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.