The key to unlocking Irish family history origins is the knowledge of place. In tracing your roots in Derry the most important piece of information to treasure, to be gleaned from either family folklore or record sources, is any information as to a place of origin of your ancestors.
John Steinbeck, Nobel prize-winning author who visited Derry in August 1952 knew exactly where his roots lay: “We were looking for a place called Mulkeraugh. You can spell it half a dozen ways and it isn’t on any map. I knew from half-memory that it was near to Ballykelly, which is near to Limavady, and I knew that from Mulkeraugh you could look across the lough to the hills of Donegal.” Full details of Steinbeck’s eventful trip to Ireland were recorded in his article “I Go Back To Ireland” which was published in Collier’s Magazine of 31 January 1953 together with four photographs by his wife Elaine.
Samuel Hamilton, the maternal grandfather of John Steinbeck, was born at Mulkeeragh on 7 October 1830. The townland of Mulkeeragh, 335 acres in size, can be found just to the south-east of the village of Ballykelly.
From a family historian’s perspective the most effective way to view Derry is as a county which is subdivided into parishes and which in turn are subdivided into townlands. County Derry, prior to the 20th century, was administered by 46 civil parishes which contained 1248 townlands, with an average size of 408 acres.
As many records of genealogical value were compiled on a parish basis it means that realistic genealogical research, in the absence of indexes and databases, requires knowledge of the parish in which your ancestor lived. If sources are not indexed you then need to know where your ancestor lived before you can begin to select appropriate records to search.
Identification of the ancestral home in County Derry effectively means identifying the townland your ancestor lived in. The townland is the smallest and most ancient of Irish land divisions. The townland was named at an early period, and it usually referred to a very identifiable landmark in the local area such as a mountain, a bog, an oak forest, a village, a fort or a church.
Townlands vary greatly in area as their size was generally based on the fertility of the land. In Faughanvale Parish, which contains 66 townlands, the fertile lowland townland of Muff is some 318 acres in size, while Killywool which extends into the Loughermore Hills contains 1,471 acres. The townland was loosely based on the ancient Irish land measure called the ballyboe, which means cow townland. As a ballyboe was based on the area that could support a fixed number of cattle, it is not surprising that their size varied depending on land quality.