Counties of Ireland facts for kids
The counties of Ireland (Irish: contaetha na hÉireann; Ulster-Scots: coonties o Airlann) are sub-national divisions that have been, and in some cases continue to be, used to geographically demarcate areas of local government. These land divisions were formed following the Norman invasion of Ireland in imitation of the counties then in use as units of local government in the Kingdom of England. The older term "shire" was historically equivalent to "county". The principal function of the county was to impose royal control in the areas of taxation, security and the administration of justice at the local level. Cambro-Norman control was initially limited to the southeastern parts of Ireland; a further four centuries elapsed before the entire island was shired. At the same time, the now obsolete concept of county corporate elevated a small number of towns and cities to a status which was deemed to be no less important than the existing counties in which they lay. This double control mechanism of 32 counties plus 10 counties corporate remained unchanged for a little over two centuries until the early 19th century, since then counties have been adapted and in some cases divided by legislation to meet new administrative and political requirements.
The powers exercised by the Cambro-Norman barons and the Old English nobility waned over time. New offices of political control came to be established at a county level. In the Republic of Ireland, some counties have been split resulting in the creation of new counties. Along with certain defined cities, counties still form the basis for the demarcation of areas of local government in the Republic of Ireland. Currently, there are 26 county level, 3 city level and 2 city and county entities – the modern equivalent of counties corporate – that are used to demarcate areas of local government in the Republic.
In Northern Ireland, counties are no longer used for local government; districts are instead used. Upon the partition of Ireland in 1921, the county became one of the basic land divisions employed, along with county boroughs.
- Current usage
- List of counties
The word "county" has come to be used in different senses for different purposes. In common usage, many people have in mind the 32 counties that existed prior to 1838 – the so-called traditional counties. However, in official usage in the Republic of Ireland, the term often refers to the 28 modern counties. The term is also conflated with the 31 areas currently used to demarcate areas of local government in the Republic of Ireland at the level of LAU 1.
In Ireland, usage of the word county nearly always comes before rather than after the county name; thus "County Roscommon" in Ireland as opposed to "Roscommon County" in Michigan, United States. The former "King's County" and "Queen's County" were exceptions; these are now County Offaly and County Laois, respectively. The abbreviation Co. is used, as in "Co. Roscommon". A further exception occurs in the case of those counties created after 1994 which often drop the word county entirely, or use it after the name; thus for example internet search engines show many more uses (on Irish sites) of "Fingal" than of either "County Fingal" or "Fingal County". There appears to be no official guidance in the matter, as even the local council uses all three forms. In informal use, the word county is often dropped except where necessary to distinguish between county and town or city; thus "Offaly" rather than "County Offaly", but "County Antrim" to distinguish it from Antrim town. The synonym shire is not used for Irish counties, although the Marquessate of Downshire was named in 1789 after County Down.
Parts of some towns and cities were exempt from the jurisdiction of the counties that surrounded them. These towns and cities had the status of a County corporate, many granted by Royal Charter, which had all the judicial, administrative and revenue raising powers of the regular counties.
Pre-Norman divisions of Ireland
The political geography of Ireland can be traced with some accuracy from the 6th century. At that time Ireland was divided into a patchwork of petty kingdoms with a fluid political hierarchy which, in general, had three traditional grades of king. The lowest level of political control existed at the level of the tuath (pl. tuatha). A tuath was an autonomous group of people of independent political jurisdiction under a rí túaithe, that is, a local petty king. About 150 such units of government existed. Each rí tuaithe was in turn subject to a regional or "over-king" Irish: ruiri. There may have been as many as 20 genuine ruiri in Ireland at any time.
