Irish townlands are a puzzle and a joy. We shouldn’t throw them away.
To foreigners, and direct marketers, Irish townlands can seem like something from Alice in Wonderland. Where in rural Ireland do people live? In a townland. What’s a townland? It’s a place where people in rural Ireland live. The recurrent complaint is that only the local postman understands the local place names. But why exactly should that be a problem?
A townland can be an acre or a thousand acres, it can be named after geographical features, or individual families or legends or just flights of fancy – my favourite examples of the latter are “America” and “Liberty”, two townlands in south Roscommon. The only thing that’s certain is that a townland is a rural area, and that it is, or used to be, inhabited.
Some good news if you’re trying to find a particular townland is that their ambiguity and imprecision annoyed the English administrators of Ireland in the 1830s so much that the Ordnance Survey set about nailing down the darn things once and for all. They measured, mangled, distorted and damaged the traditions they were dealing with but, like the good Victorians they were, did it systematically. The first published version of their work, the 1851 Townlands Index, is free online at irishtimes.com/ancestor/placenames . If you can identify a place here, it will appear under the same spelling in most later state records. It’s certainly true for Griffith’s Valuation, the most contemporary of the major sources. An inevitable amount of drift crept in over the following century.
The current move to introduce post codes could learn from the experience up North. The UK local government reforms of the 1970s simply abolished townlands. Instead of living in Drumballyhugh, you now lived in a numbered house on the Drumballyhugh Road. With blessed stubbornness, the people of the North just refused to accept it. On a recent trip through Tyrone, I noticed small townland boundary markers have started to appear on the roadsides. People are taking back their own addresses.