Surveys and Sources
Up until the mid-nineteenth century when the Ordnance Survey brought a
degree of standardisation to rural spatial management by measuring each
townland, and giving it a defined boundary and a name, there was very
little uniformity in the methods of land subdivision and measurement.
Instead a confusing plethora of spatial designations and standards of
measurement were in use in different parts of the country.
In Clare there was a subdivision of the baile called a leath-bhaile
signifying half, which gave us the townlands of Lavally, Lavally North
and Lavally South etc. More common was the Ceathrú (quarter)
which loosely amounted to 120 acres. It was sometimes called a seisreach,
or ploughland, a term said to have derived from seisir, six,
and each, a horse, and it was thus probably an approximation
of the amount of land that six horses might be expected to turn up in
a certain fixed period. Then there was the leath-cheathrú
(i.e.half a quarter) amounting to sixty acres e.g. Lecarrow More and Lecarrow
Beg etc., the ceathrú mór, big quarter, and the
ceathrú mír, small quarter e.g. Carrowvere in Rath
parish. Other subdivisions included the trian, the third part,
from which derive the townlands named Treanmanagh 
in Kilkeedy and Kilmurry-Ibrickane parishes; cúigiú,
(cooga) a fifth part, detectable in the townlands of Cooga and Cooguquid;
seiseadh, a sixth part (e.g. Sheshia, Sheshodonnell, Sheshymore,
Shessiv etc.); and deichiú (a tenth part) which gives
its name to the townland of Dehomade in Clondagad parish. The apparent
anomaly of the ‘big’ and ‘small’ quarter, ploughland
etc. can be explained by the fact that land was invariably reckoned for
its economic potential rather than in absolute units of measurement. Specifically
it was categorised as either ‘profitable’ or ‘unprofitable’,
but since only the profitable acres were reckonable for rental and leasing
purposes, the ‘quarters’ in the marginal mountainous districts
were therefore generally larger than those in the more fertile lowlands.
This feature of the old agrarian economy was afterwards carried over into
the ordnance survey townland network which emerged in the 1840s. A good
example is the townland of Slieveanore situated in the Aughty mountains
near the border with Galway. This single townland, the largest in the
county, contains some 3168 statute acres, an area, for example, that exceeds
that of the entire civil parish of Bunratty.
Surveys and Sources
It is uncertain when townlands were first named as distinct spatial entities
but it is clear that by the medieval period they had acquired legal title
as designated units for landholding purposes. Recognisable versions of
modern townland names are encountered in the records from medieval times
onwards. One of the most important Gaelic sources is Edmund Hogan’s
Onomasticon Goedelicum which amounts to a huge collection of
early place-names found in Gaelic and Latin sources.
More specific to Co.Clare is Seán Mac Craith’s epic narrative:
Cathréim Thoirdealbhaigh (Triumphs of Turlough) a fourteenth
century account of events in Thomond during the period 1276-1311. Apart
from its undoubted historical value as a near-contemporary account of
events in Clare during a time when no man ‘that could hold a sword
scarce let it from his hand while he slept’, the Cathréim
is a kind of Gazetteer of the county, full of toponymic material of great
Of even greater toponymic value are the so-called O’Brien
and MacNamara Rentals believed to date from the fourteenth century and
published with a translation by James Hardiman in 1826.
Between them they provide a list of upwards of two hundred (200) denominations,
the earliest and most extensive list we have of Co. Clare townlands before
the seventeenth century surveys. Hardiman’s renderings into English
of the Irish denominations are, however, in some instances, simply literal
translations of the core elements of the particular place-names and consequently
his list requires careful editing. It is necessary to draw attention to
this matter here since Hardiman’s list was later published virtually
unaltered by Frost in his History of Clare.
Extracts from the rentals for all except the western baronies will be
found under the various Triocha Céts in Sean Ó hÓgáin’s
Conntae An Chláir.