A "king of over-kings" Irish: rí ruirech was often a provincial (Irish: rí cóicid) or semi-provincial king to whom several ruiri were subordinate. No more than six genuine rí ruirech were ever contemporary. Usually, only five such "king of over-kings" existed contemporaneously and so are described in the Irish annals as fifths (cúigí in Irish). The areas under the control of these kings were : Ulster (Irish: Ulaidh), Leinster (Irish: Laighin), Connacht (Irish: Connachta), Munster (Irish: An Mhumhan) and Mide (Irish: An Mhídhe). Later record-makers dubbed them provinces, in imitation of Roman provinces. In the Norman period, the historic fifths of Leinster and Meath gradually merged, mainly due to the impact of the Pale, which straddled both, thereby forming the present-day province of Leinster.
The use of provinces as divisions of political power was supplanted by the system of counties after the Norman invasion. In modern times clusters of counties have been attributed to certain provinces but these clusters have no legal status. They are today seen mainly in a sporting context, as Ireland's four professional rugby teams play under the names of the provinces, and the Gaelic Athletic Association has separate Provincial councils and Provincial championships.
Norman areas of control
Life in Ireland
With the arrival of Cambro-Norman knights in 1169, the Norman invasion of Ireland commenced. This was followed in 1172 by the invasion of King Henry II of England, commencing English royal involvement. The English governed Ireland using a structure similar to that used in England, by dividing the country into shires or counties in the late 12th and early 13th centuries.
In general, counties were made by amalgamating various smaller Irish territories which suited the colonial administration at the time and had little basis in older tribal boundaries. In many cases, this involved dividing an Irish territory in two. For example, the kingdom of Uí Maine was split to form south County Roscommon and most of east County Galway. Many of the counties of Ulster roughly correspond to the territories controlled by the principal clan in that particular area such as the O Donnells of Tír Chonaill whose political power was concentrated in what would become the County of Donegal.
The counties evolved over time, with the earliest defined being set out by King John, including a then much larger County Dublin. Sir John Davies wrote ‘True it is that King John made twelve shires in Leinster and Munster—namely, Dublin, Kildare, Meath, Urial or Louth, Catherlogh, Kilkenny, Wexford, Waterford, Cork, Limerick, Kerry, and Tipperary. Yet these counties did stretch no further than the lands of the English colonies did extend.’ In the Anglo-Saxon controlled territories, a royal official known as a "shire reeve" or sheriff governed the shire. Large parts in the south east of the island had been shired by the Cambro-Norman overlords by the end of the 13th century. Following the resurgence in the 14th and 15th centuries of the Gaelic nobility, the project was suspended, not to be resumed until the mid 16th century by the House of Tudor. There were two phases in this period under the newly created Kingdom of Ireland: the plantation of the midlands under Mary I and the plantation of Munster under her half-sister, Elizabeth I. By the reign of King James I & VI, the process was completed with the plantation of the last remaining princely domains in the province of Ulster. With the late addition of County Wicklow, the number of counties (Irish: contae or condae IPA: [ˈkʊndeː]) stood at thirty-two. This number remained fixed for a little over 200 years until the division of some counties into smaller entities for judicial purposes (1836), initially, followed by complete division in the 20th and 21st centuries.
By 1200 there were also shires of Connacht, Cork, Kerry, Limerick, Louth and Tipperary. Waterford, Kilkenny and Wexford apparently date from this time, too, as remnants of Strongbow's palatine county in Leinster. The process continued over time, and in 1206, for example, a special commission was used to determine borders in the Munster area.
The County of Roscommon was separated from Connacht before 1292, and the first session of the Parliament of Ireland in 1297 created the new shires of County Kildare, Meath and Ulster. Carlow, then larger than today, and extending to and including coastal Arklow, probably dates from around 1306.
In the 14th century, "Counties of the Cross" emerged, consisting of scattered areas of church land within the existing divisions. Unlike the secular counties (or liberties), the counties of the cross were administered by royally-appointed sheriffs.
Tudor areas of control
The Tudor administrations finalised the division of Ireland into counties. Westmeath was separated from Meath (often East Meath) in 1543. Queen Mary I of England introduced a new policy to pacify the midland areas – plantation. In 1556 King's County and Queen's County were created and the Kingdom of Connacht was broken up into the counties of Galway, Mayo and Sligo, while Leitrim was separated from Roscommon in 1565. At the same time County Clare was created and moved from Munster to Connacht, being returned to Munster in 1602.
