Civilizing Ireland. Ordnance Survey 1824–42: ethnography, cartography, translation

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Book Reviews, Issue 2 (Mar/Apr 2007), Reviews, Volume 15

Civilizing Ireland. Ordnance Survey 1824–42: ethnography, cartography, translation
Stiofán Ó Cadhla
(Irish Academic Press, hb e47.50, pb e20)
ISBN 9780716533726, 9780716528814

This book seeks to examine cultural and ethnographic aspects of the Ordnance Survey of Ireland, established in 1824. The project sought to map Ireland, to standardise its placenames and to record its physical and cultural features in the form of ‘memoirs’. Map-making and the collection of ethnographic detail progressed in parallel during the survey, a project conducted at vast public expense by the British military and their civilian assistants but justified by the paucity of contemporary knowledge about Ireland as well as the need to standardise Irish taxation. Folklore and ethnology are the core disciplines of the book under review and the author claims that it is ‘the first sustained critique of the survey’, one which he pursues in theoretical terms, making extensive use of post-colonial theorisations.
The concept of translation is at the core of the critique and is seen as a metaphor for the survey itself. Irish ethnographic detail was recorded exclusively through English, a process of translation which the author believes gave objective and hegemonic status to the English language while condemning the Irish language and its culture to the status of an archaic and exoticised remnant. The culture of a living language was thereby transmuted into archaeology. When a contributor to the memoirs reports that a particular area has ‘nothing peculiar’ to it, he means that the area has been thoroughly Anglicised and de-exoticised. A superior culture had prevailed, as intended by Providence.
As the author says, placenames remained as ‘mute anachronisms’ in a modernising process of measurement and standardisation. The role of John O’Donovan in this process of Anglicising placenames has regularly been exaggerated, besides being variously heroised and vilified. O’Donovan was a civilian employee in a project that at one stage employed over 2,000 people and that was organised along military lines. The placename forms suggested by O’Donovan not only had to take account of extant Anglicised forms but were at all stages subject to verification by his English-born military superiors. Besides, at least in the earlier years of the survey, Griffith’s valuation was, in current jargon, ‘the lead agency’ for placename forms and proceeded cautiously, always anxious to accommodate itself to the placename forms suggested by landed proprietors. O’Donovan’s best work on placenames was done not for the Ordnance Survey but for the magisterial footnotes of his six-volume edition of the Annals of the Four Masters (1848–51); the position of O’Donovan and the other Ordnance Survey fieldworkers is well characterised here as that of ‘interlocuters between the elite culture of science and the emerging science of culture’.
This book sees the collection and accumulation of data by the state as a process of translation, one crucially affected by the identity and aims of the recorder. This suspicion of data appears to have grown into an avoidance by the author of empirical data. An analysis of historical processes offered through folklore and ethnography rather than through the methodologies of the historian has self-evident attractions, but it must be said that the avoidance of state data weakens the work. For instance, much of the book’s theoretical model is constructed around a claim that ‘of a population of five million in 1801, four million were Irish speaking’. This implausible claim derives not from researched statistics but from a student textbook, Traidisiún Liteartha na nGael (1979), in which this claim is made, based on a mishmash of secondary sources. A statistical analysis published by Garret Fitzgerald in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy (1984) argued that about 45 per cent of those born in the years 1771–81 were Irish-speakers, and that the proportion had fallen to 41 per cent among those born in the period 1801–11.
The rigidity of the author’s polarised English–Irish theoretical model excludes many of the nuances, complexities and overlaps of cultural history and allocates little importance to the internal dynamics of Irish society. In particular, the book fails to draw attention to the overlap in outlook between the soldiers and others who compiled the Ordnance Survey memoirs on the one hand and the Catholic middle class and Catholic clergy on the other. This was a period during which church and state worked together in the destruction of traditional society. Thus when a memorialist at Donacavey, Co. Tyrone, says that ‘the numerous saints days are regularly kept by the Roman Catholics and the idle and dissipated are never in want of an excuse for quitting their work’ he is marking the elimination by the Catholic Church of innumerable feast days during this period. This was part of a modernising process of social and economic discipline: the deposed feast days—breacshaoire—became the focus of widespread popular resentment, such as that expressed by Diarmaid na Bolgaí Ó Sé (c. 1755–1846) in the poem Aor an tSagairt (still sung as An Bhuatais), in which a priest is excoriated for allowing servile work to take place on Candlemas, a holy day until 1825.
Nor was the contemporary world of the Irish language as distinct from that of English memoir-writers and the English language as this book’s formulation would maintain. A statement by a memoir-writer at Dunboe, Co. Derry, that ‘nightly dancing and gatherings for mere amusement are still too frequent among a population not sufficiently educated to indulge in them safely’ comes close to being a translation of an entry dated 12 July 1827 in the diary of the Callan shopkeeper Amhlaoibh Ó Súilleabháin: ‘Bhí míle ógmhná agus ógánaigh ag rince le ceol ar mullach “an Mhóin Ruadh” . . . Is aoibhin saol dóibh muna déirc é a dheireadh’ (‘A thousand young men and women were dancing on the summit of “an Mhóin Ruadh” . . . their life is cheerful but it could end in alms’).
One could make similar connections across time and cultures between the opposition of the harbinger of the Ordnance Survey, General Charles Vallancey, to the education of the Irish and Éamon de Valera’s opposition to the siting of secondary schools in the Connemara Gaeltacht. A foreword to this book written by de Valera’s grandson, Éamon Ó Cuív, speaks of ‘being left slightly bewildered by the magnitude of Ó Cadhla’s assertions’. A complex book, then, but also provocative, well written and, in spite of the reservations expressed above, well researched in its core areas, as well as being highly informative, not least on the work of John O’Donovan.

Proinsias Ó Drisceoil holds a PhD in Modern Irish from NUI, Maynooth.


Copyright © 2022 History Publications Ltd, Unit 9, 78 Furze Road, Sandyford, Dublin 18, Ireland | Tel. +353-1-293 3568