Ireland's system of land division.



Ireland has one of the most sophisticated land division systems which is known in the World.  It was originally based on the tribal and chieftaincy land divisions of the early Christian era, but the structure and the actual names used have stood up surprisingly well over the subsequent two thousand years.  These divisions were based on political and land ownership patterns.  Such patterns have changed greatly during this period but the structure has lent itself to development, even though boundaries of major units continually evolved.


The Province. (Cuíge)


The modern  pattern is of four Provinces, ie. Leinster, Munster, Connacht and Ulster.  The Irish name, Cuíge, suggests that a Province should be one  fifth part of the whole Country, but the actual number has varied over the years, in accord with political change.  This number has now settled on four, and these four are substantially  as in the earliest days.

There were Provincial Kings in Ireland and it was their kingdoms which were thus defined.  One thinks of the names of O Neill,  O Conor,  McCarthy,  and MacMurrough, but that is only for the short period between the coming of surnames (say 1000 AD) and the Anglo-Norman invasion. This was a very loose form of kingship.  It was always used to denote the most powerful monarch in the Province, but rarely involved actual administration by the Provincial King over  his subordinate rulers.


Thus the Eberian kings (McCarthy)  were recognised as kings of Munster during the period from the 6th.c. up until they were overthrown by the Dal Cas kings in the 10th.c.  The latter kings under their family name of O Brien continued as kings of Munster until partition between them and the Eberians  shared the Province under the names of North Munster (Thomond) and South Munster (Desmond).


There is little role for the Province in later administration, but it’s geographical divisions have remained largely as before.


The Barony. (Tríocha Céad or Truicha Cet)


The Baronies still represent the next major sub-division of ownership and rule within the Province.  These were the Over-Kingdoms, such as those of Uí Eacha  (OMahony), which eventually became Carbery, and they in turn were  under the overall rule of the Eberian Provincial King of Cashel (McCarthy).


The actual word Barony was of course Norman and was the sub-division of their Counties or Earldoms.  The Normans also used the word Cantred  but one has to be cautious in assuming that these terms were precisely the same.








The Civil Parish. (Tuath)


This was the land occupied by the lowest level of Chieftaincy, such as that of O’Leary, O’Herlihy, O’Healy, O’Hurley, O’Crowley and other rulers of a single territory with no dependant or subordinate clan beneath them. 


There has always been the possibility of a single Parish having Townlands within it  which lie in different Baronys to the principle one.  Thus Uibh Laoghaire Civil Parish has 11 Townlands which lie in the Barony of Carbery, whilst the remaining 107 are in the Barony of  Muskerry.  This eccentricity does not present a problem normally.


The Townland. (Baile, Baile Fearainn)


Every Civil Parish was further sub-divided into Townlands and all land was included in one Townland or another.  There was no attempt to create a uniform size of Townland, although people often think in terms of an average of 240 acres.  Today in our Parish alone the sizes vary from the 99 acres of Cappanaminna up to the 1076 of Currahy.  In other Parishes there are Townlands outside these area ranges.   Most Townlands names are only used once in any one Parish, but the same same name may be used elsewhere in another Parish.  Thus we have a Townland of Kilbarry in the Parish of Uibh Laoghaire, but the same name of Kilbarry is used again in other Parishes.


The Townland was the main unit used when the Chieftain distributed land to his followers.  He would allocate several townlands to himself and to his Tanaiste.  Other more remote relatives like second cousins might only get one townland each.  Land for this purpose was not normally distributed in units of less then one townland, and this practice was later used by the colonial landlords who bought and sold land in units of one townland.  When, as at the election of the Chieftain in 1629, there were too many followers who were elegible for a grant of land, some townlands were split into two parts to accomodate them.  These were given part names like Cleanrath North and Cleanrath South, and these sub-divisions have remained in use to present times.


Field Names.


Each Field within a Townland originally posessed a name.  But this structure has been largely lost and the names forgotten.  Today, the Field Name structure would be useless if it had still been retained, since changing agricultural systems have resulted in considerable alterations in the sizes of fields.


Other Land divisions.


The above simple structure of land division into Province, Barony, Parish and Townland was very effective and would have served right up to present times, but for “improvements” by outsiders.

