IrelandXO Insight - Your County just before the Famine

Sunday, 1 March, 2020
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Did you know that every county in Ireland was described in exquisite detail by Lewis in 1837? Whether your ancestors emigrated or lived in the same place for generations, nothing beats a look back to what life was like there just before the Great Famine.

Click your ancestral county link below to discover all sorts of insights such as local farming practices, housing conditions, and customs unique to "the peasantry".

First published in 1837, Lewis' Topographical Dictionary of Ireland is one of the most valuable and unique sources of local history in Ireland.  The equivalent of a tourist's "Lonely Planet Guide" in its day, this dictionary came in two volumes, with an accompanying atlas.

If you have traced your ancestors to a particular county in Ireland, this resource can provide local insights into their lives and the district in which they lived. In it, Lewis gives an extensive description of 

  • every Irish county, town and parish, and their location;
  • various industries in areas around the country; 
  • civil and religious parishes are identified and churches described;
  • the principal estates and seats (big houses) in the area landowners, agents and gentry residing in the area; 
  • the Roman Catholic district in which the parish is located, along with the corresponding name of the Catholic Parishes;
  • Historical insights into the impact the Act of Union of Great Britain & Ireland had on local government;
  • the history, geography, anecdotes, superstitions, and the life of the people in an area.

Having personally visited many of the sites in this book, Lewis also invited knowledgeable members of the local gentry in each area to proof-read his pages and add changes that had taken place in the meantime. It was certainly a groundbreaking publication in its day. 

As it was published around the same time as the First Ordnance Survey of Ireland (aka the "6 inch" maps) it is of particular value to those with placename clues that don't seem to match up to modern-day maps:

  • The spellings of place names in these volumes are as written at that time, and they differ from spellings that are found on other documentation.
  • Where an Irish place name was found to be spelt in two different ways, a reference has been given from one to the other.
  • The "parish" to which Lewis refers is the civil parish (that matches the Church of Ireland parish).
  • As this was published in the 1830s (when Catholic Emancipation was rolling out) Lewis also indicates whether the Catholic parish was "co-extensive" (same name, same boundaries) or known by another name (and how many divisions or unions applied).
  • He differentiates local places of worship by "chapel" (Roman Catholic) and "church" (Protestant). Many rural RC chapels at that time were no more than thatched houses (donated by the local landlord). 
  • The names of local courthouses, gaols and police stations of that time are also noted.
  • Be sure to check out the entry under TOWNS for inspiration as to where your ancestor may have come from as well. (To help you match these places to their relevant civil parish we have added links where possible). 

YOUR COUNTY IN 1837

Remember to explore adjoining counties as some county borders were changed later in the 19th century. 

SOURCE: A Topographical Dictionary of Ireland by Samuel Lewis (pub 1837)

FAQs

Where can I find the Lewis entry for my ancestral parish in Ireland?

Browse our TIMELINE CHRONICLES for your parish in 1837 or search all Lewis transcriptions at LibraryIreland.ie

Where can I get prints of the original Lewis county maps? 

The L Brown Collection offers high-resolution sepia tone Lewis Maps in its extensive collection of Irish maps. 


Got an ancestor who lived in Ireland in the 1830s?

We'd love if you shared their story to #BringTheirMemoryHome...  

ADD THEIR NAME to our  Ancestor Chronicles


Could you help us post more timelines for your local parish or county? 

SHARE YOUR OWN  Local History Timeline