In 1583 County Longford was formed from part of Westmeath and transferred to the Province of Connacht.
The Province of Ulster was the last to be shired. The counties of Antrim and Down originated early in the 16th century. These were joined in 1584/5 by the counties of Armagh, Coleraine, Donegal, Fermanagh, Monaghan and Tyrone. County Cavan was also formed in 1584 and transferred from Connacht to Ulster. County Londonderry was incorporated in 1613 from the merger of County Coleraine with the barony of Loughinsholin (in County Tyrone), the North West Liberties of Londonderry (in County Donegal), and the North East Liberties of Coleraine (in County Antrim).
The last county to be formed was County Wicklow in 1606–07, taking in the southern part of Dublin (with the exception of three "islands," exclaves of (mainly) church property), and the northern part of "Catherlough" or Carlow, including Arklow.
Areas that were shired by 1607 and continued in existence down to the local government reforms of 1836, 1898 and 2001 are sometimes referred to as "traditional" or "historic" counties. These areas were separate from the county corporates that existed in some of the larger towns and cities although linked to the county at large for other purposes. From 1898 to 2001, areas with county councils were known as administrative counties while the counties corporate were designated as county boroughs. In other cases, the "traditional" county was divided to form two administrative counties. From 2001, certain administrative counties, which were originally "traditional" counties, underwent further splitting.
Former counties include: County Coleraine, which formed the basis of County Londonderry, the counties of Nether and Upper Tyrone, and Desmond which was, in 1606, split between counties Cork and Kerry. Other names seen on old maps include Caterlaugh or Caterlagh, archaic designations of County Carlow, in the days before much of the north of that county was taken into Wicklow in the early 17th century.
Carrickfergus would lose its county town status in 1777. Twescard is preserved as the name of a school house at Campbell College, Belfast.
Sub-divisions of counties
To correspond with the subdivisions of the English shires into honours or baronies, Irish counties were granted out to the Anglo-Norman noblemen in cantreds, later known as baronies, which in turn were subdivided, as in England, into parishes. Parishes were composed of townlands. However, in many cases, these divisions correspond to earlier, pre-Norman, divisions. While there are 331 baronies in Ireland, and more than a thousand civil parishes, there are around sixty thousand townlands that range in size from one to several thousand hectares. Townlands were often traditionally divided into smaller units called quarters, but these subdivisions are not legally defined.
The following towns/cities had charters specifically granting them the status of a county corporate:
- County of the Town of Carrickfergus (by 1325)
- County of the City of Cork (1608)
- County of the Town of Drogheda (1412)
- County of the City of Dublin (1548)
- County of the Town of Galway (1610)
- County of the City of Kilkenny (1610)
- County of the City of Limerick (1609)
- County of the City of Waterford (1574)
The only entirely new counties created in 1898 were the county boroughs of Londonderry and Belfast. Carrickfergus, Drogheda and Kilkenny were abolished; Galway was also abolished, but recreated in 1986.
Exceptions to the county system of control
Regional presidencies of Connacht and Munster remained in existence until 1672, with special powers over their subsidiary counties. Tipperary remained a county palatine until the passing of the County Palatine of Tipperary Act 1715, with different officials and procedures from other counties. At the same time, Dublin, until the 19th century, had ecclesiastical liberties with rules outside those applying to the rest of Dublin city and county. Exclaves of the county of Dublin existed in counties Kildare and Wicklow. At least eight other enclaves of one county inside another, or between two others, existed. The various enclaves and exclaves were merged into neighbouring and surrounding counties, primarily in the mid-19th century under a series of Orders in Council.
