Place-names and Politics : The 1st Ordnance Survey, Part 2

Cartography, Orthography and the Methodology of the Ordnance Survey

The most significant aspect of the Survey with regards to this essay concerns its work on the orthography of Irish place-names employed on all subsequent Ordnance Survey Maps.

As a result of the Survey the anglicised forms of Ireland’s place-names are fundamentally settled and, aside from the major example of Derry/Londonderry and a few minor examples, these anglicised forms cause no controversy.

It is of fundamental importance to understand that the Ordnance Survey did not instigate the Anglicisation of Irish place-names, the Survey ‘only put the finishing touch to a process of anglicisation which had been going on for centuries’ (de hÓir 1972-1973, 193).

What the survey did do however was to standardise the spelling to provide official anglicised forms to be used on maps. Even this process of standardisation of the anglicised forms had itself begun by the time of the Ordnance Survey with regards to larger settlements although this process was not as far advanced with regards to townland names and non-administrative names.

In the latter cases, different bodies such as the Grand Jury, the Church of Ireland and the Catholic Church for example may have been using differing forms (Mac Giolla Easpaig 2008, 166).

Major General Colby issued the following instructions in regard to the treatment of place-names, ‘[p]ersons employed on the survey are to endeavour to obtain the correct orthography of the names of places diligently consulting best authorities within their reach.’ (quoted in Mac Giolla Easpaig 2008, 166).

The correct orthography desired by Colby was not the original Irish spelling, but the most ‘correct’ anglicised form. Capt. Thomas Larcom, the second in command of the Ordnance Survey in Ireland published the following short account of the methodology employed by the Survey’s field workers in 1844.

In order to ascertain the correct names of places for the engravings, that they might become a standard of orthography as well as topography, numerous  maps, records, and ancient documents were examined, and copious extracts  made from them. In this manner a certain amount of antiquarian information  has been collected relating to every place, parish, and townland in Ireland – more than 60,000; and various modes of spelling them at different times has  (sic) been recorded. When these investigations were complete, it was usual to send a person thoroughly versed in the Irish language to ascertain from the old  people who still speak the language, what was the original vernacular name,  and we then adopted that one most consistent with the ancient orthography,  not venturing to restore the original and often obsolete name, but approaching  as near to correctness as was practicable (quoted in Mac Giolla Easpaig 2008,   167).

Andrews has described the approach adopted by Larcom as ‘rational, scholarly, and practical’ and adds that ‘[i]t also showed a well-intentioned deference to the Irishness of Irish place-names.’ (Andrews 2006, 122).

This is a fair assessment if one accepts the correctness of the process of anglicisation of Irish place-names, though it would clearly not satisfy the view that the original Irish place-name should be restored.

Of course, British Army engineers were not toponymists nor knowledgeable in the Irish language.  To partially rectify this difficulty Larcom took a course of action to partially rectify this difficulty by taking what Andrew’s describes as ‘the drastic step of trying to learn the Irish language himself’ (ibid.).

However, Larcom’s course of action could be viewed as prudent given that the Irish language remained a widely spoken vernacular language of millions in the period and given that the vast majority of Irish place-names originate in the Irish language.

The O.S. [and Topographical Department] in Context

Larcom soon abandoned his studies in favour of employing Irish language scholars or ‘toponymic field workers,’ whose expertise would be used to establish the linguistic origin of place-names.

These people would eventually form the OS topographical department. The Department, and John O’Dovovan in particular played a key role in the standardisation of the anglicised forms of Irish place-names, basing the process to a large extent on what the original Irish was understood to be.

John O'Donovan

The most well known of the Irish scholars employed by the survey were John O’Donovan (1806-61) and Eugene O’Curry (1794-1862).

Both O’Curry and O’Donovan have been described as ‘cultural nationalists’ (Crowley 2005, 129).

Both men, but particularly O’Donovan, had an interest and a respect for the literary Irish language and older Gaelic traditions.

Their attitudes to Irish language and culture could best be described as antiquarian, although this could not be described as ‘cultural nationalism’.

Neither O’Donovan nor O’Curry expressed a belief in the revival or re-invigoration of the Irish language as latter advocated by Conradh na Gaeilge and by modern day Irish language groups.

The Ordnance Survey was itself not immune to the prevailing attitudes to the Irish language at the time with even its Irish speaking staff holding some negative views on the language, O’Dovonan’s outlook must be understood againist this background.

For example, in contrast to the later veneration of caint na ndaoine[1] by the majority of Irish language activists and scholars in the early twentieth century O’Donovan is reported to have referred to contemporary vernacular Irish as ‘local jargons’ (Crowley 2005, 129) suggesting that he viewed local dialect as substandard.

In any understanding of the work of the Ordnance Survey with regard to place-names it is critical to understand that the Irish language in the period 1824-46 ‘was not a minority or lessor spoken language … but a majority language of low status’ (Ó Cadhla, 226).

Whilst the Irish language was in decline, the huge body blow to the language, the Irish Potato Famine, had yet to strike.

