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Letters on the Antiquities of County Clare, 1835 by Eugene O’Curry
transcribed and edited by Brían Ó Dálaigh

Letter VII: Origins of the Triúch-céid; Bailte; Ploughlands, Townlands; discussion of Doonaha West

Lunatic Asylum Limerick

14 October 1835

My Dear Sir,

I fear my last letter was but of little interest to you nor will I promise that this will be found any better. You write to hear something from me on the origins of townlands, ploughlands &c. Ireland was originally divided into five provinces and these again into triúchaibh céid, and these again into bailtibh biadhtach and these again into seisreachaibh. But I believe division did not come lower at that time. A province or cúige was a grand division or fifth part of an unmeasured whole, but all its subdivisions were governed by limited and fixed principles. Thus, the triúch-céid was to contain 30 bailte (or towns), the baile, according to Keating, [contained] 12 seisreachta or ploughlands and the seisreach on the same authority contained 120 acres. But Hugh McCurtin says that the triúch-[céid] contained 100 bailte and the baile but four ploughlands. I am inclined to agree with McCurtin for reasons which I will mention hereafter. A baile, we have seen above, is a large division of country containing several ploughlands. There is no other divisional name so much in regular [use] as this, or so often misapplied as regards its original import. Many a baile has sprung up within my own memory – as when four men take a farm or baile in partnership, but soon disagreeing divide it into four quarters and immediately each division takes the name of its own master as Baile an Chrathaicc, Baile an Cháirthaicc, Baile an Róisticc, Baile an Chathánaicc and thus four bailte rise on the ruins of one and often leave the original baile to sink into oblivion and these in their turn give way to other divisions and other names and hence the difficulty of discovering the original.

This appears to be an ancient practice for you see the whole country immersed in the ploughlandic names of dún, lios, ráth, caisleán, for, cill, fearn, roinn, ceapach, &c. none of these names implies the extent or any quality of property in the divisions of lands to which they attach, but are circumstantial names derived mostly from the dwelling of, if not the primitive, at least the very early occupants. Dún Athaice ploughland, Lisfhinn ploughland, Rathúna ploughland, Caisleán Nuadh ploughland, Formuile ploughland, Cillfhiachra ploughland, Fearn Seáin ploughland, Roinn Anna ploughland, Ceapach Laithiú ploughland, &c. I take them from all parts of the county of Clare and nothing but particular and conscionable research could trace them to their respective townlands.

N.B. The baile meant the dwelling and the land together, or either without distinction. But in latter times it became necessary to be more precise and they distinguished the dwellings by the name of town and land by that of the townland, distinctly also from the ploughland. So they say the ploughland of Áit Uí Phaidín in the townland of Baile Uí Chealladh &c. This Baile Uí Chealladh is in the eastern part of Clare and I know its ploughlands well. In the western part of Clare near Carrigaholt but on the Atlantic there is a hill called Cnoc na Ceathramhna. The cluster of farm houses on its side is called Baile Nuadh (Newtown) this town is built on one of the ceathramhna called Ceathramh na bFhaoileán, this quarter would be but one ploughland according to McCurtin, containing but 120 acres according to Keating, but the ploughland, for such it is, contains very near four hundred acres and I am sure it is a quarter of a baile. So that there is some mistake between our authorities. A ploughland could not mean as much land as one plough would turn up in one year, for the 120 acres would not afford it a year’s work. I will show you presently that other ploughlands would be more than a year’s work.

I will instance the ploughland on which I was born and reared. Dúnathaicc Shiar or Dunaha West is a triangular piece of land with a line of bog running from north to south, more than a mile long, making its western boundary and its perpendicular the Shannon on its south, the base, and a pretty rapid stream on the east the hypotenuse. This piece of ground is called Dúnathaicc Shiar to mark it from Dúnathaicc Shoir, the ploughland at the other side of the stream. The latter being of the same shape with the former but reversed, the acute angle of one being lost at the base of the other. Both form a square, cut diagonally but somewhat unequally by the stream. Dunaha East is divided on the east by a stream from Cuibhream (a district containing two bailte, Baile Buidhe and Baile Dearg). So that here are two spots favourably located to enable us to arrive at the extent of a ploughland. Need I say that they take their names from one source, the athach, having a dún at either side of the intersecting stream; one of them (the principal) I spoke of in a former letter, the other has nothing remarkable about it. You will observe that the boundaries of the Dunaha’s are natural. They were never artificial or measured. Dunaha West contains 392 Irish acres and Dunaha East 342, which will average 360 to each ploughland. Now four such ploughlands would be a baile (according to McCurtin) containing 1440 acres while Keating’s baile of twelve ploughlands of 120 acres each, will make exactly 1440 acres also. But the great difference between them is in the number of bailte in a triúcha céid. It is possible that Keating took the word tríocha cead (as he writes it for thirty hundreds or Saxon cantreds). If he did he was wrong, and he is I think downright wrong in spelling the word for according to the rules of caol le caol and leathan le leathan (even without regard to terminations in the plural number) the word should be triúchaibh céid, in the plural. Consequently it is triúch in the singular and the cead follows to show that the triúch contained a hundred of something. Now Keating and McCurtin are agreed that bailtibh were the next division below triúchaibh so that triúch contained a 100 bailtibh. Whether the word triúch might not be a corruption of the word treabhach (a word by the bye very differently pronounced from the manner of its spelling), I will not take on myself to say. But I know a place called Triúch and a place called Leithtriúch, both names pronounced as they are spelt here.

I don’t know how I got into this discussion but I believe I have not got clane [sic] out of it. It is also very possible that this matter is clear to you already so much the better, I won’t be able to bother you. One word more (at present) on the divisions. I think that you will agree with me that at the original division of cúigidhe &c. there was no line or chain measurement, that all the divisions were circumscribed by natural or accidental boundaries, that some divisions of the same denominations must have been larger than others. Their respective extents depending in great measure on local circumstances. One man had this hill another had that valley… [incomplete]

Taken from NLI, Petrie Correspondence, Ms 792, iv, no. 375.

Letter 6