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A road-sign in County Antrim noting the Teeshan townland
A rare townland boundary marker

A townland is a small land division used in Ireland and formerly in Scotland. A townland may also be called a bally, and in Gaelic is a baile fearainn. The origin of the townland system is uncertain; it may be from the manors established by the Anglo-Normans, or as some assert to be of pre-Norman, Gaelic origin[1][2] Most of the townland names are of Irish Gaelic origin., but some of later Norman manors, plantation divisions, or later creations of the Ordnance Survey.[3][4] There are currently 61,402 named townlands in Ireland, covering the whole island,[5] both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.


In Ireland, a townland is the smallest recognised division of land. Whilst they are or earlier origin, it was in the 1600s that they became mapped and ascertained by the authorities and used for portioning the land for investors or grants.[6] The first official evidence of the existence of the townlands can be found in church records from before the 12th century.[7]

Name and names

The term "townland" is English; in Old English tun (or Middle English toun) denotes and estate or manor, and so "townland" is the land of a manor.

The Gaelic term baile, anglicised as "bally", is the most dominant element used in townland names.[8] Whilst today the term "baile" in Irish denotes a town or urban settlement, its precise meaning in ancient Ireland is unclear, as towns had no place in Gaelic social organisation.[8] The modern Irish term for a townland is baile fearainn (plural: bailte fearainn). The term fearainn means "land, territory, quarter".

The Normans, despite not having a serious influence on townland names, adapted some of them for their own use, possibly seeing a similarity between the Gaelic baile and the Norman bailey, both of which meant a settlement.[9]

Throughout most of Ulster, townlands were known as "ballyboes" (Irish: baile bó, meaning "ox land"[10]),[11] and represented an area of pastoral economic value.[10] In County Cavan, similar units were called "polls", and in the counties of Fermanagh and Monaghan they were known as "tates" or "taths".[8][10][11] These latter names appear to be of English origin.

In modern townland names, the prefix pol- is widely found throughout western Ireland, with "hole" or "hollow" its accepted meaning.[10] In County Cavan however (which contains over half of all townlands in Ulster with the pol- prefix) some of those should be translated as meaning "the poll of...".[10] In regard to tates, modern townlands with the prefix tat- are confined almost exclusively to the diocese of Clogher (which covers the counties of Fermanagh, Monaghan, and Clogher barony in Tyrone),[10] and it cannot be confused with any other Irish word.[10]

In Tyrone the following hierarchy of land division was used:

  • "ballybetagh" (Irish: baile biataigh, meaning "victualler's place"),
  • "ballyboe", "sessiagh" (Irish: séú cuid, meaning sixth part of a quarter),
  • "gort" and "quarter" (Irish: ceathrú).[8]

In Fermanagh it was: "ballybetagh", "quarter" and "tate".[8] Further sub-divisions in Fermanagh appear to be related to liquid or grain measures such as "gallons", "pottles", and "pints".[12]

In Ulster the ballybetagh was the territorial unit controlled by an Irish sept, typically containing around 16 townlands. Fragmentation of ballybetaghs resulted in units consisting of four, eight, and twelve townlands. One of these fragmented units, the "quarter" (representing a quarter of a ballybetagh), was the universal land denomination recorded in the 1608 survey for County Donegal.[13] In the early 17th century, 20% of the total area of western Ulster was under the control of the church. These "termon" lands consisted likewise of ballybetaghs and ballyboes, but were held by erenaghs instead of sept leaders.[13]

Other units of land divisions used throughout Ireland include:

  • In County Tipperary, "capell lands" and "quatermeers" were used. A "Capell land" consisted of around 20 great acres, of which an acre equalled 20 English acres.[8]
  • In the province of Connaught, "quarters" and "cartrons" (Irish: ceathrú mír, also anglicised as "carrowmeer") were used, quarter being reckoned as four cartrons, and each cartron being 30 acres.[8] The quarter has also been anglicised as "carrow", "carhoo", and "caracute" (Irish: ceathrú cuid).[8]
  • In County Clare, as in Connacht, the most common land divisions were "quarters", "half-quarters" (Irish: leath-ceathrú), "cartrons" and "sessiagh". Here a "half-quarter" equated to around 60 acres, a "cartron" equated to around 30 acres, and a "sessiagh" to around 20 acres.[8]

"Cartrons" were also sometimes called "ploughlands" or "seisreagh" (Irish: seisreach, meaning a team of horses yoked to a plough).[8]

Thomas Larcom, the first director of the Ordnance Survey of Ireland, made a study of the ancient land divisions of Ireland and summarised the traditional hierarchy of land divisions thus:[6][8]

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.

