When making maps was more of an adventure into the dark

Sherry maps SM Farm

My DAERA farm map is a wonderful combination of aerial photography and computer art and no doubt simplifies everything for the user?

But I miss the Ordnance Survey line map – a paper landscape of detail and names.

Two hundred years ago my fields would have been marked on an estate map, of colourful and varied design.

Then Ireland was covered in piecemeal surveys of differing scales of suspect accuracy. This caused such a furore over local taxes that the House of Commons approved £300,000 for surveying and making plans of the townland boundaries of the entire island, at a scale of six inches to one mile.

And on June 22, 1824, Lt Col Thomas Colby was given the job that, by the time it was finished in 1846, cost over £800,000.

Colby argued that he could not have known how many townlands Ireland possessed nor the complexity of their borders.

Townlands are unique to Ireland – 62,000 in all, 9,370 of them being in the North.

Every one of them is an ancient estate in no way regulated in shape or form.

Here’s a table showing old community divisions:

10 Acres = 1 Gneeve; 2 Gneeves = 1 Sessiagh; 3 Sessiagh = 1 Tate or Ballyboe; 2 Ballyboes = 1 Ploughland, Seisreagh or Carrow; 4 Ploughlands = 1 Ballybate or Townland.

Colby (ably assisted by Lieutenants Drummond and Lorcom) started preparations immediately, sending sappers of the Royal Engineers on a course of surveying instruction.

Their first task was to set out a framework of points. This was done by a process of triangulation where sightings were taken to distant mountain tops using theodolites, and in order to do this one accurately measured triangle leg of 7.89 miles was set out on the shores of Lough Foyle.

For this task Drummond was instrumental in developing compensating bars and he further developed limelight – a marble sized bit of lime in the flame, a spirit lamp that provided a light brilliant enough to penetrate Ireland’s fogginess and haze; first used to conduct observations over the 67 mile distance between Divis and Slieve Snaght.

Then, to facilitate drainage and other engineering projects, a datum for heights was fixed at the low water mark of spring tide on April 8, 1837, at Poolbeg Lighthouse in Dublin harbour.

Colby understood the importance of Irish involvement and increasingly a number of Irish ‘country labourers’ were trained and employed.

On top of that, ‘wise old heads’ walked and pointed out the boundary, earning two shillings per day. By the 1830s there were 2,139 Ordnance surveyors, principally Irish, ‘capturing the land’.

George Petrie, a member of the Royal Irish Academy and an inspired antiquarian, and John O’Donovan, a scholar of outstanding distinction whose researches on historical topography and ancient texts placed him in a class of his own, were amongst them.

O’Donovan travelled the country collecting place names and in his letters back to Lorcom he gives a sense of the people and the land.

Lorcom had envisaged that each map have a memoir of social habits and conditions; right down to peculiar games and poetry recited around the fireside, but the cost proved exorbitant.

County Antrim’s Templemore district soaked up £1,700 and so the idea had to be scrapped.

However, with its place names and ornamentation each map is an accurate portrait of the land.

Everything was doubly, quadruplet even, ‘finaled’. There’s books of rules for the depiction of everything: Archaeology; Levelling; Boundaries … Colby’s machine ensures that every element of every map is ‘sevendively’ checked.

In 1980 I was working in Carrickfergus and climbed a wall and started to measure in a big garden.

Then, thinking the owner might phone the police, I stopped, went back, got the van, and drove up the avenue to where a flight of granite steps led to the mansion’s double doors.

There I rang the bell, and to my alarm two things happened – well, a number of things happened.

The door opened a little and out of the courtyard at the side of the house tore two huge Rottweilers.

Instinctively I shouted ‘goodness me’ or words to that effect and burst through the door, slamming it behind me, inadvertently bumping into and jostling a portly gentleman in a tartan waistcoat and a red

bow tie.

He was very shocked, and so was I. “I’m from the Ordnance Survey,” I blurted – noting the place dripped with antique artefacts and beginning to understand my ‘dancing partners’ alarm.

In time we both calmed down. “I could easily have walked up the avenue and been torn to ribbons by the dogs.” I said. “Oh not to worry,” he replied loftily. “They’re trained guard dogs, they would have simply shoulder charged you, knocked you down, and held you until I came.”

Well, thank God for that!


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here