As we grow older, it is very important to retain our identity, even sometimes to rediscover that identity, so that we never become irrelevant or invisible, losing touch with our roots. Can we always answer the question "who are you?"

For the first twenty five years of my life, I lived in the townland of Maghernahely (plain of the rocky place in Irish), in the village of Bessbrook , the parish of Lower Killeavey and Barony of Lower Orior ( Airthur, an ancient place name). Bessbrook was establised in 1845 by John Grubb Richardson who developed a large linen mill and built the village to accommodate his workers. He was a member of the Religious Society of Friends, sometimes termed Quakers, whose social conscience led him to provide well built houses, schools, an Institute building where the community could gather for recreation, a doctor, public baths and a co op shop. He believed that the use of alcohol led to disorder and poverty, thus Bessbrook had no public house. If alcohol was not available, no police station or pawnshop would be needed. Whilst a police station was eventually established, it has now been closed and thus Bessbrook remains without the three P's - pub, police and pawnshop and is often described as the Model Village. Because Richardson owned the land, to this day leases prohibit the sale of alcohol from village premises.

Winter sun

Constructed from local blue granite in 1885, by local craftsmen. the building known locally as the Institute, was erected as a meeting, educational and recreational facility.

From at least the 13th century, administration in Ireland was based on-at the higher level - Barony, then Parish, then townland. More recently, the further entity of Electoral Division has been added. Ireland currently contains 326 baronies, 2506 civil parishes, 3438 electoral divisions and 60,973 townlands. The townland is unique to Ireland and has no relation to a built town,often containing few buildings. Townlands vary in size, from the half acre of Old Church Yard in the parish of Termonmagurk, Co. Tyrone , to the 7555 acres of Fionnan in the parish of Killanin, Co. Galway. The topography varies also, from rich agricultural land to bleak mountain and bog. In the 19th century, townlands were grouped into Unions and supported the union workhouse, where famine and poverty drove so many to seek refuge. Originally, the parish was an ecclesiastical division, with a parish church. The enlarged civil parish emerged in Georgian times, contained twenty to thirty townlands and did not necessarily have a church building. One of the sore points was that the parish population, without reference to individual denomination, had to pay tithes to the established Church of Ireland.

Many Irish people - I am not alone - have an attachment to the place where they were born and grew up, it gives us an identity. When we meet strangers, so often conversation turns to the question "where are you from?" and the answer maybe leads to the observation "well then, you will know so and so" - simply because of shared roots. Our sad history of emigration has spawned many tragic songs, words expressing the heartache of separation from townland, from home, from the identity and embrace of family.

I vividly remember a man accompanying his young niece to her appointment. Whilst chatting, he explained that he had spent his working life on the railroads of the United States, had never married and in retirement had returned home, as he said, "for to die". However, he didn't intend to die imminently but when the time came he "wanted to lie with my people in Creggan". He knew who he was, what he was, his roots had sustained a long hard life and he was content in simplicity.

An Creggan (a rocky place) is a quiet townland near Crossmaglen, amongst the hills of South Armagh. The existing church building was erected in 1758 as a Church of Ireland (Anglican) but the surrounding graveyard, bounded by the Creggan River, contains those of all denominations. The O'Neill clan mausoleum lies close to the church, the graves of three gaelic poets nearby. A pleasant place to spend eternity, where denomination is unimportant.

Census records in 1901 and 1911, were set out in townlands and give an indication of social conditions. They defined the landlord, the gentry and their servants. The number of people in the house on census day was recorded, their age, religious denomination, employment status and gender. The number of children born to the family, the number alive (and thus a measure of infant mortality). The class of house was stated, determined by the number of rooms and windows. First class with a total of twelve or more, second class with above six and third class with very few facilities. Thus the townland records give a social commentary on life and highlight how many country houses fell into third class status. If we were to lose our townlands, much historical data may perish with them.

We live in a time of health and safety overconsciousness, where a variety of official regulations intrude. In South Armagh, a number of enthusiasts considered having stones carved with the townland name and placing these at points within the actual entity, so that visitors might have some historical background information. But then planning regulations intruded and stones lie unplaced, a link with our rich past unrecognised.

Because others lived, we are. Let us remember our roots, cherish that inheritance and be steadfast in answering the very basic question "who are you?"


©Ronnie Carser