The Desert Shamrock
Arizona’s Original Irish Newspaper
Volume 9, Number 2, March/April 1998, page 27

Geography: Past and Present

by Robert M. Wilbanks IV, B.A.
Professional Genealogist & Historian

My last article discussed some basic questions that you must ask yourself when approaching genealogical research in Ireland. Your answers will help to direct your research. If you missed the previous articles, you can now access them on my web site (

I had discussed one question regarding knowing where in Ireland that your family came from. In genealogical research it is necessary to know at least the county where the family came from. If you do not know this, then you must begin your research in America, searching for documents that will tell you where your Irish immigrant ancestor was from. In American research as well, it is important to know where to specifically begin the search.

Notice the emphasis on where. Knowing where your ancestor lived helps to identify what political or religious jurisdiction where specific records can be located. Genealogy is significantly based upon a knowledge and understanding of geography, both present and past. As a genealogist, you must learn to identify place-names and geographical jurisdictions and their relationship between past and present.

In regard to geography, three significant factors can occur separately or in any combination: generations change, people move, and jurisdictions and place-names change. For example, a new Patrick Sullivan in a county could be a young man just come of age, a newcomer recently arrived, or a long time resident who was shifted into the area merely by a boundary change.

An example of a boundary change is if one record shows Thomas Connor born in Mississippi in 1813 and another record shows him born in Alabama. Realize that Alabama was part of the Mississippi Territory until 1817. A name change example is Charleston, South Carolina was originally Charles Town.

Also, be aware of multiple jurisdictions and place-names of the same name, and the topography. An example of the former is if a record shows Seamus O'Malley came from Roscommon in Ireland. Realize there is a Roscommon District in County Galway, as well as a Roscommon District in the County of Roscommon. Americans can particularly relate with towns and counties in all 50 states with the names of Washington, Jefferson or Adams. Meanwhile, topography effects your research when William Murphy, to avoid crossing a canyon or wide rushing river to get to the county courthouse of the county that he was living in, instead goes to the courthouse of the bordering county to record the birth, death, marriage or deed.

Maps, atlases, and gazetteers are necessary tools in genealogy. Maps can be either political, topographical or historical. All can show the names of towns, counties and states, and rivers and mountains. These maps come in various sizes. Numerous historical maps for various countries, states, and counties help genealogists know how the region has changed and who was living where, and when.

Here are just a few examples of Administrative Divisions of Ireland, though there are more than I can discuss in this article. Land in Ireland is divided into many different jurisdictions; political and religious. Because libraries catalog their holdings by these geographical divisions, it is important to understand what divisions are used. One confusion of these many administrative districts is their intersecting of each other.

First, Ireland is divided into four provinces: Connaught, Leinster, Munster, and Ulster. Northern Ireland encompasses all of Ulster, except the counties of Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan in the Republic of Ireland.

A large ecclesiastical unit, comprised of many parishes, is a diocese. The Church of Ireland and the Roman Catholic Church have different diocesan systems. Probates and marriage records before 1858 are filed with the historic Church of Ireland diocese.

Next, Ireland is divided into 32 counties; a political unit comprising many civil parishes. Irish counties are the result of the English shire system imposed in the Middle Ages. In 1606, County Wicklow was the last county formed. In 1921, the Republic of Ireland changed Kings County to County Offaly, and Queens County to County Leix.

The Barony system was originally created based upon the holdings of Irish clans. They cross county and civil parish boundaries. Widely used in government land surveys, deeds were primarily classified by the 331 baronies in Ireland. Today this geographical system is only used in legal documents.

Civil Parishes are the government's parishes. It is one of the most important of all jurisdictions because it has been a stable unit from which many libraries have based cataloging of their Irish holdings. Realize that many townlands have the same names of civil parishes; distinguish the difference.

Ecclesiastical parishes are based upon the Church of Ireland or the Roman Catholic Church. The Church of Ireland parishes are often identical to those of the civil parishes, though there are exceptions. The Catholic parish system differs from the civil parish system. To identify your ancestor's Catholic parish, first identify the civil parish.

The 64,000 townlands in Ireland are considered the closest concept to "addresses" for rural Irish families. Many townlands make a civil parish, and it is usually where a family has lived for hundreds of years. Many kinds of records will identify the townland of origin for a family.

Other administrative divisions include a variety of sub-denominations, smaller divisions within a townland, as well as geographical features and communities. Meanwhile, a town is different from a townland; several towns have significantly grown to large cities in this century. An electoral division is a civil unit which was used to keep valuation records. The registrar's district was used for civil registration of births, marriages and deaths.

These are just some examples of administrative divisions in Ireland which should show you the significance of knowing the region where your family is from, and studying maps and the history of this region to help you in your research.

DISCLAIMER: This is an important reminder that the above article is provided here exactly as originally written and published several years ago. Therefore, while most of the primary context of the article may still be relevant, please be aware that possibly certain of the information and references may now be outdated, such as individuals and organizations, links, contacts, facilities, etc. Please follow-up accordingly for more updated information.

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©2013, Robert M. Wilbanks IV, Scottsdale, Arizona
created Nov 15, 2013; last updated Nov 15, 2013