There are 32 counties in Ireland, 26 in the Republic, and 6 in the North. We also often hear about the four provinces (Ulster, Leinster, Munster, and Connaught), especially in sports like Rugby.
Irish administrative divisions for the genealogist are unfortunately a lot more complicated than that. This page tries to help you make some sense of it!
Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland
The island of Ireland is split into two parts: the independent “Republic of Ireland” and “Northern Ireland”, which is part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The island measures 84,421 km², of which the Republic has 70,273 km². The latter has a population of 4,803,748; the North has 1,685,267 (2018 figures).
The four provinces
The names of the four provinces of Ireland are derived from pre-Norman kingdoms. There were however a lot more than four kingdoms when the Normans invaded Ireland in 1171 under the leadership of Strongbow. This was really a private enterprise. The (Norman) kings of England followed quickly, to prevent Strongbow becoming a threat. They established four military districts, to aid the occupation. It was these that took the names of former kingdoms. The reason why we nowadays only hear about them in sports is because the provinces have no longer any official status.
The former royal houses of these four kingdoms were: Connacht in the West (O’Connor); Leinster in the East (MacMurrough); Munster in the South (O’Brien); and Ulster in the North (O’Neill).
The counties of the province of Connacht are: Galway, Leitrim, Mayo, Roscommon, and Sligo. Its flag shows an eagle and a sword.
The counties of the province of Leinster are: Carlow, Dublin, Kildare, Kilkenny, Laois, Longford, Louth, Meath, Offaly, Westmeath, Wexford and Wicklow. Its flag is a harp set on a green background.
The counties of the province of Munster are: Clare, Cork, Kerry, Limerick, Tipperary, and Waterford. Its flag shows three gold crowns on a blue background.
The counties of the province of Ulster are Antrim, Armagh, Cavan, Derry/Londonderry, Donegal, Down, Fermanagh, Monaghan, and Tyrone. Its flag highlights a red hand on a shield set on a background of gold/orange with a red cross.
Antrim, Armagh, Derry (also called Londonderry), Down, Fermanagh, and Tyrone are part of Northern Ireland, the other three are part of the Republic of Ireland.
The 32 counties
As mentioned, there are 32 counties. In present-day Ireland, it is these counties that most people identify themselves with. The counties were also a Norman invention. The first county to be established was Dublin, always the center of the occupier’s power. This was in the 12th Century, immediately following the invasion. The last county, Wicklow, was not established until 1606.
When doing your research, you should note that some counties have changed name over time. For obvious reasons Kings County (Offaly) and Queens County (Laois) no longer have the names given to them by the English.
Baronies have been obsolete since 1898. Up to then, however, land and property valuations were organised according the barony, so it is worth being able to identify the barony in which an ancestor’s townland (see below) was located.
There are ecclesiastical (church; and to make things more complicated, there are Catholic and Church of Ireland ones, both covering Ireland but of course with completely different boundaries) and civil parishes and they have nothing to do with each other. The civil parish is the one we deal with here. Each county is made up of a number of civil parishes. County Leitrim has only 17. However, many others have over 100 civil parishes. In total there are ca. 2,500 civil parishes in Ireland. In the past, they were responsible for the maintenance of Irish land and property taxes and records.
The townland is the smallest and most fundamental of all Irish land divisions. Townlands vary greatly in size and population, but they are all fairly small If you are able to find the townland from which your ancestors hail, you will get a pretty good idea of what life looked like for them. Townlands were the basis of census returns from 1821. You should note that some of them no longer exist, and others in name only.
If you are confused, you are not the only one! Hopefully, this short explanation helps. And as always, if you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact us.