Background to the Ordnance Survey Memoirs

In 1824 a House of Commons committee recommended a townland survey of Ireland with maps at the scale of six inches to one statute mile to facilitate a uniform valuation for local taxation. The survey was directed by Colonel Thomas Colby, who had available to him officers of the Royal Engineers and three companies of sappers and miners. In addition, civil servants were recruited to help with sketching, drawing and engraving maps and eventually, in the 1830s, with the writing of the memoirs.

The Memoirs, compiled between 1830 and 1840 under the general direction of Lieutenant (later Sir) Thomas Larcom, were written descriptions intended to accompany the Ordnance Survey maps (containing information that could not be fitted on to them.)

The Memoirs act as a nineteenth-century Domesday Book, and are a unique source for the history of the northern half of Ireland before the Great Famine - one that is essential to the understanding of the cultural heritage of the northern counties of Ireland.

Arranged on a parish basis, volumes in the series generally follow a particular pattern and record - natural features (hills, lakes, bogs, woods, climate, etc); modern topography (towns, public buildings, mills, gentlemens’ seats, bridges, roads, markets and fairs, etc); the social economy (local government, dispensaries, occupations, the poor, religion, emigration, habits of the people - dress, food, customs, etc); and ancient topography (antiquities and ancient monuments).

They therefore document a great wealth of information about the landscape and about society in the 1830s and provide much more detailed information on the daily life of the inhabitants than any census could hope to do.

As the project progressed it became obvious to the surveyors that the detailed memoir work could not be sustained along with the surveying and eventually the work virtually ceased in 1840. By this time only the Province of Ulster had been covered (included some parishes in Counties Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan) as well as some parishes in Counties Leitrim, Louth and Sligo.

Only one volume was ever published before the surveying project came to an end, that of Templemore (including the city of Derry), County Londonderry. In the 1990s the remaining Memoirs were published in 40 volumes by the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen’s University Belfast, along with an expansive index running to over 100,000 entries for people and places.

These 40 volumes are available to purchase through the Ulster Historical Foundation’s online bookstore.

Ordnance Survey Memoirs

Article by Conor McDowell. First published in Familia: Ulster Genealogical Review, No. 24 (2008)

The seeds of the Ordnance Survey were sown in 1747, as King George II looked for a way of controlling the Scottish Clans who had recently assisted a Jacobite uprising. The Royal Engineers were commissioned to map the Scottish Highlands. The success of this original project and the growing threat of Napoleonic France saw an expansion of the programme to the south of England. At the same time Britain was undergoing rapid economic development as the industrial revolution began. Whilst change was not initially as profound as in England, Ireland became more prosperous; before the famine Ireland was the biggest exporter of grain to England, and mills were springing up, providing employment between the planting and harvesting of crops.

An 1824 House of Commons committee recommended that a townland survey of Ireland should be carried out, with the aim of providing a uniform valuation for taxation. It is not impossible to imagine that this decision was encouraged by the economic development of Ireland, as well as the growing ease of communication which allowed for more efficient organisation.

The Survey of Ireland was a huge and lengthy undertaking, commencing with the almost wholesale relocation of the Ordnance Survey to Ireland in 1824, and only reaching completion over 20 years later in 1846. The Survey was led by Major Thomas Colby, who would become the longest serving Director General of the Ordnance survey, who had at disposal officers of the Royal Engineers, three companies of sappers and miners, and a number of civil servants. As the mapping took place, other information about each parish was recorded; this information, which could not be placed on the maps, became the Ordnance Survey Memoirs. Only one volume of Memoirs was published in the 1830s (for the parish of Templemore, County Londonderry), but the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen’s University Belfast published the complete works in the 1990s.

The memoirs can be appreciated on many levels. For example, the quality and depth of information for each parish varies greatly. Some of this is down to size – the smallest parishes tend to have less information – but it also depends on who was collecting the information.

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Some parishes have been meticulously recorded, detailing the appearance of the grander homes, the names of the men in prison, or how much capital an emigrant took with them. Some of the memoirs tell the history of the parish, or local traditions and beliefs – a number of areas contain geographical features which are named after giants, whilst others have connections with St Patrick.

These accounts were clearly created by either men who took a real interest in Ireland and their surroundings, or the most assiduous of civil servants. Some took less interest, and can politely be called short and sweet. Whilst some parishes record the name of every emigrant, others often make do with ‘emigration is common in this parish.’

Some of the memoirs are written as answers to questions, and it can be quite frustrating to read how the information can be obtained from a local official, whose records have perhaps long since disappeared. There are even those accounts that cannot even be called polite - one man comments on the ‘illiterate Irish blockheads, laughed at by the Scotch.’ Occasionally a comment on the general population will be made. Some of these can be quite flattering with praise for the hardworking nature of the population and their hunger for learning. The chief and most recurring criticism is that of drunkenness, which is often followed by an attack on the lazy inhabitants of the parish. It is also interesting to note the differences in the information provided for the six counties that make up Northern Ireland and the other counties that were recorded. There are 40 Volumes of memoirs, 37 of which cover those counties that now make up Northern Ireland. Donegal has two volumes, whilst Cavan, Leitrim, Louth, Monaghan and Sligo are all squeezed into one.

