Governmental Control of Ireland
The 32 counties of Ireland were created by the Anglo-Normans who took up the administration
of Ireland at the end of the 12th century. But the structure and function of these
Irish counties was very different to that of their English counterparts.
The four provinces of Ireland are clearly marked on the map. But as Ireland is a
country always full of surprises, it should not cause too much alarm to learn that
the word for a province in the Irish language comes from the same root as the word
meaning one fifth. Cúige was correct because from antiquity there used to be five,
not four, provinces of Ireland. The fifth province of Meath was not absorbed into
Leinster until the reign of Elizabeth I.
The Irish countryside was divided up into ‘townlands’, and they are still a unique feature of the Irish countryside. Explanations for the origins of townlands are obscure but they are undoubtedly of great antiquity. Such sub-divisions had existed already for several centuries prior to English rule. Townlands are still recognized as the smallest (as well as the most ancient) administrative divisions of the country. There are approximately 62,000 townlands in Ireland. Townlands have huge variations in their shapes and sizes caused by both local topography and farming practices - an ever-ending variety of shapes emerged for the cartographer.
Townlands were collected together into civil parishes; and anything from five to thirty townlands could be grouped together to form such a parish. Parishes were combined to form baronies. A ‘barony’ was originally the name of the landholding of a feudal baron, e.g., O’Neilland. Baronies were commonly much smaller than the counties that replaced them, and so their borders were not necessarily contiguous. It was many centuries before the boundaries of the four provinces and the 32 counties became settled.
From the 17th century onwards, landlords let land, mainly on a townland basis. In the absence of a technical ability to survey and map the land, it was far more convenient for everyone to stick to the traditional Irish methods. Such usage can be seen in a variety of documentation concerning land. Many examples of these townland names will be seen in this site.
Their very antiquity explains why the names of the townlands are almost all rooted in the Irish language. A good example is in the anglicized prefix ‘Bally’, which is particularly common in Ireland’s place-names. It comes directly from the Irish word ‘baile’ which means a ‘townland’ or a ‘town’. This piece of Ulster childhood doggerel combined with the knowledge of a very mild expletive has caused amusement down the generations, “If you weren’t so Ballymena with your Ballymoney, you could have a Ballycastle for your Ballyholme”.