But Ireland has been invaded by several other cultures and each has tried to introduce it’s own, nominally superior system.  Thus we have the detritus of other peoples land division systems co-existing with our own.

The Hundred.


The Anglo-Saxons had a system somewhat similar to the Irish one, the equivalent of the Barony being known as the Hundred- or sometimes the term used was Rape, Lathe, Wapentake, Soke  or Ward.  All meant the same, but it depended on what part of the Country one was in.  Names other than Hundred tended to be in the Eastern half of the Country where the Great Danish Kingdom once ruled..  These units of land exist in theory to this day, but in practice they are never used.  Very few people in England today would know the name of the Hundred they live in.  The Hundred was divided into Parishes, but these are fairly widely understood unlike the Hundred.


The Earldom, County or Shire.


These were the different names used for the basic sub-division in Normandy, later introduced into England.  The chief landowner was called a Count or Earl.  The concept was that he should be the territorial ruler.  There were a few such examples which had some success, including the Earls of Chester, Hereford, Northumberland, Durham  and other areas bordering on still unconquered Celtic Races.  They had Palatinate powers ie. ruled in their locality with the power of the king. This Palatinate experiment was used also in Ireland for short periods eg. the FitzGerald Earls (Kildare and Desmond) , the Butlers of Ormonde and the Burkes of Clan Rickard.  Eventually these Palatinate rulers of Norman extraction,  overplayed their hands in power games with the King and had to be suppressed.


Even in England the Earl as a territorial ruler was not a success.  Most Earls found it expedient to wait on the King at Court, if they were eager for power, influence and money, and most built houses close to the capital of London, to allow them to attain these objectives, instead of living in their nominal Earldom.


From the time of the first Norman invasion of 1169 it was always intended  that areas would be shired in Ireland, and this happened only slowly and in fact it took  the next 500 years to complete the programme. 

In the first few years of English occupation there were four Counties created which were known as “The Obedient Shires”.  These were the present day Counties of Dublin, Louth, Meath and Kildare.  This situation continued for some four hundred years, and these Counties are better known to us as “The Pale”.

The Shire was mainly of value in the structure in allowing the introduction of other English “improvements” such as Shire Reeves (Sherriffs), and County Grand Juries, and later on for Poor Law, Education, Electoral and other considerations.

By 1585 when Perrott’s Parliament met, 21 Counties had been established and each returned two knights of the shire who sat alongside the representatives of the Boroughs.  The structure we have today of 32 Counties was nominally reached by 1610 soon after the battle of Kinsale.  The last few Counties were the territories of Chieftains who had finally submitted,  and included Cavan  (O Reilly),    Longford  (O Farrell), Wicklow (O Byrne), Tyrone (O Neill), and Tyrconnell (O Donnell).






During the 12th.c. there was conflict between Rome and the Celtic Church in Ireland.   Various Synods were held to overcome the problems and to introduce European practices and customs, including the creation of Dioceses and Parishes. 


Previously each King and many petty Chieftains had their own Church or Monastery, with their own church leader.  He might be hereditary, and secular, or a celibate priest.  Or in many cases it might be customary to have both.  This Monastery was sited close to the Royal Ringfort.  The Abbot of this Monastery served in the same capacity as the proposed new Bishops, but the name now had to be changed to Bishop.


The Diocesan structure which resulted from these Synods therefore reflected the existing political structure.  Or in practice the original political structure as it was seen by those attending the Synod.  Thus the Dioceses created in todays County Cork reflected  the  power  at  that  time  of the  Kings of Muskerry (Cloyne Diocese),  of  O Driscoll in South Carbery (Ross Diocese) and of the O Mahonys of North Carbery (Cork Diocese).



Ecclesiastical Parishes.


The 12th.c. Synods ( Rathbreasail 1111  and Kells 1152 ) were, amongst the many other reforms,  also the opportunity to introduce diocesan and  parochial systems into Ireland.  This took many years to complete but was more or less in full operation by the start of 1400 AD.  In practice the new Ecclesiastical Parishes had the same boundaries as the Tuath or Civil Parish, and many do to this day.  But there are many exceptions.  The area controlled by a Parish Priest can vary as it’s population grows or declines.  Small villages sometimes grow into large towns, and the Parish structure has to be divided to meet their new requirements.  When the Church of Ireland was created in 1534 it’s Parish structure was identical to the older Catholic one.  But this new Church had it’s own growth or decline patterns, and had to alter it’s parish structure accordingly.


