Patrick J. Duffy


Patrick Duffy was for many years Professor of Geography at National University of Ireland Maynooth where he lectured in cultural and historical geography. He is author of Exploring the History and Heritage of Irish Landscapes (2007), Landscapes of South Ulster: a parish atlas of the diocese of Clogher(1993), editor of To and from Ireland: planned migration schemes c.1600-2000 (2004) and co-editor of Gaelic Ireland c.1250-1650: land, lordship and settlement (2004).


The following is an extract from his seminar paper:

Homecoming: recovering the local in place and community

‘It takes seven hours for me to drive to north Mayo; in the same time I could be sitting down to a steak dinner in Manhattan.  But the drive takes me further, it takes me back in time.  The drive serves as a reminder that the world, for all its convenience and connectivity, has places it is important to make an effort to get to, and they are usually the places that you came from in the first place.’

The Townland Project is ultimately about local place, and the experience of local landscapes and community.  The legacy of this engagement over generations for Johnswell, and most parts of Ireland, is a deeply-textured layering of place, in placenames, surnames, nicknames, family memories, as well as domestic landscapes of fields and boundaries, headlands and byroads, containing networks of movement over time. Community is very much part of the rhythm of landscape. Communities make places.   Traditionally, friends, neighbours and kin are woven into the fabric of the landscape they have inhabited.   I think this is the way that landscapes become places, through the historical interaction between the landscape and its community– helping the landscape/place acquire a depth of social meaning, helping to embed it in the community’s consciousness and memory. The stories and memories and networks of connections with families and neighbours represent another layer to the meaning of place and townland, a layer above the layer of topographical facts.

Overlying the map of the land around Johnswell is another map, a mental map, a sort of dreamscape constructed in the memories and folklore of the people which are as important as the physical world of roads and hedges and bricks and mortar.

Ultimately, this produces what many people would call a sense of place – a combination of natural environment [the soil, mountain, streams and so on], with ingredients that are material [like the fields and hedges, buildings], and social [such as the community, its names, accents and culture].

Townlands lie at the heart of this conception of landscape.  They are part of an extensive territorial lattice spread across the countryside.   And they are also part of the vocabulary of landscape: even more than other descriptive elements in the language like ‘field’, ‘headland’,  ‘street’, ‘yard’,  ‘townland’ is part of the vocabulary that we have to understand before we can read the landscape.   Like notes in a musical score, you can’t play unless you can read the notes.  Or the artist’s ‘language’ of colours: you can’t paint until you know the colours.  You can’t read a book’s text until you know the vocabulary.  And I think it is difficult to properly understand or interpret the local landscape until you appreciate that townland is part of the vocabulary of knowing the country.

In this sense, I don’t think we can fully understand where we live, without knowing its townlands and parishes (and its fields and farms) which give meaning to the extent, distance, the scale and substance of the landscape and community.  For example, teaching students (either from Ireland or elsewhere) about the history of our landscape, or events that happened in it such as the famine or emigration, is difficult when they don’t appreciate the importance of the townland.   This is why the gradual eclipse of townlands in Northern Ireland by the Post Office over the past 30 years (pursuing technologies of efficiency in mail delivery) is such a mortal wound to the life and landscape of the countryside.

Our signatures are often seen as marks of our unique identity and individual character.  Townlands are small local places which have distinctive characteristics like shape and size, location, names, identity, personality or sense of place.   They each have histories, constructed and remembered by their inhabitants which mesh together to form patterns of a regional geography and history.  In this sense townlands can be seen as signatures in our landscape.

The names of our townlands are an important part of their signature function in the landscape as well.  The names encapsulate the soul of the place – sounds, accents and dialects of ancestors, and in their meaning often reflect aspects of local landscape, topography, land quality or ownership.  There is a poetry in placenames everywhere in Ireland that rhymes with a local identity and sense of belonging: like a popular song or piece of music, the sound of the townland evokes local memories and reminders of home: Agha, Kilkieran, Carrigeen, Johnswell, Mountnugent, Tullowbrin, Coolgreaney, Coolmarks, Ossoryhill, Ballysallagh, Kilmagar, Feathallagh, Kilderry, Greenridge, Brownstown, Coolbricken, Cellarstown.

Indeed Irish poets like Seamus Heaney and Patrick Kavanagh regularly invoked local placenames, in Heaney’s words, as ‘posts to fence out a personal landscape.’   Patrick Kavanagh knew the townlands and fields of his home area as a farmer until his thirties,  experienced every day, in changing colour and light as the sun moved across the sky and the seasons, the sound of wind in leaves and branches, birdsong, calls of livestock, sounds of streams, together an authentic experience of landscape.  His writing transmitted this felt experience of place, of fields he walked round and round behind a horse, of drains he laboured in, trees he planted.

The primary template of locality in the Irish countryside must be the farm and field.  Farmers own the land(scape), and the material fabric of the landscape has in the main been generated by farm husbandry over generations, taking place within the framework of townlands.  The seasonal and daily grind of ploughing, or harrowing and haymaking, made the townland and its fields and local features intimately known and named.

Home is the place we know best, where we move up and down, back and forth everyday, where the geographies and histories of place and people are best known.  For those born into townlands, first memories are rooted in this ‘first place’ and never really forgotten.   The most extensive and ubiquitous landscape feature within the townlands are the fields, thousands and thousands of them, part of the familiar furniture of the landscape known only to the locals, in many ways like the familiar arrangement of furniture in our dwelling houses.  And like the rooms in our houses – the ‘sitting room’, the ‘front room’, the ‘back hall’, ‘Tom’s or Mary’s room’, – the fields similarly have domestic names known only to the farm family. These names are important parts of local heritage, their meanings reflecting prosaic characteristics like size, shape, quality of land, situation or an earlier ownership.

The scale of the local is a legacy of an older ‘pedestrian’ world, where patterns, networks and shapes were laid down in a slow-moving, geographically restricted, local world.  The network of townlands fitted well into this more local world up to 1950s and 60s, when people mostly walked or cycled, or plodded on horse-cart through the landscape.   The local geography of townland mirrored such a local scale of movement.

P. Duffy 2010.

N.B.: The above is but an excerpt from a longer work. Essay will be published in its entirety in forthcoming publication.