Ireland and its counties are sub-divided in a unique way; counties into baronies, baronies into parishes, and parishes into townlands. The townland is a unique feature of the Irish landscape and is one of the most ancient divisions in the country. The origins of the townland remain obscure but they are undoubtedly of great antiquity, much older than parishes and counties. There is evidence of their existence before the twelfth century.
Townlands originally consisted of a number of sub-divisions such as gneeves and ploughlands but they are now recognised as the smallest administrative division in the country. There are approximately 62,000 townlands in Ireland and great variations are evident in townland sizes due to the fact that their shapes and sizes are related to local topography and farming practices. Anything from five to thirty townlands may be grouped together to form a civil parish. From the seventeenth century onwards, land was let by landlords on a townland basis and townland names were recorded in a variety of documentation concerning land. For instance, the rentals of estates were organised according to townlands, the Tithe Applotment Books used the townland as its smallest division, and, until 1973 when the Post Office introduced its road naming convention, the townland was also used as a distinct unit in the Census and Valuation Books. Since then, with the exception of County Fermamagh, which fought and won the retention of townland names, the use of townland names had diminished in Northern Ireland, although the Post Office had indicated that it has no objection to the use of the townland name so long as the road name and postcode is used in the address. There remains much activity, mainly from historical societies and academic bodies, to preserve and promote the townland in everyday life. There have been notable successes and many government and official bodies still use the townland as the basic unit of administration.
Townlands existed long before the parishes and counties. The original Irish names were eventually written down in anglicised form as they sounded to English court scribes and other officials, in particular the officers of the Ordnance Survey when the country was mapped in the 1830s.
A townland name in its original Irish form often referred to a topographical feature such as Carraig (meaning rock), Ard (a height), Doire or Derry (an oakwood) or Tullagh (a hill) or a botanical feature such as Annagh (meaning marsh). The social customs or history of the people who have lived in a particular place can also be reflected in the name of the townland. Often these names are the only records that survive of the families who held the land in pre-plantation times. Bally or Baile (both meaning settlement or homestead) are usually compounded with personal or family names and examples can be found all over Ireland, including such names as Ballywalter, Ballyrussel and Ballysavage in County Down. Many townlands throughout Ireland took their names from early habitation sites, both ecclesiastical and secular. Examples in this category include names with Rath (meaning fortification), Dun (meaning fort) or Chill (meaning church) in them.
Townlands have a special place in the minds of most country people born before, and fortunately many after, the Post Office unfeelingly vandalised an ancient native locus of identity. Lord McDermott in his book "The Townlands in Ireland" says -
"The townland name is...a thing to cherish, and a sort of verbal background for all that happens on the townland stage"
Later he says -
"...far from it being just a matter of topography, there is often some magic quality about it that rips the heart and seems to rest almost with affection on the locality concerned".
"names like these-and there is a host of others equally romantic and pleasing to the ear-are apt to suggest, and perhaps enhance, the virtues of the place to which one belongs, the place where life began and continues and to which its joys and sorrows, its triumphs and defeats, are somehow attached."
William Allingham, the Ballyshannon poet, puts it well in his poem "The Winding Banks of Erne" -
Go where I may I'll think of you, as sure as night and morn;
The kindly spot, the friendly town, where every one is known,
And not a face in all the place but partly seems my own;
There's not a house or window, there's not a field or hill,
But east or west, in foreign lands, I'll recollect them still;
I leave my warm heart with you, though my back I'm forced to turn--
Adieu to Belashanny and the winding banks of Erne."
So also John Hewitt in his poem "Ulster Names".