The Parish

This is the smallest division in the administration of the Catholic Church. Parishes evolved around the old monastic centres, but formal parish organization dates from the eleventh and twelfth centuries when, in 1106, Gilbert, Bishop of Limerick, devised a new system of diocesan and parochial organization.

Territorially Roman Catholic parishes are, in the main, amalgamations of two or more pre-Reformation ones. In some instances the centre of settlement in the parish became the name of the parish with the old names dropped. The Reformation saw the dissolution of the monasteries and the confiscation of Church lands and property.

Subsequently, the Catholic and Protestant Churches adopted separate parochial systems, the latter maintaining the old system, and the former establishing larger parishes, some of which were later subdivided following increases in population in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the seventeenth century the suppression of the Catholic Church by the Penal laws resulted in upheaval, destroying the Church structure as it had survived since medieval times.

However, the RC parish had no administrative status but is important as records were kept of parishioners’ baptisms and marriages and, occasionally, burials. The commencement date of these records varies from parish to parish. These records were not kept for historical purposes and so the information contained in the registers is not consistent from parish to parish or within a parish, e.g. some parishes contain no townland or street addresses while others might include the address plus the father’s occupations.

The parochial structures of today have little in common with those of the Middle Ages. The majority of parish churches date from the early nineteenth century and were located in villages and towns, illustrating that Catholic parishes were bases at centres of rural and urban population.

After the Reformation the original parish unit and name continued to be used by the Anglican Church which in Ireland became known as the Church of Ireland (Protestant Church). Some of the C of I parishes were united by the mid-seventeenth century. Today, because of diminishing numbers, they have been formed into Unions but the original parish names are still retained within the Unions.

The Diocese

Roman Catholic

Prior to the Synod of Rathbreasail in 1111 the Irish ecclesiastical system was organized on a monastic basis. This synod established the two ecclesiastical provinces of Armagh and Cashel while the Synod of Kells, in 1152, introduced two further ecclesiastical provinces, those of Tuam and Dublin. Today, there are twenty-six Roman Catholic dioceses and they remain unaffected by the political division of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, with the four dioceses of Derry, Armagh, Clogher and Kilmore having parishes in both jurisdictions.

Church of Ireland

The Church of Ireland has two Archbishoprics; the Archbishopric of Armagh, in the northern province, which is divided into eight dioceses covering Northern Ireland and the counties north of a line from Dublin to Galway, and the Archbishopric of Dublin, consisting of six dioceses in the southern province.


The townland is the smallest territorial division of civil administration. Dating from medieval times or earlier, it was used to identify a small area of land on a local level.
These small divisions of land were later used as the basis for plantation grants in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and were considerably altered following subdivisions. The townland was used, not only for regular land transactions such as the imposition of rents, but also as the primary division in major land valuations, surveys and census such as the Tithe Applotment books, and Griffith’s Valuation.

It has lost some of its administrative functions although it is still of use for statistical purposes. Its significance now lies primarily in enabling the identification of small localized rural areas. Parts of an individual townland may lie in different civil parishes, and may be, but not necessarily so, in different in Roman Catholic parishes. The same townland names can be found in different parishes and counties.

The Civil Parish

The civil parish is, in effect, the pre-Reformation Catholic parish and this became the smallest division of the Established Church. It has been used in most official surveys as a minor unit of civil administration.
By the nineteenth century its functions had ceased and its unimportance is illustrated by its absence from the 1898 Act.

Brian Mitchell’s map of the civil parishes of the counties of Ireland from his book,
A New Genealogical Atlas of Ireland, published by the Genealogical Publishing Co. Inc., Baltimore, 1986, is useful for anyone undertaking genealogical research as it lists and pinpoints the location of each civil parish.

District Electoral Divisions (DEDS)

These are units made up of townlands and were introduced in the nineteenth century. In the late 1830s numbers of DEDs were brought together to form a Poor Law Union. Accordingly, the Poor Law Rate Books, Minutes and official reports relating to the elected Poor Law Guardians (who administered the union) relate to that particular group of DEDS.

In 1864, when civil registration of deaths, births and marriages was introduced, the unit of registration was a dispensary district which was made up of a number of DEDS.

When one is researching civil records both the civil/pre-Reformation and RC parishes are irrelevant. The likely dispensary district where the birth was recorded can be determined if one knows the townland the family lived in.

The 1901 and 1911 censuses are also recorded on the DED unit.

Poor Law Unions

Under the Irish Poor Law Act of 1838 the country was divided into 159 Poor Law Unions and each union was responsible for administering relief to the poor and destitute within its boundaries.  Unions were subdivided into electoral divisions and each division elected representatives to serve on a Board of Guardians, which administered the workhouse in its area.

The Barony

The barony has its origins in the ancient territorial divisions of Ireland when families or septs had control over a small area of land. With the arrival of the Normans theses tribal lands formed the basis for the creation of baronies. The barony was of great administrative importance as illustrated by its use in major land surveys since Cromwellian times. In the eighteenth century rates levied by the Grand Jury (a panel of local nobility and landlords with responsibility for civil government in the county), were paid on a barony basis.

The nineteenth century saw an increase in the importance of the barony with the holding of presentment sessions in each. Every census until 1901 used the barony as a denominator. Baronies ceased to hold administrative prominence following the 1898 Local Government Act.

Baronies were the biggest sub-division of a county and though no longer in use are an important identification when researching in records that are arranged firstly by county and then by barony within that county.

The County

In Norman times the county was administered by a sheriff whose duties included arranging court sessions, collection of taxes, and overseeing Crown properties and lands. The county was the unit for administration of justice, later incorporating other functions including maintenance of courthouses, asylums, roads and hospitals. With the development of the Poor Law System in the nineteenth century, the county administered poor relief on an organized basis.

Gradually, the range of administrative duties of the county necessitated a more organized system of local government. The 1898 Local Government Act confirmed the administrative importance of the county unit, while the organization of sporting clubs, particularly the G.A.A., has insured peoples’ identification with their native county. County Councils today provide a wide range of services such as housing, roads, water, libraries, planning and fire services.

The Province

Provinces are an old historical division though they have ceased to have an administrative role today. The four provinces of Ireland are Connaught, Leinster, Munster and Ulster.