What is a Parish?

Thursday, 7 September, 2017
Share This:

In Ireland, people most readily identify themselves with their Parish. It is how school and religious systems are generally organised. Parishes often ignore the boundaries of Towns and Counties, making them more specific to the local Community.  In the 19th Century, emigrants from Ireland usually named their Parish as their point of origin and Ireland Reaching Out seeks to connect their descendants back to that same place.

To help you understand more about what a Parish is, and also the different TYPES of Parish that exist, we have prepared a short, explanatory guide.  Remember, if at any time you are having trouble understanding where a Parish is or which one you might belong to, post a message on our Ireland XO global community message board.  We are here to help you.    


Sometimes this can get a little confusing but it is really important to know and understand the differences between these two geographical areas.

The Civil Parish

This type of parish boundary was the basis upon which the Griffith’s Valuation and other land and tax records were created in the 19th and 20th Century. There are about 2500 Civil Parishes in Ireland and they are seen as the administrative units of the State; firstly under the British and later under the Irish government. Like most genealogical sources, the Ireland XO website mostly operates on the basis of the Civil Parish.

The Ecclesiastical or Church Parish

These areas are a little more complicated! If you are looking for Roman Catholic or Church of Ireland (Protestant) records you will have to look at the Church Parish. As the latter was the established Church in Ireland for many years, the Civil Parish boundaries generally followed those of the Church of Ireland parishes. So in many ways the Church of Ireland parishes are more easily understood.

Sometimes Roman Catholic (RC) and Civil Parish are the same – the RC Parish of Killererin, Co. Galway and its civil counterpart are the same geographical area. However this is not always the case. For example the RC parish of Williamstown, Boyouanagh and Glenamaddy is in the Civil Parish of Templetogher. Another thing to consider is the fact that many RC Parishes have changed and/or amalgamated over the years and some have disappeared altogether. Many RC parishes in Ireland also share the same name which can add to the confusion.

So if your parish is not mentioned on our website, it may mean that you should ‘convert’ to the Civil Parish in order to find out more about it in land, tax, birth, marriage and death records. You can do this by looking at a map of Church Parishes and then comparing to the Civil Parish Map. There are a number of resources available to help including the Irish Times site and Shane Wilson’s Townland Explorer which converts the Civil to Church parish and vice versa.

The Irish Times

Townland Explorer

Find out more about Roman Catholic divisions in Ireland at  the Irish Episcopal Conference website


The townland is the smallest geographical unit and there are about 64,000 in Ireland. A townland can be as small as a field or can contain many acres. For example, the Parish of Killererin has 64 townlands while the parish of Williamstown has 50 townlands.

The townland is often mentioned in destination genealogical sources -  such as a ship's manifest or immigration archives.


Baronies are very old territorial divisions that were originally used more for the purpose of describing real property valuation and ownership than for political and administrative functions. A barony would probably have been awarded to someone in recognition of their service to the English Monarchs. A Barony was usually a very large landholding that was a subdivision of a County.

For genealogical research, there are a few interesting sources of information that are grouped by barony though the most important genealogical data is not. The first is the 1659 Census. This Census did not count the members of each household but broke each Barony down by Civil Parish and listed the wealthier landowners ("tituladoes").  Within the Barony, households with specific surnames were counted and also the amount of Irish-speakers versus English-speakers. The Census did not go into any greater depth and is therefore more historically interesting than of any practical use for most genealogy research, unless one's ancestor was a prominent citizen who owned land and was listed as a titulado.

Griffith's valuation notebooks (house, field, tenure) are grouped together by Barony on FHL films, and then by Civil Parish within the barony. So the returns of a civil parish might be split into pieces if it crossed into more than one barony.

Old age pension claims (after 1908) were organized by barony, then by civil parish within the barony.


These were created to administer relief to the poor under the 1839 Poor Law Act.  Later they came to comprise Dispensary Districts from which medical assistance could be provided. Usually the PLUs were located in market towns – Tuam, Athlone, Mullingar, Trim, Tulla, Cashel, Kilkenny, Cork, Omagh, Coleraine and Newry are some examples.

You can see a map of Poor Law Union divisions on the Irish Times Website.