, but there are exceptions.  For example, some civil parishes may be in more than one barony and sometimes in more than one county.
Other administrative land divisions which are significant when accessing some key local and family history archives are summarised below:
  • Poor Law Union (Superintendent Registrar’s District)
    The Poor Law Unions were the areas of administration for poor relief.  Each Poor Law Union had its own workhouse.  There were 27 Poor Law Unions in Northern Ireland.

  • Dispensary District (Registrar’s District)
    Poor Law Unions were further subdivided into dispensary districts, each with their own medical officer.

  • District Electoral Division and Wards
    The District Electoral Divisions (DEDs) were originally electoral divisions for the election of Boards of Guardians for each Poor Law Union.  They were later used to elect members to the rural district councils, with groups of DEDs combining to elect members to County Councils.

    The equivalent territorial unit for the purpose of elections in county boroughs, municipal boroughs and urban districts is the Ward.

    After 1922 when Northern Ireland was established, the boundaries of DEDs were re-drawn.  The boundaries changed again in 1973 when new district councils were set up.

  • Dioceses
    The Christian church developed an administrative structure of dioceses, each made up of groups of parishes and presided over by a bishop.
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