Place-names and Politics : The 1st Ordnance Survey, Part 4

 The 1st Ordnance Survey and the ‘Translations’ Debate : 

 Much of the contemporary understanding and more importantly misunderstanding of the Survey comes not from academic examination of it but rather from a fictional play, Translations by Brian Friel, first performed in the Guildhall in Derry in 1980.

 The play made a considerable impact beyond that of its literary value and this has greatly influenced contemporary perceptions of the Ordnance Survey.

This makes the play significant in any study of Irish place-names and their political context regardless of its historical inaccuracies.

The impact of Translations is acknowledged by Andrews, who states that ‘Translations has done more than anything else to make the cartography of Celtic names a fashionable subject,’ (Andrews 1992, 18).

Indeed he confers on it greater influence than his own A Paper Landscape, influencing the views of even ‘cartographic scholars … editors of learned journals and … staff members of the Ordnance Survey (Andrews 2001, vi (i) – vi (j)).

He has formally engaged with Translations on no less than four occasions[1] and whilst it seems that Andrews appreciated the play on a literary level, maintaining that ‘[i]t is undoubtedly the most beautiful and moving account of the Ordnance Survey ever written,’ and acknowledging Friel as a ‘great writer’ (Andrews 1993, 93) he objects to ‘how historically bad’ it is (Andrews 1992, 18), objecting forcefully to the title of the play itself, Translations which he has described as an ‘untruth’ (Andrews 1992, 19).

The anglicised forms of Irish language place-names should properly be described as transliterations. For example, Friel’s fictional Ballybeg is a transliteration of the Irish Baile Beag, whereas a translation would be ‘Little Town’.

It seems clear that Andrews was not offended by Translations as a literary work but by the fact that ‘serious scholars’ took the play ‘as a record of historical truth or at any rate historical probability’ (Andrews 1993, 93) :

 “I found Friel’s inventions effective not just dramatically but in expressing a legitimate attitude to modern Irish history as a whole. That the same inventions were unbelievable if taken literally seemed less important, especially as no commentator was likely to be misled by them … In this last opinion I was soon proved to be totally wrong. Many people do accept Brian Friel’s account of the Ordnance Survey as historically plausible.” 

Andrews has acknowledged however that the ‘real subject of the play is the relation between authority and alienation’ and not the ‘history of the Ordnance Survey’ (Andrews 1983, 121).

In his own defence Friel has relied on the simple fact that he was writing fiction rather fact :

 “Writing a historical play may bestow certain advantages but it also imposes particular responsibilities. The apparent advantages are the established historical facts or at least the received historical ideas in which the work is rooted and which gives it its apparent familiarity and accessibility. The concomitant responsibility is to acknowledge those facts or ideas but not to defer to them. Drama is first a fiction, with the authority of fiction. You don’t go to Macbeth for history.” (Friel 183, 124)

For Kevin Barry ‘[t]he collision between [A Paper Landscape and Translations] epitomises a larger aggression between fiction and history’ and he describes them as ‘complementary texts’ (Barry 1983, 183).

The literary value of Translations is beyond the remit of this essay. However I would venture to promote the view that perhaps Translations is best understood as a dramatisation of anglicisation and the anglicisation of Irish place-names in its totality, over hundreds of years, rather than as a drama set strictly in the period of the Ordnance Survey.

According to the geographer Catherine Nash …

 … Translations is not simply a representation of a simple historical geography of placename change but a complex intervention into the discourses of place and naming in Ireland (Nash, 466)

Andrews is quite correct that Translations is unfortunately the dominant influence on contemporary perceptions of the Ordnance Survey, its treatment of place-names and the political background to that treatment.

Nevertheless, Translations is a work of fiction and should be treated as such, regardless of the ability or otherwise of the theatre going public to discern that fiction from historical fact.

Legacy of the 1st Ordnance Survey

 The fact that the anglicised place-name forms decided by the first Ordnance Survey remain the forms found used on signage, maps and official documentation in both Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland is testimony to its continuing legacy.

The first Ordnance Survey was the first attempt to seriously and systematically study all Irish townland names.

