John O'Donovan and the Ordnance Survey Name Books

Ordnance Survey

The surveying of the townland boundaries was conducted under the supervision of Richard Griffith, a civilian engineer, who was appointed in 1825 to take charge of a new boundary department which was answerable to the lord-lieutenant in Dublin Castle. His surveyors were not required to take measurements - that was to be conducted by Colby's men - but were to find out and identify what needed to be measured. (Colby was director of the Ordnance survey of Great Britain.)

Naming of Places

The names of the townlands were to be supplied by the boundary department working under the guidance of Griffith. Griffith began with a list of the townlands obtained from the high constable of each barony and he checked the names with local landowners, using estate maps where possible and with the incumbents of the local church. He then inserted any reasonably large division omitted from the constable's list which appeared to have been accepted in the neighbourhood as a townland for at least 50 years. Local residents 'meresmen' were then employed to conduct the OS officers along the boundary. This experiment was not always successful and Griffith began to supplement their evidence with sketch maps, produced by the surveyors showing the location of the boundaries in relation to streams, fences and other landmarks. One problem was disputed mearings and the absence of any precise boundary in certain areas of bog and mountain which Griffith had to 'create'.
Colby insisted that his officers should keep their own record of every name also, first as commonly spelt and then the various deviations with the source for each. Remarkable features of the locality were to be entered in a separate column and each officer was also to keep a separate journal of the scientific, economic and historical facts that came to his attention.
Griffith has been criticized for the way in which he changed the pattern of Ireland's territorial divisions. Sometimes local non-collaboration forced him into adopting arbitrary divisions. In other cases he amalgamated neighbouring townlands as a matter of policy, whereas in others he selected larger units in preference to the smaller units into which they were divided traditionally. Renaming took place often through affixing, 'east', 'west', 'upper', 'lower' to the existing name. He generally preferred an Irish derivation to the English alias but he followed the barony constables' lists and the landowners' estate maps with the result that the latter were frequently adopted. However he advised that the barony constable's list should be compared with the local pronounciation before reaching a decision on the exact spelling of names.
In 1834, Colby agreed to show demesnes as 'matters of topographical information'. A topographical department was established which had the task of extracting a vast number of place-names from the Inquisitions, the Down Survey, the Books of Survey and Distribution, and other Irish historical documents and to enter them in Name-Books alongside the modern authorities. The first field worker was the lexicographer, Edward O'Reilly, who died shortly after his appointment.

John O'Donovan

His successor who was appointed in 1830 was the Irish scholar, John O'Donovan. O'Donovan had many complaints about the inaccuracy of the name-books which had been prepared and began the task of checking the names. Field workers were brought in to assist him, because of the impossibility of visiting all parts of Ireland. The method of proceeding with the naming of townlands was for O'Donovan, usually, to enter in the name-book firstly the Irish version of each name, and secondly the spelling recommended for the published maps. Where every current spelling seemed incorrect, it seemed logical to find a new one that brought out the true meaning of the word. He regularised the spelling of 'knock' for cnoc and 'drum' for druim. He considered that spelling should be related to pronounciation: he preferred Tir to Tyr. As a result, the anglicised form might differ from place to place; 'cluain' and 'clon' are used, for example.
An index of townland names was not published until 1862 and in the meantime a number of directories were produced which presented various forms of townland names. The Valuation Office and the Census Office adopted the OS names but the Post Office ignored them. As O'Donovan travelled thtoughout the countryside in search of the Irish version of place-names he became involved in local history research which he described to Larcom in a series of letters. In addition to presenting forms of the name attached to each townland, O'Donovan and his associates provided information relating to land quality, crops and housing, and to archaeological and historical features in each townland. Where possible antiquities were named and individual names were found for many forts and dedications were supplied for churches and holy wells and owners' names for castles.

Source: 'A Paper Landscape; The Ordnance Survey in Nineteenth-Century Ireland' by J. H. Andrews.
Published by Four Courts Press, 2001.