This article was originally published in The Irish At Home and Abroad , journal of Irish genealogy and heritage (volume 5 #1, 1st Quarter 1998).
No longer published.

Irish Place Names and the Immigrant: Sources

By Dwight A. Radford and Kyle J. Betit

Townland Indexes

The 1851, 1871, and 1901 General Alphabetical Index to the Townlands and Towns, Parishes and Baronies of Ireland may be used to find the official spelling and the location of each townland in Ireland. The 1871 (FHL #476999 item 2) and 1901 (FHL #865092) indexes are available on microfilm.

In some cases the spelling of a townland name may be so corrupted that it can't be identified in the townland indexes. This often happens when using Irish civil registration records. The source List of Townlands in each Poor Law Union (or Superintendent Registrar's District), and Registrar's District (1891) allows the researcher to search a list of townlands in a particular area to identify the correct official spelling. This list was reprinted by Redmond Press, Salt Lake City (FHL# 1559443) and later published with an introduction and appendices by George B. Handran in Town-lands in Poor Law Unions: A Reprint of Poor Law Union Pamphlets of the General Registrar's Office.

For the counties comprising Northern Ireland, the "Index to Townlands (1823-1835)" was produced by the PRONI from the Tithe Applotment Books. The Tithe Books often list places within townlands or alternative names for a townland prior to standardization. The PRONI index uses PRONI reference numbers to the Tithe and names the civil parish in which the townland is located. The Townland Index is on microfilm at the FHL: #1565423 (A-D) and #1565424 (E-W).

Ordnance Survey Maps and Index

If an approximate area of a parish is known check the 6" to the mile Ordnance Survey maps which date from 1833-1846. These maps are very detailed and often identify localized place names. The correct map can be found by locating the townland of interest or a nearby townland or town in the 1851, 1871, or 1901 Townland Index. The column "No. of Sheet of the Ordnance Survey Maps" in the index tells the map number(s) to locate the town or townland. If only a civil parish is known, the section in the back of the Townland Index can be used to determine the correct map number(s).

The Ordnance Survey compiled a manuscript index to all of the place names listed on the original 6" to the Mile Ordnance Survey Maps, titled "Manuscript Index to the Original 6" to the Mile Ordnance Survey Maps." This source alphabetically indexes the places within townlands or sub-denominations. The index is available on microfilm at the National Library of Ireland (NLI) in Dublin and at the Irish Cultural and Heritage Center of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. For each place name the civil parish and barony of location are given as well as additional information, such as map number, in some cases. This source includes the counties in Northern Ireland. The NLI positive (p.) microfilm numbers are as follows:

Antrim           p.4623
Armagh          p.4623
Carlow          p.4624
Cavan          p.4623
Clare          p.4621
Cork          p.4621
Derry          p.4625
Donegal          p.4623
Down          p.4624
Dublin          p.4624
Fermanagh          p.4624
Galway          p.4622
Kerry          p.4621
Kildare          p.4624
Kilkenny          p.4624
Leitrim          p.4622
Leix          p.4625
Limerick          p.4623
Longford          p.4624
Louth          p.4624
Mayo          p.4622
Meath          p.4624
Monaghan          p.4624
Offaly          p.4624
Roscommon          p.4623
Sligo          p.4623
Tipperary          p.4622
Tyrone          p.4625
Waterford          p.4623
Westmeath          p.4625
Wexford          p.4625
Wicklow          p.4625

Northern Ireland Place-Name Project

The Northern Ireland Place-Name Project of the Celtic Department of Queen's University in Belfast concentrates on the history of and variations found in Ulster place names. It has compiled a computer database of places with names from the Ordnance Survey Name Books for the six counties of Northern Ireland.

If a place name in the six counties can't be found, the Place-Name Project may be of some assistance. The Project will accept inquiries from the public, however, it is not a genealogical society.

