Administrative Divisions within the County


From c.1600s


From c.1840:


From 1864 also:


Note also that between c.1840 and 1898 part of Coleraine Poor Law Union lay within Co. Antrim and part of Ballymoney Poor Law Union lay within Co. Londonderry. After the County Council Act of 1898 the two areas were exchanged between counties.

From the seventeenth century until the middle of the nineteenth century the administrative divisions within Ireland were Townland, Parish, Barony, County and Province.

The provinces of Ulster, Leinster, Munster and Connaught are historic divisions which date back to pre-existing Gaelic divisions.

The county system as a form of territorial division was introduced into Ireland shortly after the Norman Conquest in the late twelfth century. The creation of counties or shires was gradual, however, and did not reach into Ulster until the late sixteenth century. The counties of Coleraine, Donegal and Tyrone along with Armagh and Monaghan were created c.1585. Sometime later the county of Cavan, which had been included in the province of Connaught, was added to the province of Ulster. The county of Londonderry was not formed until 1613 and was created out of the existing county of Coleraine and parts of the neighbouring counties of Antrim, Donegal and Tyrone.

The barony was a unit used in Ireland between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries for administrative (census, taxation, and legal) purposes. Drawn on pre-existing Gaelic divisions, the baronies consisted of large groupings of townlands within a county. They were superseded as an administrative unit by the creation of county councils in 1898.

The civil parish was a territorial division within the barony. Civil parishes largely follow the pattern that was established in medieval times, drawn largely along ecclesiastical lines. Ecclesiastical parishes do not always coincide with civil parish boundaries. However, within Co. Londonderry civil parishes are generally synonymous with the Church of Ireland parishes. Note that Roman Catholic parishes usually cover different areas.

The townland is the smallest administrative territorial unit in Ireland, varying in size from a single acre to over 7,000 acres. Originating in the older Gaelic dispensation, townlands were used as the basis of leases in the estate system, and subsequently to assess valuations and tithes in the nineteenth century. The townland remained the basic recording unit within the census until 1926.

With the introduction of the Poor Law in the 1840s, new administrative divisions were introduced based on the Poor Law Unions. Within the new and the old systems the one unit of administration that never changed was the townland.

Within each county, and sometimes beyond it, Poor Law Unions were centred on the main market towns. In Co. Londonderry the PLUs were Coleraine, Magherafelt, Limavady and the City of Londonderry. Part of Coleraine Union was in Co. Antrim and part of Londonderry Poor Law Union was in Co. Donegal. In Co. Antrim the PLUs were Belfast, Lisburn, Antrim, Larne, Ballymena, Ballymoney and Ballycastle. Part of Ballymoney PLU extended into Co. Londonderry around Kilrea.

Each Poor Law Union was further subdivided into District Electoral Divisions usually referred to as DEDs. The DEDs were grouped by district. These districts were the Dispensary Districts created after the Medical Charities Act of 1851. These same districts also doubled as the Local Registrars' Districts after the introduction of compulsory civil registration of all marriages, births and deaths in 1864. The Poor Law Unions were also the Superintendent Registrars' Districts overseeing the Local Registrars' Districts.

Under the County Council Act of 1898 another set of Administrative divisions was introduced based on County Councils, Urban District Councils and Rural District Councils. The area covered by each Rural District was more or less synonymous with the local Poor Law Union except where Poor Law Unions, such as Coleraine and Ballymoney, had crossed the county boundary. The DEDs and the Dispensary/Registrars' Districts introduced earlier in the century remained more or less the same within the county, except for some changes at county boundaries. Apart from some further changes in DEDs after partition in 1921, this administrative system lasted until the 1970s when new Local Government Districts were introduced. It now looks as if we are about to experience new administrative divisions in the near future.

It is important to know where the various Parishes, Baronies, DEDs and Poor Law Unions are located within a county. I have, therefore, produced a number of maps and databases that should be of some help to you. Note that these maps do not give any details of townlands within parishes or DEDS. For a list of townlands within a particular parish, DED, etc., you should always use the appropriate couinty database.

The Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland has produced a series of maps known as the Discoverer Series. Each sheet provides both a normal, up to date, OS map at a scale of 1:50000 on one side of the sheet and, on the other side of the sheet, a map of the location and layout of all the townlands covering that area - click here for details.

Copyright 2010 W. Macafee.