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The memoirs have also proved useful in providing clues to site of archaeological interest. The sites of old forts are often described and, more importantly, recent finds are sometimes listed. The discovery of an ancient helmet or sword may have been the tip of an iceberg, with more finds perhaps only a few feet of soil away. Once again it can be frustrating to read how an artefact, on being discovered, quickly deteriorated
and has since disappeared. Of course, sometimes the veracity of the information can be suspect. Some accounts of local history can be slightly mangled, as the recorder became confused about the order of events. It is not unlikely that the locations of old finds were always where they were said to be. Despite the problems that can be encountered when using the Memoirs they still provide an unparalleled level of information on the northern part of pre-famine Ireland. For those with an interest in local history, it can provide a window into the lives of their ancestors. Average meals are described (unsurprisingly, potatoes are the staple), local dress and style of homes are listed, and some parishes even have detailed accounts of the weather.

For the genealogist, the memoirs contain extensive lists of names which can prove invaluable. The most common, and in general detailed lists, are those of emigrants. As mentioned above, some parishes only make passing reference to emigration, but the 47 parishes which do contain lists provide information on around 2700 individuals. Every one of these 2700 have a full name and age recorded (although this may be a few years out), and for most their home townland and destination are also provided. The most common destinations were New York or Quebec. A few families immigrated to Glasgow, but the New World was by far the most popular destination for those making a new start. Some of the memoirs have a heading for capital; this is almost always empty. Only a few brought anything with them, and these were in general the men with a trade (occupation is sometimes included, but this is almost always ‘labourer’). It is likely that the poorest people found it easiest to leave behind their old lives. When comments are made about emigration, it usually contains the phrase ‘… and few return.’ Leaving was seen as a permanent conclusion to ones’ time in Ireland. Migrant workers also make an appearance in the Memoirs. These lists contain the same information as the emigrant lists: Full name, age, religion and destination.

For migrant workers (who were almost exclusively men) Glasgow was the most popular port, followed by Liverpool. The lists are often prefixed with the phrase ‘annual migrants’. That this work is seasonal implies that it is in agriculture (unfortunately occupation is not given), but by the 1830s both Glasgow and Liverpool would have had large industrial sectors, so it is possible that men travelled to work in the factories or ship yards while less labour was needed to look after their own land. In some parishes, migration was very popular; 94 travelled from Ahogill, whilst 164 left their homes in Maghera.

The Memoirs can also be used to match certain names to certain areas. In some parishes the names of those in the local graveyards are recorded, and some list the most common names that can currently be found. Together these give about 2000 names. There is of course overlap between various parishes, but they can still provide vital clues about the history of one’s family.

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Most of the lists only give the surnames found but some do have full names. For example, the entry for the Kilraghts cemetery in Antrim has 111 full names. Other hints can also be found. In Magherafelt the most common surnames are sorted by townland, which could help to narrow down a search. Others sort the names by their origin – usually English, Scottish or Irish, but in one case, French. A huge index of over 100,000 entries has been published, so that finding the relevant volume for a particular person or place is a simple process.

There are many other types of information that include names. One of the most common entries is for schools within the parish. The reports for each school contain a surprisingly large amount of information. Pupil numbers are recorded, and often broken down by age and religion. Some of the more prestigious schools list the textbooks used and the curriculum.

In almost all cases the name and religion of the school master is given. The Memoirs contain about 1000 names of school masters, which are bolstered by another 150 Sunday school superintendents (who are often religious men). At the other end of the scale, there are entries that only occur in one parish, but can contain hundreds of names. There are 500 names of subscribers to the Hillsborough Charitable Society for instance, and 200 in Coleraine.

The single largest list contains almost 900 names, but is perhaps not the first place one would think of looking for one’s ancestors – prisoner records, in this case, from Carrickfergus. This contains much the same information as the entries for emigrants: full name, age, religion and in place of destination, crime. It might be a little embarrassing, but it may well make for a more interesting family story!

When the Ordnance Survey Memoirs were being compiled, it’s unlikely that they realised how useful a resource they were creating for future generations.

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The Memoirs are a unique and fascinating source of information on Ireland in the 1830s. I have briefly attempted to give an insight into what they contain, but it is merely a glimpse. The detail, scale and variety of local traditions for example cannot easily be translated in a brief essay. There is something for everyone, whether you have a clearly defined aim or just an interest in local history. If you wish to find out the history of your ancestors, or just what they wore, the Memoirs are a great place to start.