Milford: Mapping Origins and Morphology of a Rural Irish Town

by donalmcelwaine

county boundary

Above is a map of County Donegal with its boundary marked in white. Highlighted in pink is the rural area of the Fanad Peninsula, and in yellow the Rossguil Peninsula. Marked also are the towns of Milford, Rathmelton and Letterkenny.


Irish Land Division and Boundaries

The island of Ireland is divided into 32 counties. Each county is then divided into a series of baronies, each barony divided into civil parishes, and finally each parish is made up of townlands. Townlands are relatively small areas of land, ‘discrete parcels of land’ . Their boundaries follow natural features such as rivers, valleys, ridges, or human interventions; roads, field boundaries etc. In my presentation earlier this year I looked at some of the townlands on the peninsula of Fanad in county Donegal, and how the mapping and naming of these townlands may have lost meaning embedded in their Irish names, but nevertheless enforced a sense of place in a rural community. Parishes are a collection of Townlands, sharing common boundaries. The size of the parish (amount of townlands it covers) was based on the population density, or indeed the population of a specific religious following. Baronies are groupings of civil parishes, layed out for administrative reasons.

The idea of the townland seems to be more relevant now in rural areas rather than in urbanity, as they may be the only way of naming / identifying an area. In urban areas, the larger concentration of roads and blocks lend themselves to more specific and localized naming. Particularly in suburban areas now, territory is identified by the name of the housing or industrial estate. The significance of the townland is here lost.

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Following on from my study of the townlands of Fanad, I decided to look at the development of a rural Irish town. As the nearest town to Fanad I chose to look at Milford, at the bottom of the peninsula. Like any Irish town it can be difficult to identify or agree on its boundary. Since the townlands were mapped many of the towns have expanded, creeping into other townlands, with a focus moving away from the central main streets. Milford is a relatively typical small Irish town, but it is interesting to consider how it has changed very little over the past century. The town itself is largely within the townland of the same name. It is located in the barony of Kilmacrenan (in blue below), and the civil parish of Tullyfern (51).


parish boundary

Marked in red is the boundary of the Parish of Tullyfern. The townland of Milford is highlighted in yellow.


The parishes of Ireland were first officially mapped in 1655-56 by William Petty in a series of maps which became known as the Down Survey. Following a rebellion in 1641 by the native Irish in Ulster against years of religious discrimination, Oliver Cromwell was appointed to invade Ireland and suppress the rebellion. Following his victory the catholic of Ireland were displaced and sent to the infertile lands of Connaught. The newly acquired land was to be divided as payment for Cromwell’s soldiers. Petty then mapped the County, Barony and Parish boundaries of the whole country. The parishes he mapped were the Protestant parishes, but for the most part Roman Catholic Parishes follow the same boundaries, but often have different names. During the first Ordnance Survey of Ireland in the 1830’s led by Colonel Thomas Colby, the parish boundaries of the Down Survey were followed. It was at this point that the Townlands were first mapped and their boundaries defined. They did however derive from a much older land division system from Gaelic times. The naming of the Townlands while sometimes arbitrary, usually denoted a specific aspect or feature of the place, but more commonly were anglicisations of  local gaelic placenames. The Irish names would for the most part have givan an indication of the character or features of the place, however this is lost in the standardised English versions which were recorded on the OSI maps (example Arryheernabin on page 2). The Irish name for Milford is Baile na nGallóglach (Town of the Gallowglasses). Before it was assigned its name ‘Milford’ by the Ordnance surveyors, it was known in english as ‘Ballynagalloglagh’.

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The baronies of Donegal as mapped in the Down Survey 1655-56


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This map of the parishes of Kilmacrenan barony shows the town of Ramelton (in Aghnish Parish) with elevations of buildings to signify that it is a town. In Tully parish there is a similar symbol with the name ‘Tullybeg’. It is roughly in the location of current-day Milford. Similarly the map below names plot 15B as ‘The Quarter of Tullybeg’. 