With the aid of Ó hÓgáin’s excellent glossary,
and other sources such as the Book
of Survey and Distribution
and various O’Brien estate papers that have since become available,
it is now possible to reconcile almost all of the denominations listed
in the rentals with modern townland equivalents.
The earliest comprehensive survey of Clare was made on
the direction of Henry Strafford, the Lord Deputy, for the purpose of
a projected plantation of Connacht and adjoining regions in 1637-38. Twenty
years later the Strafford Survey became the basis for the Down Survey
of Co. Clare. Begun in 1656, the Down Survey, under the direction of Dr.
William Petty, provided the Commonwealth government with a detailed account
of the ownership of land in every parish and barony of the county. The
Clare Down Survey maps therefore
represent an extrapolation from two surveys, the one for the purpose of
the Strafford Plantation and the other for that by the Commonwealth.
On the basis of the surveys official records of landed proprietors and
their estates were constructed as a preliminary to the imposition of an
acreable rent called a Quit Rent. Known as the Books
of Survey & Distribution, these records preserve the names
of the smallest territorial divisions and are indispensable to anyone
dealing with place-names.
Petty’s County Map 1685
Another useful seventeenth-century source for Clare place-names
is Bishop Worth’s Account Book, or survey of the lands
owned by the Protestant diocese of Killaloe in the 1660s.
The Account Book contains the names and other particulars of various portions
of land scattered throughout the diocese, which anciently were the termon
lands of the old native monastic houses, but were sequestered by the Protestant
Church following the Reformation.
Apart from those listed above there are numerous other
sources that can assist us in determining the location and extent of places
mentioned in various historical records. The ‘Indenture for Thomond’,
a taxation agreement between the crown and the chieftains of Clare in
1585 as part of the over all plan for the “Composition” of
Connacht is a virtual micro-toponymy of the county.
The “fiant”, or warrant to chancery, authorising the issue
of letters patent by Queen Elizabeth under the agreement, lists all the
old tribal territories, or Triocha Céts, of Clare, each divided
into named quarters consisting of 120 acres. Additional material pertaining
to place-names will be found in the other surviving fiant calendars now
housed in the National Archives. Other sources for Co.Clare place-names
which deserve mention are the various maps and rentals pertaining to the
estates of the earls of Thomond, barons Inchiquin, Burtons, Studderts,
Macnamaras, Fitzgeralds and other landed families. Grand Jury and Tithe
Applotment Records are other valuable sources of place-name information.
As we have already seen, standardisation of place-names and units of land
measurement had to wait for the setting up of the Ordnance Survey in 1824.
The primary purpose of the survey was to facilitate a general valuation
of the country as a preliminary to reforming the methods of collecting
the Grand Jury assessments. As the survey and valuation were to be based
on the English statute acre, the old archaic land measures e.g. ‘quarters’,
‘cartrons’, ‘coogas’ etc. were discarded and thereafter
it was the ‘townland’, its area marked down in acres, roods
and perches, that dominated on the maps. Amongst those employed at various
times by the Survey to assist with the difficult task of standardising
the Irish place-names were two of the great scholars of their time –
John O’Donovan and Eugene O’Curry.
Working from old spellings and sometimes a variety of local pronunciations
they attempted to establish a consistency in the spelling of the anglicised
versions of the same Irish place-name, while at the same time endeavouring
to preserve as far as possible the integrity of its meaning as it was
understood by the local people. O’Donovan’s work in particular
on the place-names of Ireland, both for the Survey (for which he compiled
a list of over 140,000 place-names) and later as professor of Celtic Studies
at the Queen’s College, Belfast, remains unequalled to this day,
and he has justly been described as ‘the most remarkable individual
ever to work in the field of Irish toponymy.’
Among the many highlights in his distinguished career is his masterly
edition of the Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland, his footnotes
to the text replete with identifications of place-names throughout the
length and breath of the country. After O’Donovan, probably the
most important figure in the field of Irish onomastics was the Limerick
native, P.W. Joyce, whose three-volume study of The origin and history
of Irish names of places, published between 1869-1913, still maintains
its place as the standard reference work on the subject.