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Feeling a bit lost when it comes to navigating Irish maps and records? 

In our exploration of Irish family history, it's crucial to understand the lay of the land, and our volunteers are here to help!

This guide will help you figure out where to begin your search, connect Irish records to maps, and ultimately find your way 'home'.

Understanding Land Divisions in Ireland

Old names for Ireland

Long, long ago, in the mists of history, Ireland was known by many names by those who visited her shores. Each name reflects a different aspect of Ireland's rich heritage and the perspectives of those who have inhabited or interacted with the island.

  1. Éire: is believed to have been derived from the Old Irish word "Ériu" or "Érinn," which referred to a mythical goddess and later became associated with the island of Ireland itself. Erin: is a poetic and literary name for Ireland, often used in English-language literature and songs to evoke a sense of Irishness and nostalgia.

  2. Fódla was used during the medieval period, particularly in Old Irish texts, and is thought to have derived from Fótla of the Tuatha Dé Danann – one of the tutelary goddesses of Ireland.

  3. Banba: Another mythological name for Ireland, Banba of the Tuatha Dé Danann was a matron goddess of the island.

  4. Ierne: (Who remembers the "Ierne Club" in Dublin?) An old name for Ireland, used by the ancient Greeks and later by Roman writers like Julius Caesar.  Ptolemy referred to Ireland as "Iouernia" in his writings from the 2nd century AD. "Ivernia" was used by the Roman historian Tacitus. Roman geographer Pomponius Mela used "Juverna":  All believed to be a Latinized form of an older name for the island, possibly derived from the same root as "Ériu" or "Éire" or an earlier pre-Celtic name for the island.

  5. Hibernia: This Latin name was used by the ancient Romans to refer to Ireland. It derives from the Greek word "ibernos," meaning "winter," possibly reflecting the perception of Ireland as a cold and distant land.

  6. Scotia: In ancient and medieval times, Ireland was sometimes referred to as "Scotia" or "Scotia Major" to distinguish it from "Scotia Minor" aka Scotland. This usage reflected the historical connections between Ireland and Scotland, particularly concerning the migration of Gaelic-speaking peoples from Ireland to Scotland.

  7. Inis Fáil: Another mythological name for Ireland, Inis Fáil means "Island of Destiny" and is associated with the Stone of Destiny (Lia Fáil) at the Hill of Tara, where ancient kings were crowned.

For our journey through its genealogical landscape here though, we'll refer to her simply as the island of Ireland.

LEARN MORE Navigating Old Maps of Ireland

Provinces of Ireland

Which province do you hail from? If you have just discovered you have Irish DNA, your map may point to a particular region in Ireland. So your first step is to identify which province your genes point to.

Ireland is made up of four provinces, each with its unique history, character and dialect:

  • ULSTER (Uladh),
  • CONNAUGHT (Connacht),
  • MUNSTER (Mumhan), and 
  • LEINSTER (Laighean).

While these provinces have existed for centuries, they play a minor role in most genealogical records. But knowing which provincial dialect your ancestor spoke can help unravel a lot of the confusion with those old phonetic spelling of names and places you find on record. 

  • Got Ulster Roots? As we traverse the entire island's historical divisions today, some archives manage these records separately. See PRONI

Another advantage of knowing your province... many Irish sports and other contests have provincial leagues, or organise their regional qualifiers by province e.g. Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann, Rugby Union, GAA Provincial Championships, Ulster Senior Football League, Munster Cricket Union, Irish dancing competitions, and more.

LEARN MORE Tracing your Northern Irish Ancestors


It's no secret that the heart of Irish identity lies with one's ancestral county. At home and abroad, you'll find members of the Irish diaspora proudly wearing their county colors, or displaying their county flags at sports competitions and cultural festivals.

The key to genealogical research also lies in our island's 32 counties. These territorial divisions, established as far back as the 1300s, offer vital clues for tracing family roots.

LEARN MORE Your County just before the Great Famine

In Ireland, we say "County ______" (e.g. County Armagh / Condae Ard Mhacha) abbreviated to Co.____ in writing. Except for King's County and Queen's County, which were renamed Co. Offaly and Co. Laois following the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922. 

