There is an often expressed sentimentality among the Irish diaspora for the ‘ould sod’ or the original homestead that their ancestors came from. It is something that those of us living in Ireland too often dismiss or mock. We like to believe that modern Ireland has evolved beyond such concepts, that we are citizens of the world who aren’t tied down to anything as simple as a piece of land or particular homestead. But yet that isn’t quite true. While those of my generation have experienced unparalleled freedom and the ability (at least in theory) to pack our bags and move elsewhere, it is impossible to completely forego all attachments. For myself, I have spent the majority of my life living just outside Cork City. But there is still a part of me that thrills at the sight of the Galtee Mountains and feels to some extent like I’ve come home. Perhaps this is simply due to so much time spent visiting family in Tipperary and walking the region during my childhood.
Equally I know friends born in Ireland and who have lived out their entire lives here who feel that home is London, Edinburgh or Paris. Our sense of home isn’t always tied to where we lived our entire lives. The next time an enthusiastic descendant of Irish emigrants comes seeking the ancestral homestead, instead of dismissing them or laughing at them, perhaps we should try our best to help them. We might even learn something ourselves in the process.
But how does someone go about this process? Too often many of those researching their Irish ancestry don’t have a lot to go on. Maybe they only have a surname and a vague recollection of a certain county being mentioned by elderly relatives. Sometimes they will get lucky and might have documentation such as a death certificate or passenger listing which lists the place of origin. However, even then the name can sometimes get mangled in the period between boarding the ship and arriving at the destination. This was typically down to a lack of standardised spelling of placenames and also a lack of literacy among those emigrating.
There is help at hand though. One of the best resources for tracing Irish placenames is the Placename Database of Ireland, which can be conveniently found on the Logainm.ie website. The site is very user friendly and is invaluable in trying to locate a specific Irish placename. It provides a listing of baronies, civil parishes and townlands along with streets in Irish towns. For some of these placenames it also has a helpful breakdown of how the name has evolved over the centuries. Many have kept much the same name with some spelling variations, while others have undergone more drastic transformations with the original name being lost completely.
Another great resource for Irish placenames is Irish Ancestors, John Grenham’s website. Over the years John has amassed a large database of Irish surnames and placenames. His website includes maps of the various different parish types and Poor Law Unions. An invaluable resource when trying to figure out the relationship between the old Civil Parishes and modern Roman Catholic Parishes.
However, one thing to keep in mind when trying to figure out where your Irish ancestors came from is the unreliable nature of mapping in the age of Google. When planning a trip to Ireland it is easy to look at a map and assume that because it’s a small country that everything must be close together. This isn’t accounting for geography, which Ireland has no shortage of. Neighbouring parishes might be separated by an inconvenient mountain range or a lake, perhaps even both. The road system was often poorly maintained or almost non-existent. The vast majority of people had to travel by foot and as such rarely ventured beyond their own own immediate surroundings. Someone born in Macroom, West Cork is unlikely to have ever set foot in Cork city. Journeys that we can now complete in hours would have taken our ancestors several days.
A very useful means of making sense of the landscape are the Ordnance Survey Ireland Maps. The first maps were produced in 1847 at a scale of at a scale of 6 inches to 1 mile. Ireland was the first country to be mapped to such a scale. In times gone by it was necessary to use the physical copies of the maps held in local libraries or purchase them from the OSI. Thanks to modern technology however it is possible to use the online map viewer to overlay the modern and historical maps. This can provide some invaluable perspective on the landscape our ancestors inhabited.
Just remember when researching your family history to underestimate geography at your peril. Also keep in mind there are no shortage of excellent publications on Ireland and it’s landscape. Before making your journey it might not be any harm to pack an old fashioned atlas of Ireland rather than relying on Google Maps and GPS to help you find your way around.