Evolution of functions
The Church of Ireland exercised functions at the level of civil parish that would later be exercised by county authorities. Vestigial feudal power structures of major old estates remained well into the 18th century. Urban corporations operated individual royal charters. Management of counties came to be exercised by grand juries. Members of grand juries were the local payers of rates who historically held judicial functions, taking maintenance roles in regard to roads and bridges, and the collection of "county cess" taxes. They were usually composed of wealthy "country gentlemen" (i.e. landowners, farmers and merchants):
A country gentleman as a member of a Grand Jury...levied the local taxes, appointed the nephews of his old friends to collect them, and spent them when they were gathered in. He controlled the boards of guardians and appointed the dispensary doctors, regulated the diet of paupers, inflicted fines and administered the law at petty sessions.
The counties were initially used for judicial purposes, but began to take on some governmental functions in the 17th century, notably with grand juries.
19th and 20th centuries
In 1836, the use of counties as local government units was further developed, with grand-jury powers extended under the Grand Jury (Ireland) Act 1836. The traditional county of Tipperary was split into two judicial counties (or ridings) following the establishment of assize courts in 1838. Also in that year, local poor law boards, with a mix of magistrates and elected "guardians" took over the health and social welfare functions of the grand juries.
Sixty years later, a more radical reorganisation of local government took place with the passage of the Local Government (Ireland) Act 1898. This Act established a county council for each of the thirty-three Irish administrative counties. Elected county councils took over the powers of the grand juries.The boundaries of the traditional counties changed on a number of occasions. The 1898 Act changed the boundaries of Counties Galway, Clare, Mayo, Roscommon, Sligo, Waterford, Kilkenny, Meath and Louth, and others. County Tipperary was divided into two regions: North Riding and South Riding. Areas of the cities of Belfast, Cork, Dublin, Limerick, Derry and Waterford were carved from their surrounding counties to become county boroughs in their own right and given powers equivalent to those of administrative counties.
Under the Government of Ireland Act 1920, the island was partitioned between Southern Ireland and Northern Ireland. For the purposes of the Act,
... Northern Ireland shall consist of the parliamentary counties of Antrim, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone, and the parliamentary boroughs of Belfast and Londonderry, and Southern Ireland shall consist of so much of Ireland as is not comprised within the said parliamentary counties and boroughs.
The county and county borough borders were thus used to determine the line of partition. Southern Ireland shortly afterwards became the Irish Free State. This partition was entrenched in the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which was ratified in 1922, by which the Irish Free State left the United Kingdom with Northern Ireland making the decision to not separate two days later.
Under the Local Government Provisional Order Confirmation Act 1976, part of the urban area of Drogheda, which lay in County Meath, was transferred to County Louth on 1 January 1977. This resulted in the land area of County Louth increasing slightly at the expense of County Meath. The possibility of a similar action with regard to Waterford City has been raised in recent years, though opposition from Kilkenny has been strong.
In the Republic of Ireland
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In the Republic of Ireland the traditional counties are, in general, the basis for local government, planning and community development purposes, are governed by county councils and are still generally respected for other purposes. Administrative borders have been altered to allocate various towns (e.g. Bray) exclusively into one county having been originally split between two counties.
There are now 26 county councils, three city councils and two city and county councils – a total of 31 local government entities.
County Dublin was abolished as an administrative county in 1994, while also remaining a point of reference for purposes other than local government. Its territory was divided into three administrative counties: Dún Laoghaire–Rathdown, Fingal, and South Dublin. The county borough of Dublin, together with the county boroughs of Cork, Galway, Limerick and Waterford, were re-styled as city councils under the Local Government Act 2001, with the same status in law as county councils.
The city councils of Limerick and Waterford were merged with their respective county councils by the Local Government Reform Act 2014, to form new city and county councils. Anomalously, the city of Kilkenny does not have a "city council" as it was a borough but not a county borough. It is now administered by its eponymous county council but is, exceptionally, permitted to retain the style of "city" for ornament only. Also, the 2014 Act abolished North Tipperary and South Tipperary, and re-established County Tipperary.
