Book review: Glimpses of Ireland’s Past

THE work of the Ordnance Survey in Ireland between 1824 and 1842 was both immense and controversial. 

Book review: Glimpses of Ireland’s Past

Glimpses of Ireland’s Past — the Ordnance Survey Memoir Drawings: Topography and Technique

Angélique Day

Royal Irish Academy, €30 

The latter year saw the completion of the mapping of the country at the intimate scale of six-inches to the mile — a magnificent achievement.

The same year (1842), the new chancellor of the exchequer, Henry Goulburn, closed down the historic-cum-topographic department of the OS. Two years earlier, in July 1840, the proposed OS Memoir series was suspended and the work of the topographic department was confined to placenames.

In the 1830s — under the gentle but inspiring leadership of archaeologist, music-collector, landscape painter and scholar George Petrie — John O’Donovan and Eugene O’Curry, assisted by topographic artist William Wakeman, and Irish language toponymists Thomas O’Connor and Patrick O’Keeffe (and for a while the poet James Clarence Mangan) were to produce the richest collection of manuscript material on Irish placenames, local history, antiquities and related folklore ever assembled.

None of this would have happened without the inspired leadership of Thomas Larcom, assistant director of the OS in Ireland, based at the OS headquarters in the Phoenix Park.

Larcom was also the guiding force behind the parallel narrative descriptions known as the Memoirs that were to accompany the maps.

As Angélique Day points out in Glimpses of Ireland’s Past Larcom “hoped that by carrying out these studies of the localities and population, the information could be put to good use in improving social and economic policies”.

OS officers in the field — and eventually some civilians involved in the hill-drawing department — were provided with a 37-page pamphlet entitled Heads of Enquiry where Larcom listed a whole range of questions — geographical, topographic, social and economic — which were to be dealt with in a parish by parish basis.

Before government funding for the Historical Memoir series was withdrawn in 1839-40, the basic materials for OS memoirs were completed for the first-surveyed counties of Antrim, Donegal, Down,

Fermanagh, Londonderry and Tyrone, together with a small amount of material relating to some parishes in counties Cavan, Monaghan, Leitrim, Louth and Sligo (since published in 40 volumes and edited by Angélique Day and Patrick McWilliams). But only one topographical and historical description of a parish, containing the work of scholars and soldier-surveyors — that of Templemore, of which the city of Derry formed the greater part — was then published (1835).

Larcom, Petrie and their colleagues may have made a strategic error in first publishing a parish which included the complex history and economy of a city such as Derry, in a volume which ran to 350 pages.

It is clear that scholarly memoirs on most, essentially rural, parishes would have been far more compact and much less expensive to publish.

However, apart from funding issues, it is clear that for other reasons the knives were out for the Memoir series in both London and Dublin Castle.

The Ordnance Survey project could be seen as furthering a nationalising agenda. As Joep Leersen notes ‘the Ordnance Survey turned the entire countryside of Ireland into one vast lieu de mémoire, topography became replete with historical and mythological overtones, while history and myth became specific and graspable in their topographical locale ... that sense of place and sense of past became mutually linked and almost interchangeable and that Ireland itself, as a geographical space, became inescapably also a vessel laden with the placenames, monuments, memories and cultural cargo of a Gaelic past”.

Angélique Day notes these points in her excellent introduction to this book; she also notes “the imperial preoccupation with gathering information in order to govern or control territories under nomination”.

By 1838, the ambitious Historical Memoir series was cut back and by mid-1840 had foundered. It did not help that an anonymous letter of 1842 unfairly accused Petrie and colleagues of both Catholic sectarianism and nationalist predispositions. Consequently, what Glimpses of Ireland’s Past first reveals is an absence.

This admirable volume contains drawings and related commentaries from eight Ulster counties — that for Co Cavan is confined to two most interesting sketches of the town of Cootehill; Counties Donegal, Down, Fermanagh and Monaghan together account for one-third of the entries; but close on two-thirds of the entire volume deals with OS Memoir drawings from only two counties — Antrim and Londonderry.

The richness of this representative sample from 1644 OS Memoir drawings highlights the absence of such materials from Connacht, Leinster and Munster — and the failure to continue the Memoir series, even in modified form. Thus much of the work of scholars, soldier- surveyors and fieldworkers in the 1830s remained unfinished and unpublished.

The thematic range of these OS drawings is very wide. Eighteen ruined early Christian or medieval churches, friaries or abbeys are depicted as four ancient crosses. Twelve plantation mansions and/ or bawns are included, half of which are in ruin as are 10 ‘medieval’ castles.

Megaliths of all types are rendered 10 times as are four prehistoric standing stones; round towers (or parts thereof) and bridges both five times. Extant churches, four of the Church of Ireland, four Roman Catholic and one striking Presbyterian meeting house are all sketched and contextualised with much skill and devotion.

Modernity is represented by Draperstown market house and the revealing town sketches of Antrim, Portrush (and Cootehill).

An outstanding feature of the selection of drawings are those of 20 material culture items from a Bronze Age food vessel, a gold gorget to a wooden gaming board and a wooden butter vessel.

Angelique Day provides a most helpful commentary and contextualisation for all the drawings. The quality of the drawings varies widely — the finished work of many soldier-surveyors is both sparse and rather uninspiring. An exception to this is Lieut Wm Lancey whose work, mainly from Co Donegal, is accurate and lively.

I note that his memoir narratives were also impressive. It would have been interesting to compare the quality of other soldier-surveyors narratives with their drawing skills. Trained surveyor Charles W Ligar was an accomplished sketcher.

Two of the most interesting and prolific sketchers were civilians. James Boyle — a memoir-writer and sketcher from the hill-drawing department — is a very good artist of buildings.

John Stokes — who may have been a close relation of the Dublin cultural nationalist family of Stokes — while not as skilful as Boyle, nevertheless paid closer attention to vernacular issues including a one-roomed stone-house and the ‘clachan’ while also assisting George Petrie with collecting folksongs and antiquities.

Angélique Day made a wise decision to include sketches by the outstanding antiquarian, geologist and artist of Huguenot descent — George Victor Du Noyer. These do not come from the Memoir but from the Antiquities section of the OS file. A student of Petrie, Du Noyer sketches whether of the Downhill/ Mussenden complex or Devenish Round Tower or Benburb Castle are clearly superior, often panoramic in scope and always more atmospheric.

Glimpses of the Past, apart from a most helpful and lengthy introduction, also includes select biographies, a very comprehensive bibliography and, most essential for a work of this kind, a very good index.

The interesting variety of materials represented highlight that geographers and historians have still much more to explore and assess of the ‘rich cargo’ of well over 400 volumes, comprising OS Letters, Memoirs, Name Books, Extracts from Inquisitions and diverse primary sources, Sketches of Antiquities and other archival materials. Angélique Day’s work provides one useful guide for such an exploration.

William J Smyth is the author of the prizewinning Map-making, landscapes and Memory: A Geography of Colonial and Early Modern Ireland (CUP 2006) and joint-editor of the acclaimed Atlas of the Great Irish Famine

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