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The Parish

In Ireland parishes derive mainly from church reforms promulgated at the synods of Rathbreasail and Kells in the twelfth century. The reforms were aimed at replacing the monastic organisation of the Irish Church with a hierarchical system based on a network of universally recognised administrative divisions in line with European Christendom. The parish was the smallest ecclesiastical unit; and, since Irish society was characteristically tribal, the parish and parish church were frequently named after some revered ancestor of the local ruling tribe.

Parish Map of Clare
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Because of its essential homogeneity the parish network quickly came to be recognised as a convenient framework for civil purposes also, and it was widely used for valuations, land surveys and census returns. Parish boundaries are described in the Civil Survey of 1653 and the parish was selected as the mapping unit in Sir William Petty's later Down Survey.

From the Reformation onwards, however, the parochial arrangements of the two major religious communities in Ireland differed greatly. Of necessity Catholic parishes frequently amalgamated or had their boundaries altered for practical pastoral reasons due to a scarcity of priests. This was the case particularly during the 'Penal days' when parochial administration virtually collapsed in some areas, or was maintained only by a slender thread. Territorial boundaries were not of crucial importance to a church which had virtually to operate underground.

In the Protestant Church the situation was different. Each parish represented a pre-determined source of income in the form of a fixed tithe payable to the Protestant rector. On that score alone it was important to keep the parish boundaries intact. Moreover since the parishes continued to be used as civil units for a variety of purposes, their boundaries became notoriously well established in the popular mind. They were carefully recorded by the ordnance surveyors and their boundaries clearly indicated in all the editions of the maps until the early 1900s when, presumably because they were no longer relevant as civil divisions, they were finally discarded. These Protestant, or civil parishes, are of great interest; they are the best representations now available of the original pre-Reformation parishes particularly for those parts of the country for which the Down Survey parish maps no longer survive.

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