Place-names and Politics : The 1st Ordnance Survey, Part 1

No aspect of place-name study in Ireland aside from origin and etymology has received more academic attention than the treatment of place-names by the British Ordnance Survey in the first Ordnance Survey of Ireland, 1824-1846.

Various aspects of the Survey have been examined in detail by ethnographers and geographers such as Andrews (A Paper Landscape, The Ordnance Survey in Nineteenth-Century Ireland, (1st Edition 1975), Doherty (Irish Ordnance Survey : History, culture and memory 2006) and by Ó Cadhla (Civilizing Ireland,  Ordnance Survey 1824-1842: Ethnography, Cartography, Translation  2007).

The specific treatment of place-names by the survey are dealt with by Andrews in (1992) & (1994) and by Ó Maolfabhail (1989) and (1992).

Despite the attention it has received, the aims, methods and output of the Ordnance Survey are greatly misunderstood by the general public and indeed in some sections of academia.

It is now a part of Ireland’s political folk memory that the Ordnance Survey anglicised the place-names of Ireland and that this was its purpose, this belief is erroneous however.

 The Foundation and Purpose of the Ordnance Survey

The primary purpose of the 1st Ordnance Survey of Ireland had little to do with place-names at all, rather its purpose was politico-economic. It was a mapping exercise instigated to solve issues of ‘land valuation’ and land taxation, specifically the ‘county cess’[1] (Andrews 2006, 13).

The ‘archaic and inequitable structure’ of local Land taxation had become a major issue in early 19th Century Ireland. This situation led to lobbying by landowners in Ireland for a survey and valuation of land on a county wide basis.

Many land owners believed that they suffered from over taxation as a result of errand valuations and mis-information as to the extent of their estates; new and accurate maps were seen as tools to alleviate these problems (Doherty 2006, 14).

 The ‘Ordnance Survey Office,’ commonly simply known as the ‘Ordnance Survey,’[2] was established in 1824 to map the entire Island ofIreland on a scale of6 inches to1 mile and it continued until 1846.

It also included a ethno-graphical memoir scheme covering a variety of contemporary historical and archaeological themes (Doherty, ii). The Survey was set ‘in motion by means of a direct order’ from the secretary of the board of ordnance following the recommendation of the Spring Rice committee, a parliamentary committee chaired by Irish landowner Thomas Spring Rice established ‘to report on the best means of providing a general survey and valuation of Ireland’ (Andrews 2006, 22).

The Spring Rice Committee’s recommendation was sufficient to establish the Ordnance Survey and the report was not debated in parliament as it had ‘caught and expressed the drift of public opinion, and it was not considered necessary for parliament to debate the committee’s report or for the treasury to go through the formality of endorsing its conclusions with a minute’ (Andrews 2006, 31).

Colonel Thomas Colby

 The ‘Ordnance Survey Office’[3] in Ireland was then established as a British Army operation[4] carried out by the Royal Engineers[5] under the command of Colonel, later Major General Thomas Colby[6] from 1824 until it was completed in 1846. The Ordnance Survey takes its name from the board of ordnance whose tasks were to deal with defences and fortifications. It is not unreasonable therefore to ascribe some military purpose to it.

Mac Aodha held that Andrews in A Paper Landscape had underplayed the ‘military motive’ behind the Survey, pointing out that the United Irishmen Rebellion of 1798 ‘must have been to the forefront in English military thinking in the first two decades of the nineteenth century’ (Mac Aodha 1979, 107).

Accurate maps are of course of great military utility, particularly in terms of coastal defence and the accurate employment of artillery. However Andrews accepts that the Ordnance Survey was subject to some political control :

The actual surveying was to be done by Colby taking his orders from the master-general in [in London], but since an important object of the survey was to meet the special needs of Ireland it was understood that these orders must take account of the Irish government’s opinions on domestic issues … the lord-lieutenant for his part was expected to give due weight to local Irish opinion as expressed by the grand juries, while both Irish government and ordnance were subject to general public control when the Irish and ordnance estimates were debated in parliament (Andrews 2006, 33).

It is not clear however as to what Andrews means by ‘the Irish government,’ as in this period Ireland was ruled directly from London and Ireland had no parliament.

