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Main administrative land divisions

Northern Ireland landscape Map from the PRONI archives A local mill and water wheel


The oldest and largest land unit in Ireland is the Province, dating back into pre-history and early historic times.  There were originally five Provinces in Ireland, with provincial ‘overkings’ who were supported by the kings of the smaller local kingdoms within.  By the 17th century, the number of Provinces was reduced to four – Ulster in the north, Leinster in the east, Connaught in the west and Munster in the south.
Present day Northern Ireland (sometimes referred to as Ulster) comprises six of the nine counties that make up the Province of Ulster, with counties Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan now lying within the Republic of Ireland.
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The county is the territorial equivalent to the English shire.  It was created by the English administration in Ireland as the major subdivision of an Irish province in the years following the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland.
Counties were formed over a period of time from the 13th to the 17th centuries.  The present day counties were planned in the early 16th century, although some existed long before this time.  For example, Counties Antrim and Down had existed from the early 14th century but their modern boundaries were not settled until 1605.  The modern boundary and the new county name of Londonderry came into existence in 1613, although it had existed from Anglo-Norman times with different boundaries under the name of Coleraine.
All but Antrim and Down were created in 1584. The origins of Antrim and Down as county units are uncertain (to check - this text was taken from the Geographical Index but contradicts the above)
The county system as it is today was extensively used in the great 17th century land surveys such as the Civil Survey, Petty’s Down Survey and the Books of Survey and Distribution.
The county was the principal unit of administration for justice in Ireland - for the courts of Quarter Sessions and Assizes.  It was also used by the Grand Jury in their administrative role.
The modern system of local government introduced in Ireland under the 1898 Local Government Act also used the county as its administrative unit.  This was not abolished in Northern Ireland until 1972, when new district council areas were created.
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The barony is now an obsolete administrative unit that is mid-way in size between a county and a parish.  It derived, at least in part, from the district of an Irish chieftain who held his land from the kings of a Province.  The system of bringing Irish local kingdoms into baronies began in the medieval period but did not extend to the whole of Ulster until the early 17th century.  By this time the barony was being used for taxation and administrative purposes and will be found in land, tax and other government records.  For example, the Civil Survey, Petty’s Down Survey and the Books of Survey and Distribution of the 17th century all show the country divided into baronies.  In the 18th century the Grand Jury presentment system was based on the barony.  Even the 19th century valuation books and census returns all record the barony.
Large baronies were subdivided until there were 58 baronies in the area that comprises the present day Northern Ireland.
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Civil parishes

The parish was once an ecclesiastical unit of territory based on early Christian and monastic settlements.  It came into existence in Ireland in the 12th and 13th centuries and was continued by the Established Church of Ireland after the Reformation.
It was then adopted as a civil administrative area.  Over time, some civil and ecclesiastical boundaries came to vary.
  • Church of Ireland parishes
    The boundaries of Church of Ireland parishes largely coincide with those of civil parishes and are called by the same name.

  • Roman Catholic parishes
    In contrast Roman Catholic parishes, though originally based on what became the civil parish, frequently do not correspond with the names or boundaries of civil parishes.  They are often made up of several civil parishes or parts of civil parishes.
The boundaries of present day civil parishes were not finally demarcated until the mid 19th century - until then, it was not uncommon to find parishes being subdivided to form new parishes, or townlands being moved from one parish to another.  Both civil parishes and Roman Catholic parishes can cross county and barony boundaries.
The parish was frequently used for administrative purposes in the 19th century, for example, in  the tithe applotment survey, the census returns and the valuation records.
In Northern Ireland there are 268 parishes.
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The townland is an ancient unit, dating back to pre-Norman times.  It is the smallest administrative division throughout the island of Ireland that is still in use.  Townlands originally comprised a variety of small local land units that varied in name and meaning throughout Ireland.
The spelling of townland names is subject to considerable variation, due largely to the difficulties of representing the pronunciation of Irish language names in English spelling.  In naming townlands, frequent use was made of natural or man-made features of the landscape and surnames of local families.
These small divisions of land were used as the basis for plantation grants in the 16th and 17th centuries and for the leasing of land on the great landed estates from the early 17th century.  They were also the principal division in major land valuations, surveys and census enumerations such as the tithe applotment books and Griffith’s valuation.
Up until the early 19th century townland boundaries altered considerably following subdivisions.  While townlands are almost all compact units, it is possible to find parts of a townland in different civil parishes.  Townlands can vary enormously in size from a few acres to over 7,000 acres.  In Northern Ireland there are over 9,000 townlands, ranging from Acre McCricket in County Down with 4 acres to Slievedoo in County Tyrone with 4,551 acres.
The significance of the townland today is to help identify small local rural areas.
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Further Information