During the twenty two year period of the Survey the language continued to retreat at least from the eastern parts of Ireland. However, One illustration of the extent to which the Irish language was at least still widely known in Ireland, is the fact that native Irish speakers were consulted even in Glenasmoil, Co.Dublin (Doherty 2006, 144).

Despite this retreat, rapid population growth may have increased the absolute number of speakers in the west of Ireland to the point where there were four million Irish speakers on the eve of the Great Famine, more Irish speakers than had ever before existed (Ó Tuathaigh, 157).[2]

Therefore in the period in which the Ordnance Survey was carried out, 1824 – 1846, the form of the place-name used by the majority of ‘local inhabitants’ in many areas was an Irish language form, as opposed to the forms employed by the ‘Grand Jury’ for example.

De hÓir (1972-1973, 193) has criticised the English orthography used in the forms chosen by the Ordnance Survey on the basis that it fails to faithfully represent the original Irish in a linguistic sense, i.e. that English orthography cannot represent a number of Irish sounds and that it cannot indicate where the sound stress lies.

Indeed de hÓir (ibid) went on to express the belief that ‘the ideal, and the only satisfactory, solution would have been to adopt the Irish orthography, which would have no difficulty in representing the sounds concerned.’

That solution is as obvious as it would have been unthinkable politically at that time as de hÓir (ibid) admits :

 [B]ut this would have been far too radical a solution for the time, and it is most unlikely that it was even considered. It would have meant rejecting what had been the general practice of non-natives since the Norman invasion of Ireland.

His successor as head ofIreland’s Place-Names Branch, Ó Maolfabhail has stated that ‘[m]apping under a British administration took no cognizance of the existence of a Celtic Irish-language tradition in Ireland’ (Ó Maolfabhail 1992, 321).

Ó Maolfabhail possibly refers to the lack of Irish language appearing on published maps as has himself commented favourably on the Ordnance Survey’s recognition of the importance of information regarding the original meaning of place-names and the Irish language pronunciation as a part of their work and on the integrity of the place-name study carried out by the survey :

 Ó thaobh na logainmneacha de … ní féidir a shéanadh go ndearna an tSuirbhéireacht Ordanáis iarracht chun scrúdú staidéartha a dhéanamh ar logainmneacha na hÉireann… Is mór an chreidiúint don tSuirbhéireacht Ordanáis gur aithníodh a riachtanaí is a bhí sé ar son an chruinnis go gcuirfí eolas agus foghraíocht thraidisiúnta na Gaeilge an áireamh mar chuid d’obair na Suirbhéireachta agus gur beartaíodh dá réir[3] (Ó Maolfabhail 1989, 59).

Not everyone agreed with the policies of the Survey regarding place-names at the time, there were calls for the place-name to be transcribed in Irish, most notably by Thomas Davis, the leader of the Young Ireland movement, writing in the Nation in 1844 :

 Whenever those maps are re-engraved, the Irish words, will, we trust, be spelled in an Irish and civilised orthography, and not barbarously, as at present.’ (Quoted in Mac Giolla Easpaig 2008, 167-168)

Ironically Davis was not an Irish speaker himself. Gaelic League founder Douglas Hyde would later echo this call in 1892, and expressed the aspiration in The Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland that a future Irish administration would restore the Irish language forms of place-names, presumably referring both to official use and in maps.

Hyde’s call for ‘restoration’ could be seen as having been at least partially accepted by the Irish Free State and the subsequent Republic.

The work of the Dublin Place-Names Branch, at the time of writing a part of the Irish Government’s Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, could be viewed as part of this process of restoration;

‘The Placenames Branch researches the placenames of Ireland and provides authoritative Irish language forms of those placenames’.[4]

The Place-Names Branch was formerly a part of the Ordnance Survey of Ireland. Despite its aim however it should be noted that the treatment of the Irish language on Irish Ordnance Survey maps is haphazard, especially outside of Gaeltacht areas.

[1] Literally ‘speech of the people’.

[2] On the position of the Irish language prior to the Potato Famine and the completion of the Ordnance Survey’s mapping ofIreland see Hindley (p. 13-20), and O Cuív (p. 19-27 & p. 77-94).

[3] ‘With regards to place-names … it cannot be denied that the Ordnance Survey made an honest effort to carry out a scholarly study of the place-names of Ireland … It is much to the credit of the Ordnance Survey that it was recognized how important it was for the sake of accuracy that a knowledge of Irish and its traditional pronunciation were taken into account as a part of the survey’s work and subsequently acted on.’


  • “the ideal, and the only satisfactory, solution would have been to adopt the Irish orthography”

    Did such an orthography exist in that era? I doubt it. Apart from the form of Irish spoken in a local area there was also the impact of dialects of Scottish gallic, Scots and English; none existed in isolation from the other.

  • Drumlins Rock

    There also is the case of earlier pre-gaelic names that have survived, with names often combining elements from both.

  • harold


    Why do you doubt it?

    Do you think Irish speakers could not write down their own language?

  • Harold, AFAIK a standardised approach to Irish wasn’t adopted until the 1920s. Up here in north Antrim there probably would have been a mix of Irish gaelic and Scottish gallic spelling forms; I live in ‘Macdonnell country’.