This hierarchy did not apply uniformly across Ireland; for example, a ballybetagh or townland could contain more or less than four ploughlands.[6] Further confusion arises when it is taken into account that, whilst Larcom used the general term 'acres' in his summary, terms such as 'great acres', 'large acres', and 'small acres' were also used in records.[6] Writing in 1846, Larcom remarks that the 'large' and 'small' acres had no fixed ratio between them and that there were various other kinds of acre in use in Ireland: the Irish acre, English acre, Cunningham acre, plantation acre and statute acre.[6][8] The Ordnance Survey maps used the statute acre measurement.[6] The quality and situation of the land affected the size of these acres.[8] The Cunningham acre is given as intermediate between the Irish and English acre.[8]

Many of these land division terms have been preserved in the names of modern townlands, for example: the term "cartron" in both its English and Irish form has been preserved in the townland names of Carrowmeer, Cartron, and Carrowvere, whilst the term "sessiagh" in those of Shesia, Sheshodonell, Sheshymore, and Shessiv.[8] The terms "ballyboe" and "ballybetagh" tend to be preserved in the truncated form of "bally" as a prefix for some place names. Lesser known land division terms may be found in other townland names such as Coogulla (Irish: Cuige Uladh, "the Ulster fifth"), Treanmanagh (Irish: an train meánach, "the third middle"), and Dehomade (Irish: an deichiú méid, "the tenth part").[8]

A problem with the term "bally" in some place names is that it can be difficult to distinguish between the Irish terms baile meaning "townland" and béal átha meaning "approach to a ford". An example of the latter is Ballyshannon, County Donegal, which is derived from Béal Átha Seanaidh.[14]

Size and value

Townlands vary in size from the smallest, of less than an acre (Old Church Yard, Carrickmore, parish of Termonmagurk, County Tyrone), up to 7,012 acres or 6,993 acres (Sheskin, parish of Kilcommon, County Mayo).

An old wives' tale exists in some regions of Cork which names Iniscarra as the largest townland in Ireland. There is a strong correlation between the amount of Potteen consumed in Iniscarra and the extravagance of said wives tale.[3] Typically 200 to 400 acres is a reasonable average.[15]

The ballyboe (a townland unit used in Ulster) was described in 1608 as containing sixty acres of arable land, meadow, and pasture, however this was misleading as the size of townlands under the Gaelic system varied depending upon their quality, situation, and economic potential.[8][11] This economic potential ranged from the extent of land required to graze cattle to the land required to support several families.[11] The highest density of townland units recorded in Ulster in 1609 corresponds to the areas with the highest land valuations in the 1860s.[11]

It seems that many moorland areas were not divided into townlands until fairly recently. These areas were "formerly shared as a common summer pasturage by the people of a whole parish or barony".[16]

Irish Ordnance Survey and standardisation

During 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 amalgamation of existing townlands, and defining townland boundaries in areas such as mountain or bog land that had previously been outside the townland system.[7]

Current use

A typical road-sign in Tyrone, in Cavanreagh townland

Townlands form the building blocks for higher-level units; they fit within the Baronies and the Baronies within Counties. In the Republic of Ireland townlands are used as the building block for administrative units; civil parishes and electoral divisions.

Before 1972, townlands were included on all postal addresses throughout the island. However, in 1972 the Royal Mail decided that the townland element of the address was obsolete in Northern Ireland.[7] Townland names were not forbidden but were deemed "superfluous information" and people were asked not to include them on addresses.[7] They would be replaced by house numbers, road names, and postcodes.[7] In response, the "Townlands Campaign" emerged to protest against the changes. It was described as a "ground-level community effort". Taking place in the midst of "The Troubles", the campaign was a rare example of unity between Protestants and Roman Catholics, nationalists and unionists.[7] Townlands and their names "seem to have been considered as a shared resource and heritage".[7] Those involved in the campaign argued that, in many areas, people still strongly identified with their townlands and that this gave them a sense of belonging. Royal Mail's changes were seen as a severing of this link.[7]

At the time, the county councils were the government bodies responsible for validating such a change. However, as local government itself was undergoing changes, Royal Mail's decision was "allowed ... to become law almost by default".[7] Fermanagh is the only Northern Ireland county that managed to resist the scheme completely.[7] Nevertheless, most road signs in Northern Ireland continue to show townland names (see picture on the right).