The Ordnance Survey therefore was a British Army operation, ultimately subject only to the control of the British Parliament.

From the modern perspective, it is difficult to see how the grand juries, being made up almost exclusively of the landed classes could be viewed as representing anything but a small portion of what could be described as ‘local Irish opinion,’ that would not have been the view in the 1830s however.

[1] The ‘CountyCess’ was a tax which was in theory taxed according to occupiers’ ability to pay. This ability to pay was measured according to the rateable value of local townlands, the boundaries of which were assumed to be well known. The ‘County Cess’ was used to pay for court houses, jails, local officials, and local road and bridges (Andrews 2006, 13-14).

[2] The Ordnance Survey continued on after the period 1824-1846 until the formation of theIrish Free State in 1922, whereupon it was replaced by Ordnance SurveyIreland in theIrish Free State and by the Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland.


[4] It should be noted that Andrews states that ‘Ordnance Survey employees were not armed’ (Andrews 1992 : 18), it is interesting to note however that the surveyors were ‘empowered to enter private property in pursuit of their duties’(Andrews 2006, 33).

[5] The officers were from the Royal Engineers, however the enlisted men were from the Royal Sappers and Miners .

[6] Ibid.

  • Drumlins Rock

    Fasinating Subject, gonna be long getting it in snippets though! how about getting a few who take an interest to meet up and discuss it?

    BTW, the OS were far from the first to record the Gealic towland names, the plantation era maps covered every towland in vast areas, the boundaries are remarably accurate as are most of the names, within reason.

  • John Ó Néill

    The Ordnance Survey Memoirs have also been published by the Institute of Irish Studies at QUB (in fifty or so volumes).The memoirs are parish by parish surveys of topography, economy, antiquities and eclectica. They were abandoned early on as they took too much time, but had begun in the north so good detail, if varied in depth, survives for most Ulster counties. There are also published collections of letters on the placenames by county.

    There had been repeated surveys (e.g. Tithe Aplottments) prior to the OS that recorded townland names in anglicised form.

  • sdelaneys

    As late as the 1960s the term ‘bad cess to you’ was in use as a curse in sth Armagh. ‘Bad scran to you’ was another, so may you pay excess rates and may you have poor food, sure we were always a Christian people, heh heh.

  • Drumlins Rock

    it is interesting to speculate on the motivation of those who ordered the first full survey, but I think more interesting is those who carried it out, their is a loving attention to detail and dare I say love of the country that comes through, and I know this will come up later but I think they made more than genuine attempts to accurately record placenames, as locally spelt, although the landlords or Churches spelling likely prevailed.

    Here are those first maps, all online at OSNI,
    although technically I beleive OSNI dosn’t exist any more merely being a party of Land & Property Services, a pathetic move most people have ignored.

  • roadnottaken

    A brilliant post Ciarán. I was not aware of the large military role in the Ordnance Survey of the early days of Irish mapping, so it has been nice to see something different on Slugger!

    Drawing on the earlier comments, it was my belief that the Ordnance Survey largely set in stone the townlands of today, barring the odd ‘sub-townland’ which would only be referred to, or known, locally. This is important today, as attempts to identify townlands with signage could further reduce local awareness, rather than increase it… those townlands which do not contain the beginning or the end of a road!

  • wee buns

    As a map lover I’m delighted by this article – thanks!
    OSI Ireland has a wonderful map viewer with historic overlays here,594149,880470,1,8

  • Drumlins Rock

    Roadnottaken, your probably right in saying they “set in stone” the towland names, although by that stage they were already 99% established, if you look at the early 17C escheated counties maps, here is an example of one, they are I think 90% in agreement with modern ones, quite an achievement for the era.

    It is surprising how many alternative spelling however still survive, half the Orange lodges in my area spell their Lodge name different from the OS, so standardisation was not the end of the story completely.

  • Ciarán Dunbar

    Thanks for the replies, I hope the other parts of the essay will answer most of the questions and maybe promote a few more.

