19th Century Ordnance Survey of Ireland

Brian Friel’s play, Translations, depicts the Ordnance Survey of 1825 – 1841 (the remapping of Ireland), which by now had been under British control for over 700 years. In 1825, the British parliament made the decision to carry out a full survey of Ireland. They appointed Colonel Thomas Colby to direct it, and it was carried out by three survey corps of Royal Engineers, Royal Sappers and Miners of the British army.  The survey itself mapped the entire country at the scale of six map inches for every mile on the ground. At this point, the British had standardized how the Irish landscape was represented, which therefore gave them control of the land, the people, and their heritage. According to Angèle Smith,

The 19th-century OS (Ordnance Survey) maps of Ireland illustrate how maps can be understood as simultaneously document, metaphor, and artifact. These maps are documents in two ways: first, they represent the colonial control over the landscape and its people; second, these maps have been used uncritically as the single authoritative truth of that colonial control (83). 

These maps were extremely detailed and not only mapped physical topography, but the social topography as well. They did this by illustrating where people lived and moved through the countryside, and the organization of their field systems. The physical and social topographical knowledge could then be used to control and administrate the collection of taxes and rent, hence proving this depiction of Ireland to be more true to the landlord’s perspective than that of the local Irish peasants.  Along with the mapping of the Irish landscape came the anglicization of Irish placenames. In the Act II opening of Translations Owen and Yolland can be seen in the midst of this task of renaming:

Owen: We are trying to denominate and at the same time describe that tiny area of soggy, rocky, sandy, ground where that little stream enters the sea, an area known locally as Bun na hAbhann… Burnfoot! What about Burnfoot?

Yolland: (indifferently) Good, Roland. Burnfoot’s good (Friel 40). 

This act of anglicization left in its wake the consequences of colonial subjugation, the question of Irish cultural identity, and the loss of the Irish language. “The imperialist map, then, became mimetic, a representation of reality. This representation not only conformed to a particular version of the world, but specifically a version designed to empower its imperialist makers” (Bullock 100-101). This act of remapping Ireland not only empowered its “imperialist makers,” but it has contributed to the loss of Irish culture and decline of the Irish language.


Works Cited/Consulted:

 Andrews, J.H., “The Survey of Ireland to 1847” A History of the Ordnance Survey (1980): Historical Abstracts, Web.

Bullock, Kurt. "Possessing Wor(L)Ds: Brian Friel's 'Translations' And The Ordnance Survey." New Hibernia Review 4.2 (2000): 98-115. Historical Abstracts. Web.

Friel, Brian. Translations. London: Faber & Faber, 1981. Print.

Smith, Angèle. "Mapped Landscapes: The Politics Of Metaphor, Knowledge, And Representation On Nineteenth-Century Irish Ordnance Survey Maps." Historical Archaeology 41.1 (2007): 81-91. EBSCO MegaFILE. Web.


Written By: Carly Mazzone