Irish Place Names and the Immigrant
By Dwight A. Radford and Kyle J. Betit
When an exact geographical place name of an ancestor's origin in Ireland is found in records of the family abroad, the family historian is faced with the task of identifying this place in Ireland. Often, the place name can't be found on a road map or atlas or in a gazetteer. Not being able to identify the location of a place name will halt efforts to find immigrant origins. To successfully identify a place name in Ireland not only identifies the immigrant's origin, but it also opens up the possibility of a variety of other Irish record sources.
There are a number of possible explanations for not finding an Irish place name:
1. A place name in a record abroad may have been spelled differently than in Irish sources. Many immigrants were illiterate or at least poorly educated. Consequently, the person recording the name would often spell it phonetically.
2. The variation of the name as preserved by the immigrant family may have been the Gaelic (Irish-language) version, whereas Irish gazetteers may use the English variation of the place name.
3. A name passed down in a family through oral tradition may have been significantly corrupted over the years.
4. A variety of administrative divisions may have been given by the immigrant as the place of origin; for example, county, civil parish, Catholic parish, or townland. Sometimes it is difficult to determine exactly what was meant by the immigrant.
5. A place name may not appear in gazetteers because it is smaller than a townland, e.g. a geographical feature, a subdivision of a townland, an estate name, a field or farm name, or a small community name.
In the case of county names, a quick search of a map or reference book will reveal what the correct county name really is. For example, Caban is Cavan, Derri is Derry (or Londonderry), and Mao is Mayo. These are the simple problems.
The more complex place name identifications arise when a townland or part of a townland is listed as the place of origin. The correct identification of where these smaller areas, usually with names derived from Gaelic, are found can be complex. There are, however, very effective methods for finding these "missing places" in Ireland.
At first glance, the family historian will notice that the administrative and political boundaries used in Ireland are confusing. Provinces are divided into counties which are divided into civil parishes. Civil parishes, in turn, are made up of townlands, each of which is an area of land with a certain acreage and set of boundaries.
Irish boundaries cross each other, and the researcher has to think in an abstract way to comprehend them. For example, baronies cross civil parish boundaries; Catholic parishes and civil parishes cross each other; and poor law unions cross county and parish boundaries.
In records of an immigrant (such as a tombstone, family papers, death certificate, or published biographical sketch) the most common place names found are provinces, geographical regions, counties, parishes, townlands, and townland sub-denominations. Each of these is discussed in detail in this article. The article does not discuss all administrative divisions found in Ireland, only the ones likely to be given as places of origin in records abroad.