The Ordnance Survey Name-Books and Ordnance Survey Letters remain a very important resource for the study of Irish place-names and their etymology and ‘the Irish forms collected by O’Donovan and his colleagues constitute one of the most important sources of Irish-language placenames ever assembled’ (Mac Giolla Easpaig 2008, 167).

In many cases, the information gathered and recorded is first hand knowledge, being collected from Irish speakers and in areas where no Irish speaker can be found today.



 Andrews, J.H., A Paper Landscape : The Ordnance Survey in Nineteenth-Century Ireland, (Oxford Clarendon Press, 1975) (2001& 2006).

Andrews, J.H. with Barry, Kevin, Brian Friel, and John Andrews, “Translations and a Paper Landscape: Between Fiction and History.” The Crane Bag 7.2 (1983) pp. 118-124.

Andrews, J.H., “More suitable to the English tongue’ The cartography of Celtic Placenames’, Ulster Local Studies XIV, (1992) no. 2, 7-21.

Andrews, J.H., ‘Notes for a future edition of Brian Friel’s Translations,’ The Irish Review,’ xiii (1993)

Andrews, JH., ‘Irish place-names and the Ordnance Survey,’ Cartographica, xxxi, 3 (1994)

de hÓir, E. (1972-3): ‘The Anglicisation of Irish place-names’, Onoma XVII, 192-204.

Doherty, G. M., The Irish Ordnance Survey : History, culture and memory (Dublin : Four Courts Press, 2006)

Dunne, J., ‘The Fenian Traditions of Sliabh-na-m-Ban’ in vol. I of the Transactions of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society (1849-51), pp. 333-62

Mac Aodha, B. ‘A review of A Paper Landscape’ in Anglo-Irish Studies, 1979 p. 107-108.

Mac Giolla Easpaig, D., ‘Placename Policy and its Implementation’ in A New View of the Irish Language, Editors: C. Nic Pháidín & S. Ó Cearnaigh (Cois Life 2008), lgh. 164-177.

McKay, P., ‘Scots Influence on Ulster Townland Names’ in Ainm X (2009), pp. 1-26.

Nash, C., ‘Irish placenames : post-colonial locations’ in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, New Series, Vol. 24, No. 4 (1999), pp. 457-480

Ó Cadhla, S., Civilizing Ireland: Ordnance Survey 1824-1842: Ethnography, Cartography, Translation (Irish Academic Press Ltd, 2006)

Ó Maolfabhail (Art): An tSuirbhéireacht Ordanáis agus logainmneacha na hÉireann 1824 34  In PRIA 89 (1989) pp. 37-66.

Ó Maolfabhail (Art): The role of toponymy in the ordnance survey of Ireland, In ÉtC 29 (1992) pp. 319-325.

Polley, D., Ulster-Scots, Naming Places, unpublished M.litt. thesis, (TCD 2000).



[1] ‘Translations and a Paper Landscape: Between Fiction and History.’ The Crane Bag 7.2 (1983) pp. 118-124, “ ‘More suitable to the English tongue’ The cartography of Celtic Placenames’ ”, Ulster Local Studies XIV, (1992) no. 2, 7-21, ‘Notes for a future edition of Brian Friel’s Translations,’ The Irish Review,’ xiii (1993) and  ‘Irish place-names and the Ordnance Survey,’ Cartographica, xxxi, 3 (1994).

  • Thanks Ciarán,
    Fascinating series and I liked the play too!

  • As Friel said himself “it’s a language play, not a history play”.

    Incidentally try Henry IV part 2 tonight , billed as a history play it is too a language though not as good as part 1.

  • Fortlands

    I get the point regarding translations vs transliterations, Ciarán, but I’m not clear as to how Friel has misled cartographers. Can you say bit more? Cartography for dummies, as ’twere…

  • Drumlins Rock

    Fortlands, havn’t seen the play but presume it tells how “English ears” heard Irish names and tried to write them down in a form easier for English readers to understand. Friel’s play takes artistic liscense and applies this to the first OS mapping, whereas in reality the process had been going on for 300 years previous, with the survey merely setting it all in stone as it were. A perfectly legitimate plot device even used in films today.