Some county borders changed in 1898 so if you are getting mixed messages about county of origin in later records, it could be that your ancestor came from a district that underwent a border change. Check out IrelandXO volunteer Shane Wilson's Alterations to County Borders 1898.

  • Leinster (11): Carlow, Dublin, Kildare, Kilkenny, Laois (Queen's), Longford, Louth, Meath, Offaly (King's), Westmeath, Wicklow.
  • Ulster (9): Antrim*, Armagh*, Cavan, Derry ~ Londonderry*, Donegal, Down*, Fermanagh*, Monaghan, Tyrone*.
  • Munster (6): Clare, Cork, Kerry, Limerick,Tipperary, Waterford.
  • Connaught (5): Galway, Leitrim, Mayo, Roscommon, Sligo.

*The six counties of Northern Ireland (UK). The PRONI archive for Northern Ireland (NI) facilitates a lot of records and old maps for the 9 counties of Ulster. 

DID YOU KNOW that every county in Ireland has its very own community home page on Ireland Reaching Out with local volunteers waiting to help you discover more? Click here to join your ancestral community:


IrelandXO Community



Baronies are the largest sub-division of a county. They each represent a Gaelic lord's territory (created into a barony during the Tudor Re-conquest of Ireland). Think baron ... barony (the territory of the baron). For example, during Henry VIII's "surrender and regrant," the territory of the McDermotts became the Barony of Boyle, and so on.

Each barony had its own administrative structure, which oversaw local affairs and implemented decisions made by the quarter sessions (now circuit court) up until the Local Government (Ireland) Act 1898.

Don't know where in Ireland your ancestors hail from? You may discover your ancestral surname once held a barony of its own. And where there were baronies, there were castles and strongholds.  

LEARN MORE  Pettys Down Survey of Ireland

For genealogical research, the barony name is an important identifier for parishes that share the same name. For example, KILCOLMAN is a popular name for civil parishes across the island, and in Co. Mayo, there are two! So, to help tell them apart the barony name follows, sometimes in brackets.

For example, Kilcolman Clanmorris (civil parish of Kilcolman, in the barony of Clanmorris, Co. Mayo) and Kilcolman Costello (civil parish of Kilcolman, in the barony of Costello, Co Mayo). 

Some records were organised by barony, and then by civil parish within the barony. For example, Old Age Pension claims (after 1908) and Griffith's valuation notebooks (house, field, tenure) were grouped by barony. Keep in mind that, where a civil parish crosses into more than one barony, it may be split into pieces in the returns.


Parish (Civil)

Rooted in medieval Christianity, parishes serve as vital genealogical waypoints, because when you find "from the parish of" on record for your ancestor, you have the key to finding your way "home" in Ireland. And here is where you might find that clue:

  • Headstones
  • Family Bible heirloom
  • Obituaries
  • Pension applications
  • Military records
  • Local newspaper articles
  • Local history books

The meaning of "parish" is a significant source of confusion for novice Irish family historians, both at home and abroad, in particular for those researching RC (Roman Catholic) ancestors. LEARN MORE  What is a Parish?

Aside from specific church records (baptisms, marriages etc), when you find "parish" mentioned as an address on record overseas, think geographical civil parish

The civil parish boundary was the basis upon which land and tax records, like Griffith's Valuation, were created in the 19th and 20th Century. They are seen as the administrative units of the State; firstly under the British and later under the Irish government.

VIEW MAPS John Grenham's Places - Civil Parishes

For our Church of Ireland ancestors, the civil and church parish are the same. It was rare for Catholic parishes to match in name and boundary,  with civil parishes. SEE "Parish (Church)" below. 

There are approximatley 2,500 civil parishes in Ireland and each has its own community home page on IrelandXO that you can JOIN HERE.

Need help figuring out which parish your ancestors came from? Post your query to our local volunteer Message Board (be sure to link it to the county).