These 31 "county-level" entities correspond to the first level of local administrative unit for EU and Eurostat purposes. The second level of local administrative unit (LAU) is the District electoral division. Of the administrative structures established under the 1898 Local Government Act, the only type to have been completely abolished was the Rural District, which was rendered void in the early years of the Irish Free State amidst widespread allegations of corruption. At a level above that of LAU is the Region which clusters counties together for NUTS purposes. The Regions are administered by Regional Authorities which were established by the Local Government Act 1991 and came into existence in 1994.
In 2013 Education and Training Boards (ETBs) were formed throughout the Republic of Ireland, replacing the system of Vocational Education Committees (VECs) created in 1930. Originally, VECs were formed for each administrative county and county borough, and also in a number of larger towns. In 1997 the majority of town VECs were absorbed by the surrounding county. The 33 VEC areas were reduced to 16 ETB areas, with each consisting of one or more local government county or city.
The Institute of technology system was organised on the committee areas or "functional areas", these still remain legal but are not as important as originally envisioned as the institutes are now more national in character and are only really applied today when selecting governing councils, similarly Dublin Institute of Technology was originally a group of several colleges of the City of Dublin committee.
Where possible, parliamentary constituencies in the Republic of Ireland follow county boundaries. Under the Electoral Act 1997 a Constituency Commission is established following the publication of census figures every five years. The Commission is charged with defining constituency boundaries, and the 1997 Act provides that the breaching of county boundaries shall be avoided as far as practicable. This provision does not apply to the boundaries between cities and counties, or between the three counties in the Dublin area.
This system usually results in more populated counties having several constituencies: Dublin, including Dublin city, is subdivided into twelve constituencies, Cork into five. On the other hand, smaller counties such as Carlow and Kilkenny or Laois and Offaly may be paired to form constituencies. An extreme case is the splitting of Ireland's least populated county of Leitrim between the constituencies of Sligo–North Leitrim and Roscommon–South Leitrim.
Each county or city is divided into Local electoral areas for the election of councillors. The boundaries of the areas and the number of councillors assigned are fixed from time to time by order of the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, following a report by the Local Government Commission, and based on population changes recorded in the census.
In Northern Ireland
In Northern Ireland, a major reorganisation of local government in 1973 replaced the six traditional counties and two county boroughs (Belfast and Derry) with 26 single-tier districts for local government purposes. In 2015, as a result of a reform process that started in 2005, these districts were merged to form 11 new single-tier "super districts".
The six traditional counties remain in use for some purposes, including the three-letter coding of vehicle number plates, the Royal Mail Postcode Address File (which records counties in all addresses although they are no longer required for postcoded mail) and Lord Lieutenancies (for which the former county boroughs are also used). There are no longer official 'county towns'. However the counties are still very widely acknowledged, for example as administrative divisions for sporting and cultural organisations.
The administrative division of the island along the lines of the traditional 32 counties was also adopted by non-governmental and cultural organisations. In particular the Gaelic Athletic Association continues to organise its activities on the basis of GAA counties that, throughout the island, correspond almost exactly to the 32 traditional counties in use at the time of the foundation of that organisation in 1884. The GAA also uses the term "county" for some of its organisational units in Britain and further afield.
List of counties
The 34 divisions listed below include the "traditional" counties of Ireland as well as those created or re-created after the 19th century. Twenty four counties still delimit the remit of local government divisions in the Republic of Ireland (in some cases with slightly redrawn boundaries). In Northern Ireland, the counties listed no longer serve this purpose. The Irish-language names of counties in the Republic of Ireland are prescribed by ministerial order, which in the case of three newer counties, omits the word contae (county). Irish names form the basis for all English-language county names except Dublin, Waterford, Wexford, and Wicklow, which are of Norse origin. The Ulster-Scot names are principally derived from the North/South Ministerial Council.
In the "Region" column of the table below, except for the six Northern Ireland counties the reference is to NUTS 3 statistical regions of the Republic of Ireland. "County town" is the current or former administrative capital of the county.