In 2001 the Northern Ireland Assembly passed a motion requesting government departments to make use of townland addresses in correspondence and publications.

In the Republic of Ireland, townlands continued to be used on addresses. However, in 2005 the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources announced that the postcode system is to be introduced. However, even with the addition of a postcode, the townland remains part of the official address in rural areas.

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.

Outside Ireland

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 or Balmoral.

In the Isle of Man there may be similarities between the notion of townlands in Ireland and the traditional land divisions of treens (a Manx Gaelic word meaning “a third part”). Treens are divided into smaller units called quarterlands.[17]

In England the closest system to the townlands is that of manors or vills. The manors exist in theory and indeed the title 'lord of the manor', which title may be bought and sold independently of any land to which it once attached, has become a valuable incorporeal property, often auctioned at high prices. In Wales a tref is similar to a manor.

See also

Outside links

All Ireland

Northern Ireland


  • Envision (Beta) Environmental Protection Agency map tool (select Operational Layers>General Administrative>Townlands)
  • Categories of Disadvantaged Areas Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine Excel spreadsheet (per county) giving area in hectares, electoral division, and agricultural category of each townland

By county


  1. Barry, Terry (2000). "Rural settlement in medieval Ireland". A history of settlement in Ireland. Routledge. p. 114. "She argued that Ireland’s townland system, which pre-dated the Anglo-Norman conquest, worked against the creation of sizeable nucleated settlements." 
  2. Graham, Brian (2003). "Ireland: Economy and Society". A companion to Britain in the later Middle Ages. Wiley-Blackwell. p. 149. "The manor was the basic unit of settlement throughout the Anglo-Norman colony. Anngret Simms and others have argued that the constraint of the pre-existing Gaelic-Irish network of townlands (the basic subdivision of land in Ireland, a townland was originally the holding of an extended family) pre-empted the formation of large villages on the Anglo-Norman manors of Ireland." 
  3. 3.0 3.1 Connolly, S. J., Oxford Companion to Irish History, page 577. Oxford University Press, 2002. ISBN 978-0-19-923483-7
  4. Maxwell, Ian, How to trace your Irish ancestors, page 16. howtobooks, 2009. ISBN 978-1-84528-375-9
  5. Placenames Database of Ireland / Bunachar Logainmneacha na hÉireann
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 Fossa Historical Society. "Chapter 23 - Of Gneeves". Retrieved 3 January 2012. 
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 7.6 7.7 7.8 7.9 Reid, Bryonie (2005). "Identity, locality and the townland in Northern Ireland". Senses of Place: Senses of Time. Ashgate Publishing. pp. 47–60. "The first official evidence of their existence occurs in church records from before the twelfth century." 
  8. 8.00 8.01 8.02 8.03 8.04 8.05 8.06 8.07 8.08 8.09 8.10 8.11 8.12 8.13 8.14 8.15 8.16 Claire Library. "Units of Land Measurement". Retrieved 3 January 2012. 
  9. Canavan, Tony; Every Stoney Acre has a Name: a celebration of the townland in Ulster. Federation for Ulster Local Studies, 1991. ISBN 0-9518279-0-1
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 10.5 10.6 Robinson, Philip: The Plantation of Ulster, page 25. Ulster Historical Foundation, 2000. ISBN 978-1-903688-00-7
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 11.4 Robinson, Philip: The Plantation of Ulster, pages 13-14. Ulster Historical Foundation, 2000. ISBN 978-1-903688-00-7
  12. Robinson, Philip: The Plantation of Ulster, page 26. Ulster Historical Foundation, 2000. ISBN 978-1-903688-00-7
  13. 13.0 13.1 Robinson, Philip: The Plantation of Ulster, page 22-23. Ulster Historical Foundation, 2000. ISBN 978-1-903688-00-7
  14. Toner, Gregory: Place-Names of Northern Ireland, page 120. Queen's University of Belfast, 1996, ISBN 0-85389-613-5
  15. List of Ulster townlands, and note on size
  16. Evans, E Estyn (2000). "Bally and Booley". Irish Folk Ways. Courier Dover Publications. pp. 28–29. "Their size varies considerably, since they were based on the fertility of the land rather than its acreage, and it seems that many moorland tracts were not divided until fairly recent times, for they were formerly shared as a common summer pasturage by the people of a whole parish or barony." 
  17. Max Notebook – treens