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).

Freelance journalist, working mostly in Irish.

Have my own independent news website – – which is in constant need of material.

I am the former editor of the newspaper Gaelscéal,