  • Drumlins Rock

    Ciaran, trying not to get ahead our ourselves! Possibly this will be a good time to ask for clarification, previously when placename meanings were discussed I was basically told I had no right to discuss the meanings as I was a non Irish speaker, I admitt my knowledge is extremely limited, but I do know quite a few of the main root words, so I trust my views will be respected?

  • Drumlins Rock

    PS thanks wee buns for the link, similar contect but easier managed that OSNI’s atrocious website.

  • Ciarán Dunbar


    Everyone has the right to whatever opinions on whatever they wish.

    However, it is up to others to attach what weight they chose to attach to those opinions.

    Therefore, whilst the right to opinions are equal, the weight attached to them by others will not be.

    Academic qualifications in the Irish language and onomastics will naturally tend to lend weight to opinions expressed on the etymology of Gaelic place-names.

    For example. I could have an opinion on Scots language place-names, but my opinions have little weight given that I lack qualifications in the field.

    Of course, my remit here is an attempt to explain the Ordnance Survey, not the etymology of place-names.

  • Drumlins Rock

    Ciaran, do we then also address such issues as townland boundaries? it appears even by the stage of the first survey these also had in general already been fixed, the best evidence of which is where they diviate from fluctuating river courses, it raises the issue, are these boundaries fixed forever now?

  • Just as a related aside, Brian Friel’s play Translations deals with love, language, politics during the mapping exercise and Colby albeit fictionalised appears in the play. Saw a good production last year at the Abbey. Friel’s plays are very popular on the amdram circuit,as well as in commercial theatre, so keep an eye out next Spring and you might be lucky.

  • “It is not unreasonable therefore to ascribe some military purpose to it.”

    Perhaps, perhaps not. Is it not more likely that the task was given to those with some expertise in the sphere of surveying? If only more attention was paid to the benefits of expertise by those currently charged with governance then there might be fewer cock-ups …

    The 1803 Agricultural Census looks as if it had a strong military motive whereas the era of the OS survey coincides with a shift in tithing from goods and work to cash. The survey, whilst consolidating to a significant degree townland boundaries, generated a ranking of placenames much as more recent road-naming has given more prominence to some townlands than others. Traill’s 1803 census of the Parish of Ballintoy – which is linked above – shows a wonderful collection of Irish, Scottish and English root-forms co-existing cheek-by-jowl: Gouksourick Brae, Cairn Hill and Drumnagessan. Some of these names may have disappeared from the maps, may even have been ignored, downplayed or dismissed by place-name experts but they still pass through the lips and ears of local people.

  • Ciarán Dunbar


    The relationship between ‘translations’ and the Ordnance Survey will be dealt with further on in the essay.

    It is guilty of promoting some raging misconceptions.


    The question of minor names and the Ordnance Survey will be dealt with in the section ‘Ulster-Scots criticism of the Ordnance Survey.

    But I draw you to the line ….

    “The primary purpose of the 1st Ordnance Survey of Ireland had little to do with place-names at all, rather its purpose was politico-economic.”

    It wasn’t a place-name survey.

  • “It wasn’t a place-name survey.”

    Ciarán, I’m quite aware of that and I never claimed that it was; I was challenging your suggestion of a military purpose.

  • Mike the First


    “It is not clear however as to what Andrews means by ‘the Irish government,’ as in this period Ireland was ruled directly from London and Ireland had no parliament.”

    It’s perfectly clear to me, and I would say many others familiar with this period of Irish history. The Lord Lieutenant’s administration based in Dublin was known as “the Irish government” in those days.

  • DR,

    It is surprising how many alternative spelling however still survive

    In Portadown, Kill{i|y}comain[e] is spelled three different ways depending on whether the road sign is at the bottom, middle or top of the hill.

  • antamadan

    I can’t find the book now and I know this is a serious thread but it reminded me of a funny read. An old (Guess early 1800s) ordance survey publication on Lough Erne, discussed the origin of Inis Ceithleann/Enniskillen. They had enough Irish to work out that Inis was island, but said the rest was uncertain, AND published the local vicar’s opine that Killen was from the money ‘shilling’, because the mart was held there (LOL). Ever the professionals, the publication cast doubt on this as the Inis Ceithleann was written of before coins were invented; but there was no mention of the warrior Ceithla.