Today we have three Parish structures existing side by side. A Civil Parish, A Catholic Parish and a Church Of Ireland one. Some fortunate Parishes are the same for all three but many are not. In many parts of the country a Townland can thus be sited in three different Parishes.


Difficulty in Introducing English type Counties

   The English type County did not fit easily into the simpler Irish structure and always caused difficulties. As we have seen Ireland became completely shired by 1610.   After this, the Barony was accommodated by a loose attempt to make it a sub-division of the County.  By the 19th.c. this could be accomplished and it is roughly the position today.  (See the centre page map for the Baronial sub-divisins of County Cork in the 20th.c.)  But in the 11th.c. it was far from easy.  The Barony at that time represented the actual territorial boundaries of powerful men.  Some were Norman knights or barons who had a determination to increase their lands.  Others were Irish over-kings who had the same ambitions.  As one of these powerful landed lords grabbed land from another, it sometimes became thereafter included in his Barony.  The English Governments expected this to happen and indeed it was their plan for the eventual confiscation of all the Country by their subjects.  But after 1261 and the battle of Callan, this plan began to go wrong.  Instead of the further English gains, many of their landed lords were thrust back by a new and more determined class of Irish lords.  Thus in  the early 14th.c.  the McCarthy Mor of the time created three new lordships in the names of McCarthy Reagh, Muskerry and Duhallow.


The subsequent McCarthy Muskerrys intended to exploit their land conquests vigorously and to turn the conquered lands into personal ownership.  This was done at the expense of the heirs of the de Cogans, and the expense of the Barretts, a powerful Norman lordship which was in fact itself a Barony.  Thus in this instance we see the boundaries of the Barony of Barretts shrinking, and those of the Barony of Muskerry growing, until todays map which reveals a very different picture.  Many Irish Chieftains also suffered under this process, and indeed most of those who escaped the loss of their lands  did so because they were tenants of the Bishop (Eirenachs) and thus immune to the rapacity of McCarthy.


The subsequent McCarthy Reaghs followed a different pattern.  Whilst they were extending their power as ruthlessly and vigorously as their cousins to the North, they exploited their gains by becoming overlords of the Chieftains rather than owners of their land.  Thus the territory of McCarthy Reagh when finally extinguished after the battle of Kinsale was spread amongst several Baronies including the four sub-divisions of Carbery, the O’Driscoll lands, and much of the smaller Baronies of Kinelea, Kinelmeaky, and Ibane and Barryroe.  In other words these Baronial boundaries remained largely untouched despite the changes of ownership of the land. 



In the last two hundred years we have become more civilised, and land changes hands by buying and selling, and no longer by the sword.

As a result our Baronial structure has tended to remain fixed in all parts of the Country.

 We have to accept however that the English system built up around the County has won the day, and has largely supplanted the use of our ancient Irish alternative. 

This has happened despite the creation of the new State, and perhaps the County and it’s stuctures have now become so much a part of our daily life that we would find it difficult to go back to the old ways.


We should however know about our heritage, and each one of us should understand a little of the way in which it worked, and should be able to name at least his own Barony, his Parish and his Townland.


The Poor Law Land Structure.


A further complication was introduced by the colonial power in the early 19th.c.  It’s intention was to allow the introduction of Poor Laws on the lines of those existing in England.  This included local taxation to make the local people pay for the support of the local poor, and the creation of Work Houses which would form the last line in the means of controlling poverty. 


This gave us a further layer of administrative boundaries which to a great extent were completely at odds with the long lasting and older arrangements.

Under this system the Country was divided into a number of Poor Law Unions, each containing one Work House.  Each Union was divided into Divisions and/or District Electoral Divisions, and these were made up of the old units of the Townland.  In some cases the dision of land was into Registrars Districts or into Dispensary Districts.

The one light of sanity shining through all this, was that the ultimate unit was still the old Townland.  In country areas the Townland is the basis for defining land areas for buying and selling, and the basis for a person’s address.

                                                                                                Peter O’Leary