Tuesday, July 31, 2012

'Renaming Éire': The Ordnance Survey 1824-46

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' {1}. 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 place names on the island of Ireland.

Despite the fact that Celtic scholars were consulted, and 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, the translation was often a dismal failure. The accuracy of the physical mapping has been praised as a boon to cartographers; however, many viewed the ordnance survey as yet another move to literally wipe Irish language and culture off the map.

In an 1844 article which appeared in the newspaper The Nation, Thomas Davis, the leader of the group Young Ireland, offered his opinion of the work of the Ordnance survey saying,

‘Whenever those maps are re-engraved, the Irish words, will, we trust, be spelled in an Irish and civilised orthography, and not barbarously, as at present.’

In 1892 Douglas Hyde, one of the co-founders of the Gaelic League in 1893 and the first President of Ireland (1938 - 1945), delivered his famous lecture, ‘The Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland,’ in which he expressed his contempt for the work of the Ordnance survey.

Hyde stated:

'On the whole, our place names have been treated with about the same respect as if they were the names of a savage tribe which had never before been reduced to writing, and with about the same intelligence and contempt as vulgar English squatters treat the topographical nomenclature of the Red Indians. .... I hope and trust a native Irish Government will be induced to provide for the restoration of our place-names on something like a rational basis'.

The Gaelic League produced what was intended to be the definitive work on Irish place names. Although that volume also had its flaws, it became the standard.

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 public life. In 1937, Bunreacht na hÉireann (The Constitution of Ireland) came into force, conferring special status to the Irish language. As stated in Article 8 [1], 'The Irish language as the national language is the first official language.' English is 'recognized' as a second official language.

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 always appear in Irish. For example the name of Waterford appears as Port Láirge, and Dublin is Baile Átha Cliath.

Baile Átha Cliath is Dublin

On Irish documents for birth, marriage and death, such as this birth certificate below, 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 to lands in which English is not the first language, but we should not forget what these 'translations' in Ireland meant to many of those who suffered under the hand of British rule.


Notes and further reading:

{1} Cathair Nua-Eabhrac is an Irish translation for New York City.

Gavan Duffy, Charles et al. The Revival of Irish Literature: Addresses by Sir Charles Gavan Duffy, Dr. George Sigerson, and Dr. Douglas Hyde. Project Gutenberg Ebook, 2010.
Mac Giolla Easpaig, Dónall. Placenames Policy and its Implementation, Placenames Database of Ireland
Brian Friel's Play 'Translations' offers an interesting perspective on Cultural Imperialism, the Ordnance Survey, and Anglicization of Irish in 19th century Ireland.



  1. Very interesting post. I cannot imagine how horrible it would be to have everything renamed and my language and heritage disrespected. I am VERY glad that is no longer the case!

    1. Hi Colleen,

      Thanks for your comments; they are very much appreciated.


  2. Thank you for posting these very important details - and lovely illustrative photos as well, Jennifer. I've heard very little Irish Gaelic so my brain boggles slightly at the combinations of letters! However, no worse than when visiting other countries (France, Germany, etc.).

    1. Hi Celia,

      Thanks for your comments; they are very much appreciated.



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