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While Milford appears to have been called Tullybeg in the Down Survey (1655-56) I can only assume that it was assigned this name as it was the principal village of the Tully Parish. It is widely understood that Milford was given the name Baile na nGallóglach shortly after a battle between the Irish, who were helped by an elite group of mercenary warriors from Scotland called the ‘gallóglach’ (anglicised as gallowglasses), and the English took place on a hill in the townland sometime in the mid 15th century.

To this day Milford remains to be called Baile na nGallóglach in Irish (it is also officially defined as a town!).

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The name ‘Milford’ is first recorded in the first Ordnance Survey of Ireland (1833-’35). It was not uncommon during the mapping process for a new name altogether to be assigned to a townland, ‘Something is being eroded’. In his memoirs which accompanied the maps, Colonel Thomas Colby describes the corn mill in the village as ‘the finest I have yet seen, having an iron wheel of 18 feet diameter and 4 feet in breadth supplied by a chain of loughs to the east of the village. The mill has recently been rebuilt and the metal wheel put in motion this year’. It is clear that he was impressed by the mill and he confirms that it is from this mill that the place gets its name “This village stands 4 miles north west of Rathmelton, near the southern end of Mulroy bay. It consists of 1 street on the slope of a hill, at the southern foot of which stands a large mill from whence the place derives its name. It is an ancient village and has been much improved in late years. Several good substantial houses have been built on the churchland property.”

parish detailed townalnd indicated

Tullyfern Parish OSI 6” (1833-’35) Milford marked in white

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There is considerable change to the village bewteen the 1830’s and the 1890’s as indicated in the previous maps. There is an increase of buildings in the middle of the town, and some expansion to the south and west. Lough Napuckan which powers the mill is dramatically reduced in area by 1890 and the indication of ‘sluices’ suggests that the lake was managed and its rivers controlled. It is home to a number of important services Post Office, Town Hall, Constabulory Barracks, Dispensary, Presbyterian Church, and a School. In his memoirs Thomas Colby notes ‘It contains a barrack for the revenue police, a tannery, a timber and coalyard, a school on Erasmus Smith’s foundation”.  


In Thomas Colby’s memoirs the pupils in the Milford school are also recorded “61 Protestants, 24 Roman Catholics, 44 males, 41 females, total 85; supported by Erasmus Smith’s fund, from which teacher gets 20 pounds per annum, besides a yearly gratuity as above, and pay of some of the children;established 1814.”

The protestant population has since diminished, and the Church of Ireland parish of Tullyfern has since been amalgamated with surroundings parishs.

Milford Union

Speaking broadly about the parish Colby writes “Cottages of 2-storeys high are not uncommon, but the general appearance of most of them is far from clean or comfortable. The tenantry of Sir James Stewart appear to be highly respectable and far superior to the general run.”

In 1841 the Milford Poor Law Union was established. It covered a large portion of the Kilmacrenan Barony, a total of 113000 acres. This confirms Milford as an important administrative centre(presumably contributing to its growth in the 19th century), despite being termed a ‘village’ in Colby’s memoirs, with most of the memoirs describing the slightly larger town of Rathmelton 4 miles south of Milford. A survey conducted at the time (1841) recorded a population of 406 in the town of Milford. The Workhouse itself, designed by George Williamson, was built in 1845 one mile south of the town (in a townland called Glenkeen).


Milford Union Map

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 Milford Infirmary



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The workhouse ceased operation in the 1920’s, and was demolished mid 20th century. The site of the workhouse now hosts an agricultural market every Wednesday. Milford still has a large rural hinterland, and is the closest town to the Fanad and Rossguill peninsulas. Mulroy bay divides these peninsulas and Milford is strategically located at the southern end of Mulroy Bay at a node point where the roads from Fanad and Rossguill meet, and continue further south ro Rathmelton and on to Doengal’s largest town Letterkenny. An agricultural market was traditionally held at the northern end of the town’s main street (at the top of the hill) and I recall fondly stories from my grandfather of having walked cattle from our townland in Fanad to the Milford mart and potentially back again (13miles). It is a journey which I can now only imagine by car. Milford is also the location of the nearest secondary school for both of the peninsulas. While it is surrounded by Gaeltacht areas, Milford itslef is not in the gaeltacht, but Irish is commonly heard in the town. Because of the large surrounding area and number of national schools scattered around Fanad and Rossguill, Milford boasts two large secondary schools, only some hundred metres away from each other. The Loreto Community School was rebuilt in 2006 by Grafton Architects and won an OPUS Architecture and Construction Award. It replaced a large convent building which acted as a boarding secondary school since the 1950’s. The last Sister left the convent in 2004. St.Peters Roman Catholic Church at the south end of the main street was designed by architect Liam McCormick in the 1960’s.

