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Land units in Ireland

Ireland is divided into four Provinces (Munster, Connaught, Leinster and Ulster). These in turn are divided into counties. Ulster, for example has nine counties (Down, Armagh, Antrim, Derry, Fermanagh, Tyrone, Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan - the first six of which are contained within a comparatively recent political construct - Northern Ireland). The counties of Ireland are divided into Baronies which are further divided into Parishes. Each Parish is made up of a number of Townlands. Townlands vary a lot in size. The average size of a townland in Northern Ireland is 144 hectares but the biggest (Slievedoo, County Tyrone) is more than 1840 hectares while the smallest (Acre McCricket, County Down) ) is just 1.6 hectares.

These divisions evolved over many years. Baronies and Counties are less than 800 years old, having been introduced by the Anglo-Normans, although the names chosen for these were often older, existing ones, Provinces existed from the earliest records so must be particularly ancient. It seems that there were once five provinces with the fifth being centred around Meath. Parishes are part of the system of organisation of the Christian Church — Provinces are divided into Dioceses, which in turn are made up of Deaneries each of which contains a number of Parishes. Since the introduction of Christianity predates the Norman invasion of Ireland, the Christian land units must be older than both Counties and Baronies. It is in Anglo-Norman times, in the 12th Century, that Townlands are first recorded, but they are believed to be much older than that. Gregory Toner and Michael O'Mainnin (Place-names of Northern Ireland 1992), point out that the precursors of the Townlands were referred to in Latin sources as villa or carucata and in English sources as 'town' or 'ploughland', the same terms as used a century earlier in England in the Domesday Book. Baile (Bally) appears to have been adopted as the equivalent term in Irish Gaelic and is now a very common component in Irish placenames.

The first major publications which interpreted Irish placenames were by P.W.Joyce from 1869, although he acknowledges the contribution made by Dr William Reeves, a Church of Ireland Bishop of Connor, and by John O'Donovan, an Irish scholar employed by the Ordnance survey to verify placename spellings for the 1820s' and 1830s' editions of the first 1:10560 (six inches to one mile) maps of Ireland. It is fitting that John O'Donovan went on to become the first professor of Celtic at Queen's University, where placename research continues to this day. One recent development was the publication of a series Place-names of Northern Ireland between 1992 and 1997. Just seven volumes have been produced, four for County Down (Newry and South-West Down, The Ards, The Mournes, and North-West Down/Iveagh), two for County Antrim (The Baronies of Toome and Ballycastle and North-East Antrim) and one for County Derry (The Moyola Valley).

While much of the research into the meanings of placenames is done by linguists, the results are very important for geographers. As Dr Eamon Lankford, of the Cork and Kerry Placenames Survey, says

"Placenames identify us as a people, they give us a sense of history, culture, heritage ... they tell us the way we viewed and used the landscape over the centuries ... they are hugely important"