Cities which, in the Republic, are currently administered outside the county system, but with the same legal status as administrative counties, are not shown separately: these are Cork, Dublin and, Galway. Also not shown are the former county boroughs of Londonderry and Belfast which in Northern Ireland had the same legal status as the six counties until the reorganisation of local government in 1973.
|County||Irish name||Ulster-Scots name(s)||County town||Most
The 34 "traditional" counties
|Belfast (part)||Ulster||Northern Ireland – UKN0|
(Contae Ard Mhacha)
|Airmagh||Armagh||Craigavon||Ulster||Northern Ireland – UKN0|
|Carlow||Carlow||Leinster||South-East – IE024||Also administrative|
(Contae an Chabháin)
|Cavan||Cavan||Ulster||Border – IE011||Also administrative|
(Contae an Chláir)
|Ennis||Ennis||Munster||Mid-West – IE023||Also administrative|
|Coark||Cork||Cork||Munster||South-West – IE025|
|Donegal||Dún na nGall
(Contae Dhún na nGall)
|Lifford||Letterkenny||Ulster||Border – IE011||Also administrative|
(Contae an Dúin)
|Downpatrick||Belfast (part)||Ulster||Northern Ireland – UKN0|
(Contae Fhear Manach)
|Fermanay||Enniskillen||Enniskillen||Ulster||Northern Ireland – UKN0|
(Contae na Gaillimhe)
|Galway||Galway||Connacht||West – IE013|
|Tralee||Tralee||Munster||South-West – IE025||Also administrative|
(Contae Chill Dara)
|Naas||Newbridge||Leinster||Mid-East – IE022||Also administrative|
(Contae Chill Chainnigh)
|Kilkenny||Kilkenny||Leinster||South-East – IE024||Also administrative|
|Portlaoise||Portlaoise||Leinster||Midlands – IE012||Also administrative|
|Carrick-on-Shannon||Carrick-on-Shannon||Connacht||Border – IE011||Also administrative|
|Lïmerick||Limerick||Limerick||Munster||Mid-West – IE023|
|Lunnonderrie||Coleraine||Derry||Ulster||Northern Ireland – UKN0|
(Contae an Longfoirt)
|Langfurd||Longford||Longford||Leinster||Midlands – IE012||Also administrative|
|Dundalk||Drogheda||Leinster||Border – IE011||Also administrative|
(Contae Mhaigh Eo)
|Castlebar||Castlebar||Connacht||West – IE013||Also administrative|
(Contae na Mí)
|Navan||Leinster||Mid-East – IE022||Also administrative|
|Monaghan||Monaghan||Ulster||Border – IE011||Also administrative|
(Contae Uíbh Fhailí)
|Tullamore||Leinster||Midlands – IE012||Also administrative|
(Contae Ros Comáin)
|Roscommon||Roscommon||Connacht||West – IE013||Also administrative|
|Sligo||Sligo||Connacht||Border – IE011||Also administrative|
(Contae Thiobraid Árann)
|Nenagh (formerly Clonmel & Cashel)||Clonmel||Munster||Also administrative|
(Contae Thír Eoghain)
|Owenslann||Omagh||Omagh||Ulster||Northern Ireland – UKN0|
(Contae Phort Láirge)
|Waterford||Munster||South-East – IE024|
(Contae na hIarmhí)
|Mullingar||Athlone||Leinster||South-East – IE024||Also administrative|
(Contae Loch Garman)
|Wexford||Wexford||Leinster||South-East – IE024||Also administrative|
(Contae Chill Mhantáin)
|Wicklow||Bray||Leinster||Mid-East – IE022||Also administrative|
|Dún Laoghaire–Rathdown||Dún Laoghaire–Ráth an Dúin||Dún Laoghaire||Dún Laoghaire||Leinster||Dublin – IE021||Also administrative|
|Fingal||Fine Gall||Swords||Swords||Leinster||Dublin – IE021||Also administrative|
|South Dublin||Áth Cliath Theas||Tallaght||Tallaght||Leinster||Dublin – IE021||Also administrative|
Counties of Ireland Facts for Kids. Kiddle Encyclopedia.