town features

The central circle is the original village scope in 1830’s. The larger circle shows the expansion of the town by the 1890’s and the largest circle is what would now be considered Milford. Since the 1950’s and the increase in motorised vehicle travel services have moved to surrounding areas of the town, to catch traffic which may not be passing through the towns main street. This outer belt is mainly one off bungalow / dormer housing.

The bakery moved from its location at the bottom of the main street to a site on the banks of Mulroy Bay to the north of the town in the 1950’s. It made transportation by boat very easy and at its peak Milford Bakery was selling bread nationally and exporting to Scotland. It was a major employer for Milford and a large surrounding area. The bakery shut down early in the 1990’s due to a move away from boat transporation, and the poor quality of raods leading to Milford. It brought to an end a centuries long tradition in Milford. The bakery building on the banks of the bay still stands as a major eyesore in an otherwise scenic location. The original mill in the town no longer exists, and a healthcare clinic now occupies the site. The location of the Constabulory Barracks is still the Garda station and is one of Donegal’s 3 largest stations. ‘Fruit of the Loom’ also had a factory just outside of the town (to the west) which was a large employer to the area. It also closed in the 1990’s when the clothing manufacturer moved its business to Mexico. The closure of both of these large companys brought a major decline to the Milford economy and the Milford Hotel in the middle of the town also closed.

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milford-sam Milford  postcard

Node Point

Untill the 1990’s all traffic from both Fanad and Rossguil travelled through Milford before heading further south. A bypass road was then built to allow Fanad traffic to avoid going though the town. While the Rossguil traffic still had to go through the town, there was a decline in business. A number of businsess then located themselves on the bypass road, including Lidl in 2009, making it a car dependant town. However it could be said that Milford has always relied on people coming from a far and was never much concerned with pedestrian ease of access. In 2008 the Harry Blaney Bridge was opened at the northern end of Mulroy Bay, spanning 350 metres linking Fanad to Rossguil at a cost of 19million euro (as part of a much larger international project called the ‘Wild Atlantic Way’, coastal tourist drive). It turned out to be shorter and more convenient for inhabitants of Fanad to go over the bridge to Rossguil and travel southwards through Milford (many people from Fanad and Rossguil work and have other business in Letterkenny). The reincrease of traffic in the town led the council to introduce a one way fraffic system through the main street with widened footpaths. Traffic now travels southwards only through the main street. The Celtic Tiger did not seem to bring any improvements to the town. In 2004 Donegal Council opened a Public Services centre in the town, and a public library. The public services centre is largely closed now.  The AIB branch in the town closed this year. The town’s main street currently has 3 pubs, 2 convenient stores, 2 take-aways, a butchers, the headquarters of a weekly local newspaper ‘The Tirconaill Tribune’  a hardware store, a chemist, Garda station, bookmakers and Chinese restaurant.

A number of small housing estates were built around Milford town in the past 15 years, and I am not aware of any vancant houses or ghost estates, but Milford certainly did not see a large expansion during the Celtic Tiger. And with the closure of two large employers, bringing an end to businessess which were in the town for centuries, the opposite can be said for the Celtic Tiger which did, or did not come to Milford. Its fabric has changed very little over the past 100 or more years, but nevertheless it remains an important town due to its location at the centre of a large rural barony. I think that it is all the better for having not changed much, and the local community can, for generations, feel a connection and emotion with its ever unchanging fabric.


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