'Irish Roots' archive



Irish Roots


December 7 2015

John O'Donovan's glorious letters

The same upgrade that put the Valuation Office revision maps on the askaboutireland.ie site (see last week's column) also added the Ordnance Survey Field Name Books and the O'Donovan topographical letters. The former are parish-by-parish alphabetical listings of the place-names that were to become the standardised English versions on the first Ordnance Survey six-inch maps in the 1830s. The entries include much technical detail linking them to the maps, but also some worm's-eye-view descriptions of rents, landlords and tenants.

The O'Donovan letters are of broader interest. They consist of formal correspondence addressed to, or from, the man in charge of the Ordnance Survey topographical department, the antiquarian John O'Donovan, and often provide superb summaries of local place-name lore, even down to the minutest detail: the entry for Darver in Co Louth includes a description and drawing of "a silver ring which Mr Duffy found near his house". For anyone interested in local history in rural Ireland they are a magnificent treasure trove. And they give the lie to the notion that the OS process of standardisation and anglicisation was brutal, Anglo-Saxon and stupid.

The versions on the site are typescript copies of the originals made in the 1920s. I'm not sure (nor, I think, is askaboutireland.ie) that all of them are here. Certainly, the six counties of Northern Ireland are missing. And it has to be said that there are drawbacks to having them broken up and plotted as links on the maps.

But they are also browsable page by page, revealing all their gnarled glory, with folk-tales, principal families, ruined churches, annal entries, saint's biographies and more.

The voice of O'Donovan himself is also there, and strangely modern. At the conclusion of the second volume of Galway letters, he writes: "I have now done with the territories in the county of Galway and though it has cost me many an hour of severe application to lay down their boundaries I fear no one will have the patience to grope their way through my lucubrations."

He needn't have worried.

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