There is often a strong temptation to study local history through the well organised units of townland, parish, D.E.D., barony, Poor Law Union and county. This is all the more attractive given that these units formed the basis for much information gathering in relation to census, taxes and agricultural statistics by central government and that extensive sets of maps exist clearly delineating such units. Allied to this is the huge loyalty to ones parish or county especially since the establishment of the G.A.A. in 1884. Each townland, parish or county has its own character and traditions and many families are proud to have their surnames associated with such units e.g. Connolly hurling brothers of Castlegar and Galway.
Although convenient for the collection of records these units may show considerable change over time or indeed may be quite new creations. The county is such a creation of the 16th and 17th centuries and has been described by Eoin MacNeill as having been "set up for the purpose of the gaol, the sheriff and the hangman". Some counties have experienced alterations in their boundaries. Parts of Co. Clare around Whitegate originally belonged to Co. Galway while Ballaghadereen in Co. Roscommon at one time formed part of Co. Mayo and remains part of that county to this day for the purposes of G.A.A. competitions.
There are many examples to show the emergence and disappearance of townlands down through history. A good example is to be found in the area of Newport, Co. Mayo in the second half of the 18th century when the landlord invited in Quaker weavers to set up the linen trade. As a result the townlands of Bleachyard, Weaversquarter and later Barrickhill had come into existence by 1774 as the town was established.
The origin of topography in Ireland lies in the dioceses, baronies, rural deaneries and ancient parishes and all of these have evolved, to a greater or lesser degree from the triuca cead, tuatha and baile biadhthaigh. During the Norman conquest these structures were adopted as baronies and townlands.
The ancient territory of Uí Maine (Hymany) in East Galway was divided into two great lordships, O’Kelly to the north and O’Madden to the south. To protect the ford across the river Shannon at Meelick the O’Madden’s built Cloghan Castle on the eastern bank of the river Shannon in Lusmagh and this area later became part of Co. Galway and remained so until the Cromwellian invasion when it was reunited as part of Kings County.
Although the Catholic parish did not become an effective ecclesiastical unit until the 19th century it has been the practice of the church down through history to base it ecclesiastical units of government on units of Civil Government. The boundaries of dioceses were delimited by two 12th century Synods (i) Rathbreasil and (ii) Kells and many have remained relatively unaltered ever since. The diocese of Clonfert is by and large coterminous with the ancient O’Madden territory and to this day takes in the area east of the river Shannon on which stands Cloghan Castle in the parish of Lusmagh. To study Catholic parishes may well be to ignore that in earlier times the religious needs of these units were served by clergy attached to Friaries such as the Dominicans based in Portumna from 1426 until Penal Times when they dispersed and resettled in Boula where they remained until 1899. This questing Order had little regard for parochial boundaries and served a much wider area. In addition during the Penal Times, parishes amalgamated to form larger unions due to a scarcity of priest and the poverty of the locals. By contrast with the establishment of Maynooth, the relaxation of the Penal Laws and the advent of Catholic Emancipation the number of priests increased and parish units became smaller.
However, to study any of the above well defined present day units may well be to overlook the more fundamental unit of local study, that of the community. There are many types of communities of interest such as geographical, social, economic, cultural or religious and rarely do such communities conform to strict rigid boundaries as outlined on Ordnance Survey maps of the 19th and 20th centuries. People may have belonged to a number of separate communities or overlapped communities. Many communities remained relatively unchanged (closed) over time such as Cloonfush near Tuam while others were altered considerably (open) due to marriage, migration and immigration. The estates of the landed gentry in the 19th century spanned a number of parishes and in the case of the Earl of Clanricarde it encompassed a number of baronies and included the towns of Loughrea and Portumna. These landed gentry created another community of interest as did their tenants particularly during the Land War Years of the 1880’s.