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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Research: Irish Ancestor  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).


Irish Geography

Prior to 1922 Ireland was a united country containing four provinces, each comprising several counties:

Chart: The Provinces and Counties of Ireland





Leix or Laois(Queens) Tipperary






Offaly (Kings)




In 1922 Ireland was divided into two parts:

Northern Ireland known colloquially as Ulster, but containing only 6 of the 9 counties of the old Ulster, (Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone). The capital is Belfast and the religion is Protestant, with a Catholic minority. It remains part of the British Isles.

Eire or the Republic of Ireland is known colloquially as Ireland and formerly as the Irish Free State. This contains all of the provinces of Connaught, Leinster and Munster, as well as the counties of Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan from the former Ulster. The former capital of Dublin has been retained, and the religion is mainly Catholic.

In 1974, along with county boundary changes in other parts of the United Kingdom, the 6 counties of Northern Ireland were subdivided into 26 boroughs.

Chart: Map of Ireland pre-1 April 1974

Reproduced with permission of The Federation of Family History Societies

Irish 3A.jpg

Chart: Map of Northern Ireland post-1974

Map of Northern Ireland post 1974.jpg

Administrative Subdivisions

Ireland has been subdivided into a variety of overlapping jurisdictions for different administrative purposes. The family historian will encounter these terms on maps, censuses, land valuations, church registers, Poor Law records, voting lists and other records. Their boundaries have changed over the years to reflect current population and administrative changes. The most frequently encountered subdivisions are:

  • Baronies
    The Barony was a major division of a county based on the old tribal boundaries and equivalent to an English hundred. There were 331 baronies but they are not very useful for genealogy. Maps can be found in Gardner, Harland and Smith, and in Mitchell’s Atlas.
  • Poor Law Unions
    The Poor Law Relief Act of 1838 divided Ireland into civil districts called Poor Law Unions comprising groups of civil parishes united in their raising of taxes and support for the poor of their area. 163 unions had been created by 1850 and they were the basis for the later Registration Districts. Maps can be found in Mitchell’s Atlas.
  • Probate Districts
    In 1858, along with England and Wales, the administration of probate matters was transferred from ecclesiastical to secular hands. In Ireland a principal registry and eleven district registries were established, and a basic map can be found in Mitchell’s Atlas and in Ryan’s text.
  • Registration Districts
    The 1863 Births, Marriages and Deaths (BMD) Act which established civil registration in Ireland required the establishment of civil registration districts. These were based upon the Poor Law Unions and each had a superintendent who oversaw the registration of BMD in his area. See the maps of Poor Law Unions in Mitchell’s Atlas.
  • Dioceses - Catholic and Church of Ireland
    Both the Church of Ireland (Anglican) and the Catholic Church had a comprehensive system of dioceses across the whole of Ireland. Each diocese was headed by a bishop and comprised a number of parishes headed by ministers or priests. The two church diaconal systems were not coterminous and frequently overlapped county boundaries. Maps of Church of Ireland dioceses can be found in Mitchell’s Atlas. Roman Catholic dioceses are complex and are also indicated in Mitchell’sAtlas.

Parishes – Civil and Ecclesiastical

Civil Parishes

Civil parishes are areas of local self-government containing several townlands and hamlets in the countryside, or several church parishes in cities. There are about 2,500 civil parishes in Ireland and they usually correspond well to the Church of Ireland parishes (see maps in Mitchell’s Atlas). However, do not be surprised to see them break both barony and county boundaries.

Ecclesiastical Parishes

Church parishes are the small areas containing one mother church over which an Anglican minister or Catholic priest presides. Church of Ireland (Anglican) parish boundaries are typically coterminous with civil parishes. Catholic parishes are larger and include several civil parishes. Presbyterians were mainly active in Ulster and do not have the same kind of parochial structure. Maps of these three major denominations can be found in Mitchell’s Atlas.

Cities and Towns

These are civil areas of various sizes and may be divided into several townships and parishes.

Electoral Divisions

The 3,751 District Electoral Divisions (DEDs) are civil jurisdictions created for election purposes in 1898. The genealogist will see them noted on the 1901 and 1911 censuses.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Research: Irish Ancestor offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.

  • This page was last modified on 14 September 2015, at 16:05.
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