As anyone studying their family history knows, place names are of vital importance when looking for evidence of our ancestors’ lives. We need to know where to look for proof of their existence, so we can move even further back into history. Navigating the place names of an ancient country like Ireland can test even the most patient and experienced in genealogy.
When we find a place name associated with Ireland AND with our particular ancestor, it is cause for celebration, because locating these associations can be a difficult and lengthy process for many of us. Then comes the “translation” necessary with such a find. At best, the referred -to location is a place we have not heard of, but can easily find on a modern-day Google map. At worst, we could be dealing with spellings that are nowhere near the original spelling of the place name, names for places that are no longer used, or were only ever just local in origin. We don’t know what type of “place” the “place” we have found is. Is it a county? A barony? A parish? A townland? What are all those things, anyway?
I remember the happy find of a gravestone for my gg grandfather, James Walsh, in Troy, NY in the 1970’s. I took the hour-long drive down to Troy with my parents from our home in Fort Edward, and there we were thrilled to find not only James’ final resting place, but that the family had had the foresight to record his place of origin on it- “Osary, Queen’s County, Ireland”! That was when the fun began. It took a bit of doing in those days before the instant information of the internet to decode the message on the gravestone. The first clue came from the county name of Queen’s. No modern map of Ireland has any county by that name (nor the former King’s County, either). As you would imagine, a newly-independent Ireland in the 1920’s might be disinclined to use any name that reminded them of their former political situation. Hence, Queen’s County was changed to Laois, and King’s County was changed to Offaly.
Next, “Osary”- clearly a place in the former Queen’s County, but where? Maps and gazetteers in libraries were consulted, and the closest match to be found was a townland called “Borris-in-Ossory”, and additionally, a Catholic diocese simply called “Ossory” which comprises most of County Kilkenny, as well as parts of Laois and Offaly. So this was as far as we ever got in the 1970’s, and it turned out to be a great clue and an approximate area. Better accessibility to records in the 1990’s helped me to determine James Walsh was actually baptized in the Catholic Parish of Aghaboe, which lies within the Diocese of Ossory, and nearby the townland of Borris-in-Ossory. So whoever was in charge of the gravestone knew what they were talking about, even if they were not able to spell!
So what resources can the genealogist of 2014 use to determine what type of place name they are looking at? One source I return to again and again is here: http://www.irish-place-names.com/ This site allows the user to enter a full or partial place name in any one of 6 fields- place name, county, province, barony, civil parish, or poor law union. If the name does not show up in one, it may very well appear in another, in which case you will know what type of place it refers to. Another search engine for place names appears at: https://www.irishtimes.com/ancestor/placenames/ This search engine allows an “advanced search” but is not as forgiving as the partial search at the site above. The Irish Times site does have links to great maps which show civil and catholic parish and poor law union boundaries. I have yet to find an online database that will tell someone what Catholic parish their particular townland lies in, so if anyone knows of one, please pass on that information!