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Of all the administrative units of different sizes and various origins into which rural Ireland is divided . . . it is the townland which most closely touches the daily life and social relations of the countryman.
Townlands are now the smallest administrative land divisions used in Ireland. T. Jones Hughes has suggested that apart from that of the provinces and certain counties, the townland network is in fact the only surviving administrative structure with a continuous history of development going back to medieval times if not earlier. One of the reasons he puts forward for its endurance is that, in the absence of separate names for individual homesteads in the countryside, other than the names of the families that lived in them, the townlands became the sole means of distinguishing between small areas locally; and thus their layouts have been familiar to the countryman over many centuries. Moreover, Irish names of places are mainly the names, not of settlements, but of land units and as such they acquired legal title at an early date. They were the basic divisions of the countryside and were carefully recorded in the maps and books that accompanied the great land transfers of the seventeenth century. Their names for the most part are easily recognisable in those of the modern townlands appearing in the Ordnance Survey maps, the first edition of which was completed for the whole country c.1842. The personal name element in many of them e.g. Ballymoloney, Ballyslattery, Ballymulqueeny, Cloontymurphy, Sheshodonnell etc. hark back to the days of tribal Ireland. They tell us the names of the various septs and where their divisions were located within the overall tribal lands.
In the compilation of the Ordnance Survey all of the earlier archaic subdivisions of the Triocha Cét, or Barony, were discarded and the term townland applied to every such denomination, great or small. Distinguished scholars such as Eugene O'Curry and John O'Donovan were commissioned to provide the Survey with the anglicised forms of the Irish place-names, and it is these anglicised forms that have been in general use ever since. It will be seen therefore that many of the old land units that figured large in the surveys and land transfers of earlier times have crystallised as townlands in the modern maps. There are upwards of sixty thousand townlands in Ireland.
One further matter in relation to the General Survey should be noted. In defining the townland boundaries the surveyors were required to have regard to the arrangements then in place for collecting the Grand Jury rates and taxes. This proviso, as Larcom has pointed out, sometimes resulted in boundaries which were at odds with long-established local customs and traditions of land usage being arbitrarily laid down on the maps purely on grounds of convenience. Moreover, where the estate of a prominent landlord encompassed say two or more old denominations, it was sometimes deemed more convenient to lump these together to form one modern townland, which, more often than not, was then given the name of the 'big house'. The following letter now preserved among the Survey papers provides and example of such an arrangement:
I remain your obedient servant,
It seems of interest to mention that two of the four places mentioned in the letter are still known locally by their old appellations notwithstanding that they have been officially subsumed in Roxton townland for upwards of one hundred and fifty years.