  • John Ó Néill

    I think the idea of standardised spelling of placenames didn’t exist prior to the OS. The idea of comprehensive island-wide mapping at this scale was innovative and at the end of the technological spectrum (in terms of the kit they employed).

    So the OS staff had to navel-gaze over issues like spelling/orthography which might seem novel to us (as we try to over-read what their motivations were). For a start, none of the nuances being used here, in terms of Gaelic dialects, Scots etc, featured at all the discussions (and the OS did extend it’s remit over the whole island and its off-shore islands, not just the north-east). From a linguistic point of view, they identified two languages only – English and Irish.

  • Drumlins Rock

    John, I do not know much details but I think they probably were well enough aware of regional variations and influences, remember the variations across England were probably stronger in that period too. The other big influences that havn’t been mentioned so far are Norse & Morman placenames, neither of which had a native speaking population at that stage. Locally from our research (our group covers about 60 townlands) almost all the names are recorded prior to 1840 with only minor variations in spelling, maybe it was different in other Irish speaking areas, but round here all the OS did was choose an E instead of an I, or C instead of a K, or quite often made A into AGH, the really big question is, should a “remap” ever be considered?

  • Mister_Joe

    ..should a “remap” ever be considered?

    And change placenames? Be careful. A few years ago, our Provincial government mandated an amalgamation of council areas. They didn’t specify boundaries; it was left up to local municipalities to talk to their neighbouring ones and decide what was best for the locality. So, in my area, 3 towns/townships combined. Now the new municipality’s name had to be decided. A list was drawn up and voters chose at the ensuing local elections. In my area, the people chose the name of the largest town. Not so in other areas; e.g. Port Elgin area became Saugeen Shores, Walkerton became Brockton and so on. New town name signs were erected at the approaches to these places. They are, of course, totally at variance with maps. It’s totally confusing for visitors..

  • Drumlins Rock

    not change Joe, but maybe amend some of the more inaccurate ones, tidy up townland boundaries to reflect natural features etc. mark on some placenames that were missed. Its a can of worms, but as Townlands remain the building blocks for out councils etc. they should not be fossilised but allowed to evolve somewhat.

  • John Ó Néill

    DR – I am just saying that the process of deciding to record a placename that then becomes the definitive spelling is a very determinist nineteenth century idea. It seems odd to us today because that is the modern norm but in the 1820s or 1830s, the idea that you should only have a single spelling of a placename, and a definitive name for every place, was pretty out there. I’ve argued that the Ordnance Survey marks start of the modern era and end (in culture-historical terms) of the post-medieval period, which began with the introduction of survey-based mapping in the sixteenth century.

  • Drumlins Rock

    You probably right their John, how does that compare to elsewhere in the British Isles, Europe, the Americas, etc. I wonder, with regards when their definitive mapping was carried out. I’m guessing Napoleon carried out a similar exercise in the areas he ruled?

  • John Ó Néill

    Not sure – French already had the Cassini map done in the eighteenth century – the Spanish mapped a lot of coastlines as well but I’m not really sure how much they did. It’s the administrative component of the OS that makes it different to those, I reckon. To me, that documenting of everything is what makes it a project of modernity. I thought I’d read somewhere that the detailed mapping of resources was most likely connected to the post-Napoleonic growth in the Exchequer borrowing on international markets and that the exercise in Ireland was an effective inventorying of assets to borrow against.

  • Ciarán Dunbar


    “Did such an orthography exist in that era?”


    The orthography of modern Irish remained more or less constant from circa 1200 until 1958.

    The pre-1958 spelling remains more or less in use in Scotland.

    Irish is of course one of the oldest written languages in Europe.

  • Ciarán Dunbar


    “There also is the case of earlier pre-gaelic names that have survived, with names often combining elements from both.”

    Given that I have never read a peer reviewed academic paper extrapolating such a theory I would be fascinated to hear an example.

  • Ciarán Dunbar


    ” Up here in north Antrim there probably would have been a mix of Irish gaelic and Scottish gallic spelling forms”

    As someone who has a certain expertise in the field I can refute that theory, for the simple reason that Scottish Gaelic and Irish shared a spelling system until 1958.

    Perhaps my blog would be of interest …

  • Thanks for the clarification, Ciarán. The suggestion for some variations in anglicised forms eg Portcaman and Drumahaman came from a lecturer in Irish in UUC.

  • Drumlins Rock

    BTW Ciaran, this is not an acedemic forum, just ordinary joe blogs post opinions, of varied quality, resorting to
    “I have never read a peer reviewed academic paper extrapolating such a theory” is a touch heavy handed if you want discussions to develop.

  • Ciarán Dunbar


    Strangely one would expect that ‘camag’ would be more Scottish and camán quite Irish.

  • Ciarán, I was think of endings on the one hand such as -cett, -capple and -caman and, on the other -hitt, -happle and -haman. ; it’s the change from c to h that the Irish lecturer attempted to explain. We have a Gortnacapple near Bushmills and a Portnahapple in Portstewart.