In 2010 the Johnswell Development Committee approached KLP through the Rural Development Programme 2007 – 2013 (RDP) seeking support for the development and implementation of The Townlands Project.  This type of community driven project has significant relevance to the RDP and fitted neatly into the Basic Services to the Economy & Rural Population Measure in the Programme.  The project crosses key themes within the Rural Development Strategy for Co. Kilkenny. Seizing Opportunities; Embracing Change. These include Community Development firstly and offering secondary benefits in terms of Rural Tourism.

‘The Townlands project  has acknowledged  the rich layers of history that lies in the fields, landscapes and headlands of rural Kilkenny from a different angle; local heritage names. Farmers have traditionally given domestic names to their fields.  These names could have reflected a number of things, including the field size, shape, an event, a specific memory, or even a previous owner’.  These names bring to light the past of a landscape and keep the memories alive for the generations to come.

The development of the project has been divided in to sa number of stages. Stage 1 of the The Townlands Project began in the Spring of 2009, by Alan Counihan, collaborating with fellow artist Gypsy Ray, as a creative exploration of a north-Kilkenny landscape, specifically the nine townlands of the old civil parish of Rathcoole. It aimed to highlight the history of the parish fields, their form and use, and the names and stories by which they are still specifically remembered

This project recognises that the changes that occur in the rural landscape are regularly determined by its inhabitants but equally the landscape can determine the constitution of its communities.  It attempts to reflect these relationships through tracing how we name the landscape, how this process of naming can be determined by the physical characteristics of the landscape, the personality of the community itself, ownership and events.

Townlands relevance to rural communities has been proven by the interest in the events organised during Heritage Week in 2009 & 2010.  Declan Rice (KLP CEO) and I attended the lecture and discussion at last year’s Townlands event in a packed Johnswell Hall to hear poets, writers, geographers and local people share their stories about shaping and being shaped by the landscapes where they have belonged.   Similarly, when the project was being considered for support under the Rural Development Programme it proved to have a significant level of appeal to the KLP staff, Project Evaluation Committee and Board, the majority of which belong to the rural landscape.

Townlands has great relevance to my own relationship to the landscape where I grew up in particular.  I am from a farm in Bonnettstown, just four miles from Kilkenny city.  My family moved on to this farm formerly owned by my Granduncle in 1975 which included fields called the ‘White Park’ & ‘Judes Garden’.  The naming process recommenced the same year with the christening of a newly merged field, the ‘Farm Field’ & the ‘Four Calf Field’ – named after the first batch of animals we let out on it.  They admittedly are not the most imaginative of names but they did allow a means of discerning one part of the farm from another and have stood the test of time despite in some cases the boundaries that separate them from other fields disappearing. Sharon Stone, an American colleague said to me recently when discussing Townlands ; ‘I was baffled when I first came here over 20 years ago’ and my husband would say that he is ‘going  to the “White Hay” field, the “Red Hill” field or the “Onnie Collins”  field to work. I thought it was a little odd that patches of grass had names….but it all makes sense now’.

Now at its final stage, the project is compiling their information for the public by means of a publication of the overall project history along with an introductory essay reflecting on the process. This publication will include research material gathered (fieldnames and folklore), and a selection of visual imagery.  The project also plans to create a CD of local history and fieldnames for the County Library’s archive. Finally the plans to develop a landscape research methodology guide for the Johnswell Development Committee will be completed so this work can be carried on by others in the future. This guide might also serve as a template for other local history groups within the county and even further afield. In this way there might develop a consistency of archival practice across the research groups.

KLP is delighted to have been part of the Townlands experience.  We who have been touched by it and have learned much about our landscapes and the delivery of the Rural Development Programme in Co. Kilkenny has been enriched by it also.

Martin Rafter & Sharon Stone in conversation