The Index to the Townlands was published in 1904 by the Commissioners of Census as an aid to the processing of the returns for the 1901 census in order to obtain statistics. Its rarely-used full title is General Topographical Index Consisting Of An Alphabetical Index Of The Townlands And Towns Of Ireland And Indices To The Parishes, Baronies, Poor Law Unions (Or Superintendent Registrars’ Districts), District Electoral Divisions, Dispensary (Or Registrars’) Districts, County Districts, County Electoral Divisions, And Parliamentary Divisions Of Ireland.
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There had been two earlier editions, one published in 1861 pertaining to the 1851 census, and a later edition in 1877 relevant to the 1871 census. The 1851 edition is helpful in that it notes many unofficial place names which were omitted from the official list of townlands after responsibility for census enumeration was passed to the Commissioners of Census from 1861 onward. However, unlike the 1851 edition, those for 1871 and 1901 included the names of District Electoral Divisions, which are a vital component of Irish land division from the middle of the nineteenth century.
There are over 64,000 townlands in Ireland. Townlands are the most basic unit of land division. They can range from just a few acres in size to several hundred, particularly in mountainous areas. Prior to their indexing and subsequent publication online at www.census.nationalarchives.ie, the original census returns could be accessed only by reference to The 1901 Townland Index.
With the creation of the Poor Law system in Ireland in 1838, new land divisions were introduced to facilitate the working and funding of each Poor Law Union (PLU). Townlands were grouped together to form District Electoral Divisions (DED). In turn, these were united to form a PLU, generally based on a market town. The residents of each DED were rated (taxed) and in turn were entitled to elect one member to the Board of Governors which ran their PLU. The purpose of the PLU was to feed and house those who were destitute.
The new system of land division was modified and extended over the two subsequent decades to become the basis of all forms of government land, enumeration and taxation administration. It was used in the compilation of valuation lists and revisions, electoral rolls, civil registration, census, local heath policy and land registration.
A very helpful interactive map showing the location and boundaries of each Poor Law Union in 1898 can be found here. Another interactive map listing townlands in each Poor Law Union can be found on the Irish Times ‘Irish Ancestors’ website.
A brief explanation of the information in the database:
County: There are 32 counties in Ireland, each of which comprises a number of baronies. Although the last area to be formed into a county was Co. Wicklow in 1606, the last county created was Co Londonderry in 1613.
Barony: An obsolete land division of great antiquity reflecting feudal land occupation and military jurisdiction. By the seventeenth century it was a land division used only for public and government administration. It soon became completely eclipsed by the introduction of the Poor Law Union land divisions in 1838.
Poor Law Unions (or Superintendent Registrars’ Districts): The Poor Law Unions (PLU) were established under the Poor Relief (Ireland) Act, 1838. Each was formed by uniting a number of District Electoral Divisions. Under the Marriage Act (Ireland) 1844 the areas comprising PLUs also formed Registrar’s Districts and later, under the birth, death and marriage registration acts of 1863, they formed Superintendent Registrar’s Districts. The land mass of each PLU varies according to population numbers and they often extend beyond county boundaries. In the database this is indicated thus: those marked No 1 fall into the main county area, while those marked No 2 fall into an adjoining county. Under the Local Government (Ireland) Act, 1898 all, or part, of PLU areas were used as the basis of County Electoral Divisions, also known as County Districts. Thus the database includes names for a number of areas that do not comprise the whole area of a PLU, for instance Tanderagee, which is an urban area forming part of the PLU of Banbridge.
District Electoral Division: Created under section 18 of the 1838 Poor Act, each DED comprises a number of townlands. The database notes the number ascribed to each DED in the original records for the 1901 census.
Parish: Civil parishes are essentially coterminous with the ancient parishes of the established Church of Ireland, though for researchers the District Electoral Divisions are of more importance. By contrast, most Irish Roman Catholic parish boundaries were established in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and are generally larger in area than civil parishes.
Townland: This is the smallest and oldest basic unit of land in Ireland and is the key to finding the location of an ancestor’s place of habitation. The name usually reflects a local identifiable landmark, for instance a mountain, forest, church, large house, castle or ancient monument.
Sheet Number Ordnance Survey Map and Area: The database also notes the number for the relevant 6 inch to 1 mile Ordnance Survey Map. In addition, the area of each townland in statute (English) acres is noted too (an Irish acre equals 1.62 statute acres).
Acknowledgements: With grateful thanks to IGRS member Dr Perry McIntyre and IGRS Fellow Mr Terry Eakin for their hard work in creating this database and for their generosity in donating it to the Society.
← Our Unique Resources Page last updated 24 August 2014