Friday, 26 December 2014

If Maps could speak.

If  Maps could Speak. Richard Kirwan.  Londubh Books 2010. pp191. Introduction by Mark Patrick Hederman.

This review was written on August 28th 2012

I bought this book at its launching in 2010.  It provides the history of the Ordnance Survey in Ireland which was established in 1828 and whose early director and inspiration was Thomas Colby. It was the Duke of Wellington and his brother the Irish Lord Lieutenant, Lord Richard Wellesly, who were responsible for initiating the Ordnance Survey.  They set up a committee in 1824 and the Survey was established in 1828 after the committee had met and reported.  (It is worth mentioning here that the Duke and his brother were strongly in favour of Cathilic Emancipation for Britain and Ireland, a historic measure which was eventually passed in Westminster in 1829)

Colby was a remarkable person, energetic, highly ambitious, dominating and probably obsessional, who overcame the most extraordinary obstacles during his long responsibility for the success of this great Ordnance Survey.  The word ordnance owes its origin to the British army. It is a term for that part of the military which is responsible for procuring equipment and supplies. From the beginning of the Survey its personnel were military men. They were the sole members of the organisation; all non-military people were excluded at least until more recent times.  Colby was particularly concerned with planning a six inch map of Ireland which required much greater time and investment than the one inch map which was provided to complete the map of England.  Colby was not only interested in making maps but he was also instructed to collect information on other aspects of the country including geology, communications, manufacture and antiquities.

Drawings of buildings and antiquities were part of the job.
These interests were to be later extended by Larcom who joined in 1828, shortly after the survey was established.  Larcom was English but, like many English who came to Ireland, he came to love the country and its people. He became an excellent Irish speaker and was involved in the language, its literature and the country’s history and place names.  These interests, added to those of Colby made the Ordnance Survey not only the finest at its time but added a huge amount of information about the country and its people.  In the early years it was stated that many of the old antiquities and old ruins were being gradually destroyed in Ireland as a result of depredations by farmers and landowners.  Undoubtedly Colby and certainly Larcom were responsible for protecting many of the antiquities which had survived until their time.

An early map of Ireland by the Greek Ptomley
The author, Richard Kirwan, was born in Waterford and claims to have been an early enthusiast about the layout of the city and the country roads leading to an early attachment to maps and details of the County’s topographical features.  These enthusiasms lead to his early interest in map making and to joining the Ordnance Survey.  Because of the military tradition of the Survey, he was obliged to join the army but, because of his interest in map making, he was far from being enthusiastic about a military career. He insisted therefore that he would be transferred immediately to the Ordinance Survey for his entire career.  His enthusiasm lasted his lifetime as he advanced through the ranks and subsequently became the head of the Survey. 

Bound copies of the maps by county at the Royal Irish Academy
He describes the early years of the six inch map project which required staff to walk almost every inch of the country, often under difficult circumstances of weather, climate, terrain, bog and wilderness.  The six inch survey was completed in less than thirty years. The survey continued with a further one inch map and at a much later date (1888) a twenty five inch map was organised because of the importance of identifying boundaries between lands which were being distributed during the Land Acts and which required clear evidence of ownership. The use of satellites is mentioned in chapters 11 and 12..  On pages 73 to 80 there is information about the various map printing processes.

The extraordinary hardships of the early surveys were eventually to be mitigated by the use of aerial photography, organised at first by the army air corps and later by their own planes.  And today, with the availability of satellites, not only the outline but the contours of every square yard of Ireland are made freely available to those working in this area.

There was an early attempt to replace the Irish with English place names.  This would have been a major undertaking in itself.  In this respect it was mentioned in passing that the Catholic clergy in Ireland were opposed to the use of the Irish language.  However Larcom, the English immigrant who learned the language, was determined to prevent English place names becoming widespread. It was surely extraordinary  that it was an Englishman who was  so responsible for  retaining this important cultural aspect of Irish history and identity

say no more...
John O’Donovan was also to become insistent on retaining Irish place names.  O’Donovan, Eugene O’Curry and others made a huge contribution in recording details of antiquities, old churches, castles, cromlechs, raths, forts, ancient ruins and local traditions as a wider part of such surveys. All those of us who have a pride in our country’s  history, culture and traditions owe a great  deal of gratitude to those who were responsible for our Ordnance Survey from Wellington and Wellesly down to the many other Irish and English who made such a contribution to our country’s history. We should be including information about this aspect of our history in our secondary schools.

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