Byrne's Dictionary of Irish Local History


3B Oak House, Bessboro Rd

Blackrock, Cork, Ireland.

© Joseph Byrne, 2004

Epub ISBN: 978 1 85635 800 2

Mobi ISBN: 978 1 85635 799 9

Cover: A copy of letters patent to Thomas Denn, 27 November 1682 (courtesy of Kieran Sheehan)

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For Siobhán

A dictionary can never aspire to perfection. Like history itself, there can be no last word. To readers dismayed to discover that I have omitted that which they are most earnestly in search of, I offer a humble
Mea culpa.
No one will be more disappointed than I when next I stumble across a term that should have been included. At the same time, were publication to be withheld until universal satisfaction could be guaranteed the utility of the present text would be deferred forever. I owe an incalculable debt to Raymond Gillespie and James Kelly for their support, advice and direction while this work was in progress. It was in Dr Gillespie's masterly MA classes in local history at NUI Maynooth that the idea for this dictionary was first conceived and Dr Kelly's encyclopaedic knowledge of eighteenth-century Ireland has spared me not a few blushes. Thanks are also due to the countless historians whose work I mined for explanations and definitions. Finally, I would like to thank the unfailingly helpful staff of Dr Cregan Library, St Patrick's College, Drumcondra, where a considerable proportion of this volume was prepared.


Traces, tracks, relics, sources, evidence. These are stuff of history but they are not history. History begins when the human mind engages with the evidence and tries to make sense of its significance for earlier communities. That is no easy task. The evidence may resist interpretation because the context within which it was created has been obscured over time. It may be the product of institutions long fallen into desuetude. It may be infused with complex imagery or language from Ireland's rich multiethnic, multilingual, multicultural and religiously plural past. However we encounter it, our first challenge is to ‘read' it and given the incalculable loss of Irish historical records over the years we must learn to do it well. Unfortunately, there is no handy cipher to unlock the secrets of the past and most dictionaries are too generalised to answer the specific concerns of local historians. Excellent though it is, the Oxford English Dictionary falls short when dealing with the Irish context. S. J. Connolly's The Oxford companion to Irish history should find a place on every local historian's bookshelf but only partially serves as a companion to Irish local history. Some thoughtful Irish historians, recognising the needs of a broader (and growing) non-specialist audience, append glossaries to their work or incorporate explanations in parentheses. Many, however, do not. So what was an ‘angel'? Castle chamber? Raskins? A Cunningham acre? Letters patent? And where do you go to find out what a Brunswick club was? Or the meaning of legal terms associated with the courts and land conveyancing? This dictionary attempts to answer such questions for Irish local historians.

Although intended primarily for local historians, readers should not be surprised to encounter entries here that, at first glance, might be considered more relevant to national history. It is axiomatic that all histories gain from a consideration of the big picture and local societies, however isolated, did not exist in a vacuum. Their personalities were forged out of the interplay between the local and the wider world to such an extent as to diminish local studies that ignore the regional or national dimensions. That interrelationship is acknowledged by the inclusion in this book of numerous entries relating to national and regional institutions such as parliament and the courts, to administrative structures, religion, education, historical records, land law, lay associations, political movements, architecture and archaeology.

In chronological terms the subject-matter of this dictionary ranges from early times to the close of the nineteenth century. The story of local communities, of course, does not end with the nineteenth century. The abundance, variety and accessibility of sources for the twentieth century make that period an exciting new frontier for local historians. So abundant, in fact, that a dedicated volume of its own would be required to do it justice. Time constraints rendered that impractical and I have elected to focus on earlier, less familiar and less accessible periods.

Structurally the Dictionary of Irish Local History is not dissimilar to a traditional dictionary but there are a number of significant differences. Many definitions have been enlarged to explain the history of an institution or process or to document change over time. All entries are fully cross-referenced – bold type indicating a separate entry – and, where appropriate, readers are directed to articles and books which contain an extended treatment of the relevant topic and to the holding archives, libraries or repositories of related primary historical sources. Abbreviated references below each entry can be located in full in the bibliography at the end of the book. All local historians, be they aspiring or experienced, will find something of interest in the research guide section and website directory which close this book.

A Note on Weights and Measures

Although metrological standardisation began in Ireland in the mid-nineteenth century, many traditional units (the Irish mile and acre) persisted in use into the twentieth century and that most antique of land divisions, the townland, is with us yet. Prior to standardisation, a complex range of weights and measures were employed which varied (sometimes radically so) from district to district. In parts of Co. Clare in the 1820s a bushel of potatoes contained six stones six pounds but elsewhere in the county it weighed sixteen, eighteen or twenty stones. To complicate matters, the Clare bushel also evidenced seasonal variability: the stone weighed sixteen pounds in summer but eighteen in winter to take account of encrusted clay. At a broader level metrological variability was influenced by commodity, by quality and even point of sale. At the bottom of the distribution network, for example, a wide range of agreed yet non-standard local measures such as pottles, creels and paniers were employed and small domestic containers were frequently pressed into service. An added local refinement was the sale of dry goods in heaped or level measure. Finally, time itself was a variable as some measures fell into disuse over time and others were introduced by colonists.

Gaelic territorial divisions were arranged hierarchically to a regular plan, size being determined by variables such as soil quality, relief and the size of the lordship to which they were connected. Most were erased in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as the social order which regulated them collapsed under the pressure of conquest and colonisation. Ballybetaghs, ballyboes, sessiaghs, gnieves, capell lands and horsemen's beds lost their currency under the new order although many survive as placenames or lie obscured behind baronial, civil parish or townland boundaries. Paradoxically, as deeds and charters were rarely used by the natives, our knowledge of indigenous spatial divisions derives to a considerable degree from the bureaucracy of plantation itself. The names and dimensions of Gaelic spatial units are preserved in manuscript form, sometimes for the first time, in the maps, inquisitions, surveys, land grants and books of distribution which documented the settlement process. Historians and geographers have used these sources with some profit to enhance our understanding of the socio-economic and political structure of Gaelic Ireland but, overall, the spatial picture remains incomplete. Given these uncertainties, a detailed treatment of Irish measures is not possible within the parameters of the present work. A supplementary reading list is appended overleaf to facilitate further reading.

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