Friday, August 22, 2014

An Explanation That Helps

One aspect of genealogical research that has always stumped me—at least, when it comes to untangling our Irish forebears—has been that of the administration of local government. Granted, I understand that Ireland has endured an abused past—that it has suffered the overlaying of a foreign government’s notions upon its own centuries-old culture. Yet it doesn’t help a researcher like me, when struggling to sort out the many governmental terms—townlands, baronies, civil parishes—to hear them dismissed with breezy comments like, “Oh, we don’t use that anymore.” What? A jurisdiction doesn’t “really” count?

Please explain. I somehow need to navigate this governmental lexicon to find my family’s ancestors.

As it so happened, while I dutifully plowed through the John Grenham book (though admittedly an outdated edition), Tracing Your Irish Ancestors, someone did, indeed, oblige my desperate plea. I owe my gratitude to author Grenham for spelling it all out for me succinctly.

Mr. Grenham began by explaining, on page 38 of said outdated second edition, the historic scenario bringing such local governmental terms to the forefront of genealogical research:
Because of the destruction of nineteenth-century [census] returns, surviving land and property records from the period have acquired a somewhat unnatural importance. Two surveys cover the entire country, the Tithe Applotment Books of c. 1823-38 and Griffith’s Valuation, dating from 1848 to 1864.

And thus, you have the explanation of why, yesterday, I felt compelled to return to Griffith’s Valuation—a property record, as the author mentioned—one more time, to double check for any signs of our Tully ancestors in County Tipperary.

As Mr. Grenham, himself, admitted, “Both of these [the Tithe Applotment Books and Griffith’s Valuation] employ administrative divisions which are no longer in widespread use and need some explanation.”

Okay, I feel validated in my confusion. Not only that, but following his explanation, I also feel educated—a feeling I much prefer to confusion. See how Mr. Grenham put it:
The smallest division, the townland, is the one which has proved most enduring. Loosely related to the ancient Gaelic “Bally betagh,” and to other medieval land divisions such as ploughlands and “quarters,” townlands can vary enormously in size, from a single acre or less to several thousand acres. There are more than 64,000 townlands in the country. They were used as the smallest geographical unit in both Tithe Survey and Griffith’s, as well as census returns, and are still in use today. Anything from 5 to 30 townlands may be grouped together to form a civil parish. These are a legacy of the Middle Ages, pre-dating the formation of counties and generally co-extensive with the parishes of the Established Church, the Church of Ireland. They are not to be confused with Catholic parishes, which are usually much larger. In turn, civil parishes are collected together in baronies. Originally related to the tribal divisions, the tuatha of Celtic Ireland, these were multiplied and subdivided over the centuries up to their standardization in the 1500s, so that the current names represent a mixture of Gaelic, Anglo-Norman and English influences. A number of baronies, from 5 in Co. Leitrim to 22 in Co. Cork, then go to make up the modern county.

As if to assure me that those casual observers who sought to provide me relief as I struggled with these concepts in the past were actually correct in their assessment of the situation, the author added this final confirmation:
Baronies and civil parishes are no longer in use as administrative units.

Great. I appreciate knowing that, now. So, today, townlands are still in, but civil parishes and baronies are now out.

Even more, though, I appreciate being able to understand what all those terms were intended to signify in those years back in the mid 1800s when our family was still living in Ireland. I may not be able to speak the lingo like a native, but—at least in the case of their property records—I  now can figure out what those terms mean.

 Artwork: "Meditation," watercolor painting, dated 1889, by Irish artist Mildred Anne Butler; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.


  1. I recently watched a show on PBS about a "townland" in England. My understanding is that back in the medieval age, the "lands" were owned by the town - sort of like our "public" (and park) lands - but people were allocated plots in this land to farm - they paid a form of "in-kind" taxes for the privilege - e.g., 10 pounds of butter (or things like that) to the town/church/lord that governed.

    The USA has far less "history" - being populated for only hundreds of years versus the thousands that Ireland and England have been - towns still have come and gone in this country (like the Ghost Towns of the west) but I'm sure it's nothing like "over there".

    But, when I was in Ireland on one or several trips, I was surprised by how they hard they tried to keep their "old things" - hundred year old ruins are protected - and they are scattered all over.

    1. Now that you mention it, Iggy, that makes sense. Sounds like the arrangement of the serfs paying their "rent" to the lord of the manor for use of the lands surrounding the castle. That does make it sound rather medieval.

      Ireland certainly does have many "old things" worth protecting!


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