Believed to be of Gaelic
origin, a townland
is a term for a small geographical unit of land used in Ireland
; the term was at one time also used in Scotland
is derived from the Old English
word 'tun', in turn originating from the Old Norse
, which describes a homestead, or settlement. The English language term was used by administrators to translate various Gaelic
The official term for 'townland' in Irish is baile fearainn (plural bailte fearainn); baile is the word for 'town' and fearann is 'land, territory, quarter', from a Proto-Indo-European root *wer- which is also related to the English word ware, a valuable commodity. (In Scottish Gaelic, the plural of the word baile is bailtean.) In the Isle of Man, the prefix "Balley-" is fairly common in farm names; the Manx for 'townland' is balley eirinagh, pl. baljyn eirinagh.
Townlands in Ireland
, a townland is the smallest officially-defined geographical unit of land, smaller than a parish
. Townlands vary in size from as small as 0.67 of an acre
(2,706 m²) (Old Church Yard, near Carrickmore
, County Tyrone
) up to 6,997 acres (28.32 km²) (Sheskin, in north-west County Mayo
Origin of townland system
The earliest reference to townlands as a unit are in 11th century
legal documents referring to grants of bailte
to monasteries. The term baile
has a variety of related meanings in Irish, such as "home" (the basic meaning), "village" (sráid-bhaile
, literally "street-town"), or "town" (baile mór
, literally "big town"). In the context of placenames, the most accurate translation might be "the land belonging to a particular home or farmstead". The modern Irish for townland is baile fearainn
, literally "a home of land".
The term townland is a standardised form, often replacing earlier local terms such as tate (in Fermanagh and Monaghan), cartron (in Connacht) or ploughland. These terms represent a variety of native land divisions, varying in name from one part of the country to another, and forming a hierarchy of sizes.
The nineteenth-century surveyor Thomas Larcom, who was the first Director of the Irish Ordnance Survey, summarised the hierarchy as follows:
10 acres - 1 Gneeve; 2 Gneeves - 1 Sessiagh; 3 Sessiaghs - 1 Tate or Ballyboe; 2 Ballyboes - 1 Ploughland, Seisreagh or Carrow; 4 Ploughlands - 1 Ballybetagh, or Townland; 30 Ballybetaghs - Triocha Céad or Barony.
(A complicating factor was that in Gaelic times, land was measured in terms of its economic potential rather than in fixed units of measurement: by the number of cattle that an area of pasture land could support, or by the time taken to plough an area of arable land. Therefore the size of an "acre" in this system could vary enormously depending on the quality of the land.)
Under English rule
Townlands were first named and their boundaries defined under the English legal system during the process of plantation
. The unit from the hierarchy of land divisions that was chosen to represent a "townland", however, might vary from county to county; in Fermanagh and Monaghan, the tate was chosen, resulting in relatively small townlands, while in other areas, larger units such as ploughlands were chosen, resulting in larger townland units.
As explained previously, townland size was often determined by the fertility of the land, thus townlands in high quality land tended to be smaller, while townlands in mountainous or bog areas tended to be much larger in size. In many areas of Norman settlement, townland boundaries tend to follow field or individual property boundaries and may reflect the holdings of monasteries or churches or the boundaries of commonage. In these areas, townlands often have apparently irregular boundaries and are of small size. In contrast, townlands in areas of traditional Gaelic settlement tend to be larger in area and usually have apparently regular boundaries determined by streams, rivers or roads.
Irish Ordnance Survey and standardisation
During the middle decades of the 19th century, an extensive series of maps of Ireland were created by the Irish division of the Ordnance Survey for taxation purposes, which documented and standardised the boundaries of the more than 60,000 townlands in Ireland. This process often involved dividing or amalgamating existing townlands, and defining townland boundaries in areas such as mountain or bog land that had previously been outside the townland system.
Townlands form the building blocks for higher-level administrative units such as parishes
and District Electoral Divisions
(in the Republic of Ireland
) or wards
(in Northern Ireland
). The townland name continues to be one of the more important divisions in the Irish postal system, although this role has now been replaced in urban areas and in most areas of Northern Ireland by road names. In 2001 the Northern Ireland Assembly
passed a motion requesting government departments to make use of townland addresses in correspondence and publications.
A useful source of information on townlands (with an emphasis on the northern parts of Ireland) is the Federation for Ulster Local Studies. Its publications include Every Stony Acre Has a Name: Celebration of the Townland in Ulster by Tony Canavan, and Townlands in Ulster: Local History Studies, edited by W.H. Crawford & R.H. Foy.
Townlands in Scotland
In Scotland, townland boundaries were generally disregarded and lost during 19th century agricultural improvements. Townlands were called also fermlands
and many names remain identifiable in farmstead names which include the word Mains
, and "Bal-" (Baile) in placenames, such as Balerno
Townlands in Scotland were often in contradistinction to kirktouns (Clachan), which were settlements with a church, sometimes of ecclesiastical origin.
See also Township (Scotland) for the crofting context.
Treens and Quarterlands in the Isle of Man
There may be similarities between the notion of townlands in Ireland and the traditional land divisions of treens (c.f. the Irish word trian, a third part) in the Isle of Man. Treens are subdivided into smaller units called quarterlands