Tag Archives: townland

The Normans – Part 4 Legislative System

Just one hundred years after the Norman invasion, Ireland’s legal and court system was based on the Anglo Norman – England-Wales model. While the four provinces correspond to the old Gaelic or pre-Norman Kingdoms they never had much administrative significance. Ireland’s county system was based on the England’s shires and exists to this day. By the thirteenth century, Cork, Dublin, Kerry, Oriel(Louth), Tipperary and Waterford were complete shires in which itinerant justices held annual courts and the Kings officer for the county (the Shire Reeves – Sheriff) collected revenue for the King. During this (13th) century, Meath was created a separate shire while Connacht and Ulster were both regarded as shires.

The Barony was also introduced by the Anglo-Normans as a unit of Landownership being appropriate to the jurisdiction of a baron, whereas the origin of the word “county” would appear to be linked with the jurisdiction of a count. Each of the 32 counties was divided into baronies and like the counties varied greatly in size. From the sixteenth century on the barony was used as an administrative, tax and regional entity within the county. Representatives of counties and towns were elected to the parliament by 1300. During the 14th century it became increasingly the practice to summon the commons to parliament, and before the end of the century they had established the right to be present. By then parliament has assumed the representative character it was to retain right down to the present day.

The Parish is of great antiquity and essentially is an ecclesiastical territorial unit indicating the area which a clergyman had care of the spiritual needs of the community. It appears that by the time of the Norman invasion a network of parishes existed across Ireland and the Anglo Normans did little to alter the existing framework apart from rededicating churches to acknowledged saints. The extension of the Reformation and the dissolution of the Monastic orders during the 17th century tended to accompany the extension of the English rule in Ireland with the result that the existing parish framework was adopted by the Protestant churches and by the civilian authorities – hence the “civil parish”. While there are approximately 2,500 civil parishes in the country, many more Catholic religious parishes exist presently, because of new parishes being set up in expanding cities and large towns.

Townland is the smallest administrative division (as well as being one of the oldest) in the country and all the territorial divisions are collections of townlands.  The size of a townland may be regarded as a rough guide to the quality of the land as the bigger townlands are usually found in the poorer soil areas.  The average townland size in Ireland is 300 acres – approximately 121 Hectares. In mountainous areas the townlands may be as much as 2,000 acres; on the other hand in thickly-settled lowlands they are frequently less than 100 acres, and some anomalous fragments of an acre or two are designated townlands. The study of Ireland’s 65,000+ townlands(Griffith Valuation) names shows the nuances of the old Gaelic names and the attempted Anglicising of the names by English Cartographers who in the main carried out the job. The townland names, involving so many land holdings, are legal titles, and their Gaelic names, however erroneously spelt on the Ordnance Survey maps, are fossilized in their forms. Only an [Act of the Oireachtas] can alter them. A glance at any Ordnance map will reveal the strange names that Gaelic imagination contrived and English scribes corrupted. Be that as it may, most townland names can be traced back to its origins through its name.  These names were very often very descriptive of the location, its type of topography, its soil type etc. Townland names are still used as the address for all people residing outside of the cities and towns.