Identifying an Irish place-name can be maddeningly frustrating. You’ve found that all-important birth record and it supplies a precise address. Now you can unlock all those records of property, tax, inheritance, tenancy … Except that the place-name appears nowhere else. There is no Ballygowanowadat recorded anywhere except this one blasted birth record. Argh.
So here are a few tips to help crack tough place-names.
First, keep in mind that the standardisation of place-names by the Ordnance Survey in the 1830s covers only the OS maps themselves and Griffith’s Valuation. In every other record, record-keepers wrote down what they thought they heard. That could be a “sub-denominational” name omitted by the OS or (more likely) a phonetic form of a heavily accented local version of the name.
Accents live in vowels, so if you’re searching a database that allows wild-card searches, replace the vowels with wild-cards.
Second, remember that family lore about places of origin is the product of a multi-generational game of Chinese Whispers. What has arrived to you is encrusted with layers of your forebears’ mishearings. There are many castles in Kerry, but nowhere called “Kerry Castle”. But there is a village called Carracastle at the other end of the country, in Mayo.
We are now blessed with multiple online resources to identify placenames, so let me list them:
The 1851 Townlands Index:
Published in 1861, this uses the Ordnance Survey standard versions of place-names as assembled for the 1851 census. Because a facsimile reprint was published by The Genealogical Publishing Company in the 1970s, database transcripts are widely available.
- On this site. Expanded to include Registrar’s Districts as well as Dublin, Belfast and Cork street names. Wildcards possible.
- Shane Wilson’s site allows wild cards and browsing by sub-division
- Irish-Place-Names.com is a slick, easy-to-use version of the 1851, though not as useful as some others.
- Seanruad is a venerable and very thorough version, without wild-cards
This is the master-list used for the 1901 census. More extensive than 1851, – it includes District Electoral Divisions – but less widely available, simply because it has not been reprinted. The only online version is at the Irish Genealogical Research Society’s site. The search interface is a bit clunky, but actually allows you to pull up some unique data, for example all place-names on a particular OS sheet. And it has wild-cards.
Logainm is the Irish (Gaelic) for “place-name”. The site was originally set up by the now-defunct Irish Placenames Commission, whose mission was to identify the “original” Irish-language versions of anglicised names for official use. A large part of the site’s work still involves supplying these official versions, but it also provides public access and is more comprehensive than the Townlands Indexes, including geographic features and sub-denominational names omitted from these. It also has some wonderful historic maps in its “Toponymy resources” section. But no wild-cards.
OpenStreetMap.org is an open-source, collaborative project to map the world and make the results available free. Townlands.ie is the Irish end and is becoming more and more useful. Its main limitations are its focus on the present-day rather than the historic, and the need to use exact spelling. No wild-cards.
Google maps can be useful, though they seem to have embedded place-names that don’t show up on the map. More useful is just a blanket search for someplace that’s not turning up elsewhere. It may be via a match report for the under-eights football team or a local estate agent, but if the name exists and is in use, you’ll find it.
Irish place-names are much more than simple geographical indicators of location. They can embody family information (“Toomevara”, the tomb of the O’Mearas), folklore (The Paps of Anu) or even politics: in my own family’s home parish of Moore in south Roscommon are two townlands “Liberty” and “America”. The names must have come into existence in the late 1700s, local statements of solidarity with the American and French Revolutions.