    I’m not quite sure which direction Ciaran is leading us with these posts, is it purely a discussion on the first Survey itself, or a discussion on the whole process of how the names came about, two very different things, I think both would make great discussions, it really deserves a small Slugger conference!

  • mollymooly

    The play highlights “Bun na hAbhann” being translated “Burnfoot”. That might be dismissed as Friel cherry-picking an atypical case of translation rather than having to call his play “Transliterations”.

    At the time, the play gave me the impression that the surveyor had originated the English form Burnfoot,when in fact this was already an established name.

  • Drumlins Rock

    Is there any evidence the surveyors “transliterated/translated/anglicised” ANY place name that did not already have a recorded English version? If the case is not then I guess the “artistic liscense” line is streached to the point of pure fiction.

  • Drumlins Rock, records show that Burnfoot has been in use since at least 1761 in that location. Perhaps it is a Scottish import. The little harbour known as Dunseverick to the east of the Giants Causeway is locally called Marchfoot – it lies at the lower end of a boundary/march between two townlands.

  • Tomassio

    Drumlins rock, I’d suggest you read a bit about OS before you comment any further. Of course they were recording names and/or English equivalents of places that had not been before or else the entire enterprise would have pointless. To think that every single place name in Ireland was recorded and adjusted at that time is just sheer foolish. Consider the amount minor place names in your own area and then you’ll have just a bit understanding of how enormous this undertaking was.

  • Ciarán Dunbar

    “Is there any evidence the surveyors “transliterated/translated/anglicised” ANY place name that did not already have a recorded English version?”

    In my opinion, and I do not have an example in evidence, in the limited number of minor names collected there would have been a fair number never anglicised to to that point for the simple reason that they had never been written down before.

    However, with regard to townland / administrative names, all of these would have had been written in English spelling / anglicised before.

    The English never attempted to record place-names in Irish, even where a attempt was made to record them as faithfully as possible they would have been hampered by the limitations of the English spelling system.

  • mollymooly

    @Drumlins Rock: Have a look at Inishkea, home of some of Ireland’s longest placenames.

  • Ciarán Dunbar

    Should just point out that this entry completes the series on the Ordnance Survey.

    Glad people got something out of it and again, thanks to Mick for letting me post it.

    For your info, there is an Irish version …

  • wee buns

    Thanks for the essays Ciarán – I’d seen the play and naively assumed it was (more or less) historically correct – maybe due to television and books being under more scrutiny.
    While the play mentions ‘corruptions’, Joyce goes into detail in the forward of his book ‘Irish Local Names Explained’:


    While the majority of names have been modernized
    in accordance with the principle of preserving the pro-
    nunciation, great numbers on the other hand have been
    contracted and corrupted in a variety of ways. Some
    of these corruptions took place in the Irish language ;
    but far the greatest number were introduced by the
    English-speaking people in transferring the words from
    the Irish to the English language. The following are
    some of the principal corruptions.

    Interchange of 1, m, n, r. The interchange of these
    letters is common in Irish and English, as well as in
    other languages. We find I very often substituted for
    r; as in Shiule, Shruel, Straell, Sroohill,in all of which
    the final consonant sound should be that of r, for they
    are derived from Sruthair [sruher], a stream.

    N is sometimes, but not often, changed to I, as in
    Castleconnell near Limerick, which is the castle of the
    O Connings, not of the O’ConnoUs, as the present form
    of the name would indicate.

    The change of n to r is of frequent occurrence, as ir.
    Kilmacrenan in Donegal, which should have been called
    Kilmaonenan, for the Irish authorities write it Cill-mac-
    nEnain, which Colgan translates the church of the sons
    of Enan, who were contemporaries and relatives of St.

    The change of I to r is not very common, but we find
    it in Ballysakeery in Mayo, which is written by Mac-
    Firbis, Baile-easa-caoile [Ballysakeely], the town of the
    narrow cataract.

    See full text here