The Place-Name Project publishes a journal currently called AINM, earlier titled Bulletin of the Ulster Place Name Society. It published some extracts from the Ordnance Survey Name Books and a series of articles, "An Index to Minor Place-Names From the 6" Ordnance Survey." The place names listed in this series were extracted not from the original 6" maps of the 1830s but from the third series of Ordnance Survey maps (1880s). Minor place names in four Ulster counties were published in the following volumes of Bulletin of the Ulster Place Name Society: Antrim - Series 2, Vol. 1 (1978); Armagh - Series 2, Vol. 2 (1981/82); Londonderry - Series 2, Vol. 2 (1979); Tyrone - Series 2, Vol. 3 (1980/81). The project is also publishing a series of books called Place-Names of Northern Ireland. Three volumes for County Down, one for Antrim, and one for Londonderry (Derry) have been published in this ongoing series. The books include variations in townland names and spellings compiled from various sources including the Ordnance Survey Name Books. Sub-denominations are also included.

Ordnance Survey Place Name Books

The Place Name Books were compiled by John O'Donovan, an Irish scholar whose detailed studies of Irish place names helped to standardize the names and spellings of townlands. These name books were compiled in the 1830s at which time survey teams went to each townland, interviewed local people, noted variations in what names people called a townland and in the spelling of townland names, as well as consulting historical works and maps of the time period.

The Ordnance Survey Place Name (John O'Donovan) Books show the different names that were used for the same townland as well as spelling variations in townland names. Only one name and spelling was standardized and used officially after the survey of the 1830s. Once the townland names were standardized, the standard names from the maps appeared in the subsequent 1851, 1871, and 1901 townland indexes. An Irish immigrant may have used an unofficial variation of a townland name as the place of the family's origin in Ireland.

The Name Books are available in manuscript form on microfilm at the NLI. There are also typed transcripts of the name books for many counties at the NLI (reference number IR 9294203). The NLI collections include the counties of Northern Ireland. The books are divided by county and alphabetically by civil parish. Microfilm copies for Ulster are at Queen's University in Belfast (Mic. A/1-13).

Some of the Name Books provide the following additional information for townlands:

  • Name of land owner
  • Number of Catholic and Protestant families
  • Name of the major lessor
  • Terms of tenure of the tenants
  • Major surnames in the townland

The Name Books may also provide information regarding townland sub-denominations and geographical features within the parish.

Strategies for using Place Name Books

  • If it is suspected that two names actually refer to the same townland, the place name books can help prove that both names were used for the same townland.
  • If a place name and a county are known, the books for the entire county can be searched parish by parish for the place name.
  • If a section of a county is hypothesized, such as near the town of Ballyshannon, County Donegal, the books for the civil parishes in the area can be examined.
  • If it is known from the church records that an immigrant was from a certain parish, but a townland is not listed in the records, the name books can be consulted for details that may narrow the search such as major surnames or religion of residents.

Griffith's Primary Valuation

If an Irish county of origin is known, but the townland or parish place name spelling is uncertain, Griffith's Primary Valuation can also be used as a source. By browsing the parish and townland names within a county, which are at the front of each book, a spelling can often be identified.

Additional Gazetteers and Directories
  1. The Topographical Dictionary of Ireland by Samuel Lewis, published in 1837, gives sketches of each civil parish, town, barony and county in Ireland. Lewis' work is available on microfilm at the FHL (#599557).
  2. The Parliamentary Gazetteer of Ireland, published in 1844, is similar in its content to Samuel Lewis' work. This ten volume work is broken down as follows: vol. 1., A-Arm; vol. 2. Arm-Car; vol. 3. Car-Cus; vol. 4. Dal-Gal; vol. 5. Gal-Kil; vol. 6. Kil-Mag; vol. 7. Mag-Rap; vol. 8. Rap-Tib; vol. 9. Tib-You; vol. 10. You-Z. These are available on microfilm through the FHL: volumes 1-2 (#824043 it. 4-5); volumes 3-6 (#824044); volumes 7-10 (#824045).
  3. Ambrose Leet's A Directory to the Market Towns, Villages, Gentlemen's Seats, and Other Noted Places in Ireland, written in 1814 (FHL #990023 item 2), is especially helpful if a place name is a manor house or an estate.
  4. Maps of the Roads of Ireland by George Taylor and Andrew Skinner was originally published in 1783 and shows details of the road system in Ireland.
  5. The Liostai Logainmneacha series compiled by the Place Names Branch of the Ordnance Survey in Dublin is a county-by-county alphabetical cross reference of the Gaelic form of names for townlands and other features and the English form.
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