A Letter from Ireland:
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Finding Your Way – Directions in Ireland

Have you ever tried to ask for directions in Ireland. Or maybe you are sending a letter, and wondering about a postal code for the end of the address? If you sending a letter in Ireland, you may notice that you are not required to add the extra post code, but somehow your letter arrives safely just the same.

Céad Míle Fáilte – and welcome to this week’s Letter from Ireland. All is quiet here in Skibbereen of a Sunday morning – there’s a little sunshine and the air is sweet and mild. How are things in your part of the world today? I’m on the Barry’s tea as I write – and I do hope you’ll have a cup of whatever you fancy as we start into today’s letter.

Next month we are heading off to St. John’s in Newfoundland – and we’re really looking forward to our trip down the Irish immigrant trail in North America. Did you know that Newfoundland has the “distinction” of being the only place outside Europe given a distinct name in Irish? It was called “Talamh an Éisc” – meaning “the fishing grounds”. Isn’t it always interesting when a place is given a name in the local language – it gives it permission to enter the local stories and myths and makes it an important part of our collective Irish folk memory going forward.

In preparation for our trip, we became distracted with pictures of the wild interior and coast of North America – you know the ones I mean – the glaciers, mountains, rivers and lakes on a scale that hard to take in. Often, it is clear that there are no roads or people for hundreds of miles in any direction – these natural wonders put many of our local Irish sights into the ha’penny place!

However, it also occurs to me that there is a more important type of landscape for us humans – the landscape that we have lived in and named down through the centuries. These placenames have worked their ways into our songs and stories – and emigrants have carried them to new lands to name their new villages and towns. Placenames have an important meaning – and carry a connection over the miles and years. Maybe you have a Dublin or a Lucan or a Waterford or Baltimore or Menlo close to you?

When You Ask an Irishman For Directions…

A few weeks back our car wouldn’t start, so we called a breakdown service to get things moving again. The lad we spoke with was not from the area – and was focused on accurate directions.

“We’re close to the village of Waterfall – in the townland of Old Abbey”, I started.

Straight up, he asked: “Can you give me your postcode? I’ll tap it into my computer and we’ll be with you in half an hour”.

“A postcode? Ummmm….” I replied.

In Ireland, the word “Townland” has nothing to do with the land surrounding a town. It comes from a time before we had many towns – and for hundreds of years it has signified the smallest unit of administrative land in Ireland. Many of our townland names come from before the arrival of the Normans in the 1100s – and are still in place to this day. Ask any Irish person who lives in the countryside where they live – and they will give you a townland in the reply.

The townland usually carries a local family or significant geographic marker in the name. We are in the townland of “Old Abbey” – two fields up from the ruins of Ballymacadane Abbey, which is now nicely “Old” – and bounded on two sides by the Drombeg River. The boundaries of these townlands are mostly intact even after hundreds of years. If you want to locate your Irish ancestors in Ireland – one of the key things to do is to tie them down to a particular townland. How about you – do you know which townland in Ireland your ancestors came from? Do leave your comments below and let me know.

In 1972, the six counties of Northern Ireland had a new system of postal codes introduced across the region. This new system made it nicely convenient to get post or a parcel to a specific house with the minimum of directions. As a consequence, the authorities also judged that the townland system of naming was now superfluous. Apart from County Fermanagh, the townland names vanished from the local maps. Well, this move became one of the most widely opposed interventions for many years. Even at the height of “The Troubles” – the majority of Catholics and Protestants, Unionists and Republicans were united against this eradication of an important part of our collective folk history. The postcode system remains to this day in Northern Ireland, but the Townlands are starting to reappear in local road signs and maps.

Two years ago, they introduced a postcode system in the Republic of Ireland – it has yet to catch on! So, when my breakdown man asked for my postcode, the reply was a simple:

“I prefer not to use postcodes – so here are the directions. Come up the Waterfall road to O’Sheas pub, and take a right there. Go under the old railway bridge and carry on to Jimmy’s Cross where you’ll turn left. We’re up the road after 800 yards – past Driscoll’s riding school on the left – there’s a stone wall at the entrance. If you cross over the Drombeg river you’ve gone too far.”

Twenty minutes later, arrived at our doorstep with no problems. So, the next time you are in Ireland – do stop and ask for directions – and you will also get a canned history of all the important placenames in the locality. Just don’t expect any postcodes!

That’s it for this week – and we do look forward to you joining us again next week.

Slán for now,

Mike & Carina.

  • […] subject very close to the hearts of many of the readers of this letter. It is all about mapping the townlands and villages of your ancestors in […]

  • IrishG says:

    My great great grandmother left Ireland and came to the U.S. in the 1850s. She died in 1891. Her obituary, written by her daughter, said she was a native of Knocknacaruka, Parish Modeligo, County Waterford.

    I guess Knocknacaruka is a townland. I have never been able to find it near Modeligo. Do townlands disappear?

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