Friday, July 29, 2011

'Renaming Éire': The Ordnance Survey of 1824-1846

Imagine, if you will, a colonizing power coming into your country and renaming your cities and towns, so that the names of places you've known all your life are suddenly changed, and changed into a language which is not your own.  Imagine if 'New York City' was changed to 'Cathair Nua-Eabhrac'**.  Between 1824 and 1846, in essence, this is what occurred in Ireland.

Although the 'translation' of Irish into English began with the invasions of the Anglo-Saxons in the 12th and 13th centuries, the British Empire imposed the rule of English in earnest with the Ordnance Survey of 1824-46.  Under the command of Thomas Colby of the Royal Engineers, an army of soldiers and surveyors set about mapping the country, ensuring a more accurate valuation for the purpose of taxation, and in the process renaming the baronies, counties, and townlands, etc. of the island of Ireland.

Irish civilians who were deemed 'competent' in the Irish language were employed by the British in an attempt to have the Anglicized version of Irish names more accurately reflect the original Irish, but this was often a dismal failure.  Although the accuracy of the physical mapping has been praised as a boon to cartographers, many viewed the ordnance survey as yet another move to literally wipe Irish language and culture off the map.

With the formation of the Irish Free State in 1922, Ireland now had a native government whose policy was to promote the use of Irish in various areas of public life.  In 1937 Bunreacht na hÉireann (The Constitution of Ireland) came into force giving special status to the Irish language as the official first language of Ireland, and naming English as the official second language.  Article 4 of the Constitution reminds us of the special status of the Irish language, "The name of the State is Éire, or, in the English language, Ireland".

Today when you travel in Ireland you will notice that, although English does appear on road and street signs, Irish always appears above it.  On Irish license plates, with the exception of the English IRL for Ireland, place names, for example Port Láirge (meaning Waterford) or Baile Átha Cliath (meaning Dublin), always appear in Irish.

Baile Átha Cliath is Dublin

On Irish documents for birth, death and marriage the Irish language once again appears above the English.

Those of us who speak English are often relieved to see our own language on signs when we travel overseas, but we should not forget what the 'translations' of Irish into English meant to many of those who suffered under the hand of British rule. The opening paragraph of the Irish Constitution acknowledges the sacrifice of those who suffered "through centuries of trial".

"We, the people of Éire...

Gratefully remembering their heroic and unremitting struggle to regain the rightful independence of our Nation...

Do hereby adopt, enact, and give to ourselves this Constitution."


References and further reading:

** Cathair Nua-Eabhrac is the Irish translation for New York City.

Bunreacht na hÉireann, Constitution of Ireland.

Mac Giolla Easpaig, Dónall. "Placenames Policy and its Implementation" in A New View of the Irish Language, (2008) Nic Pháidín, C. & Ó Cearnaigh, S., eds. Cois Life, pp 164-177.

Brian Friel's Play "Translations" offers an interesting perspective on the meaning and impact of the Ordnance Survey and the Anglicization of 19th century Ireland.

Copyright ©Jennifer Geraghty-Gorman.
Some of this material originally posted 5 July 2010.


  1. Jennifer,
    A good reminder of the importance of the Irish language to the Irish, particularly given Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s threat to abolish Irish as a Leaving Certificate requirement. Well done.


  2. Darragh,

    Hello, it's really great to hear from you. Hope all is well in your part of the world. Thanks so much for the comment.

    I think it's too bad that education these days seems to be about coddling students, and accepting mediocrity, instead of challenging them to rise to the occasion, and be the best that they can be. In my opinion, instruction in the Irish language needs to be reconfigured, not eliminated.

    Cheers to you,


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Cheers, Jennifer

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