Parish (Church) 

Civil registration for births, marriages, and deaths did not commence for everyone in Ireland until 1864 (1845 for non-Catholics) so for most of us researching early 19th-century ancestors, we rely heavily on church records. And that's where we need to be careful...

Catholic and Church of Ireland parishes emerged separately, often diverging in name and boundary. Understanding these distinctions is key when delving into church records.

As the Anglican Church of Ireland was the "Established Church" or official State church in Ireland for many years, the Civil Parish boundaries generally followed those of the Church of Ireland parishes. So in many ways, the Church of Ireland parishes are more easily understood. 

REMEMBER: The boundaries of RC parishes were defined by the Catholic Church and were not necessarily aligned with secular administrative divisions. As populations ebbed and flowed so did Catholic parish names and their boundaries. For Roman Catholic divisions in Ireland check out the Irish Episcopal Conference website.

    LEARN MORE How to Locate a Parish of Origin

    Having trouble understanding where a Parish is or which one you might belong to? Post a message on our Ireland XO global community Message Board HERE.  We are here to help you. 


    Not to be confused with "townships", townlands are the smallest subdivision of a geographical division of land in Ireland. With over 62,000 scattered across the countryside, townlands define Irish landscapes and often bear ancient names tied to local geography.

    They are of no small importance to the family historian because they can provide a traceable address to the present day, especially for ancestors who lived in rural or less populated areas. The are the addresses given on church and civil records as well as headstones if you're lucky. 

    Finding your ancestral townland

    • Shane Wilson's Townland Index & Database to identify the correct civil parish (and eliminate records that turn up for townlands of the same name in other parishes).
    • John Grenham's Places allows you search for a placename either in the whole of Ireland or confine it to a particular county.
    • is your GO TO website for confirming a townland's correct spelling, the original Irish language version, and local pronunciation. (It's also handy for mapping to the nearest town).
    • MAPS: shows full boundary outline and also lists adjoining townlands (a must for townlands that sit close a civil parish boundary).

    Need help locating a townland? Post your query to our Message Board (be sure to link it to the county) where our local volunteers can help point you in the right direction. 

    LEARN MORE What is a Townland?

    Poor Law Unions

    If your ancestor emigrated from a workhouse in Ireland (e.g. as part of Earl Grey's Famine Orphans Scheme) then the PLU (Poor Law Union) boundary can help narrow down the district from which they came.

    Founded in 1839, Poor Law Unions were created to administer relief to the poor under the Poor Law Act, which began with the construction of workhouses.

    Few civil parishes in Ireland were large enough each have a workhouse of their own, so special PLU boundaries were drawn up to combine them.   Usually, the PLUs were located in the nearest market town, superseding traditional boundaries.

    • In some cases that meant crossing the border into an adjoining county.
    • In other cases, a single civil parish was spilt between two PLUs depending on which end of the parish was closer to which town. 
    • You can see a map of Poor Law Union divisions on John Grenham's Irish Places Guide.

    Later PLUs came to comprise Dispensary Districts from which medical assistance could be provided. Today, these unions, morphed into registration districts, remain pivotal in civil record searches.

    LEARN MORE 10 Facts about Irish Workhouses

    Making Sense of Place Names

    Amidst this intricate web of divisions, clarity can be elusive. Thankfully, the "General Alphabetical Index to the Townlands and Towns, parishes and Baronies of Ireland" serves as a beacon, illuminating over 65,000 place names and their interconnections.

    • To search the entire Index, together with street listings from Dublin, Cork, and Belfast cities, SEE John Grenham's Places 

    Navigating Ireland's genealogical terrain used to feel daunting, but not anymore... because our local volunteers are here to help!


    We hope you have found the information we have shared helpful. While you are here, we have a small favour to ask. Ireland Reaching Out is a non-profit organisation that relies on public funding and donations to ensure a completely free family history advisory service to anyone of Irish heritage who needs help connecting with their Irish place of origin. If you would like to support our mission, please click on the donate button and make a contribution. Any amount, big or small, is appreciated and makes a difference. 

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