Ordnance Survey Memoirs: Filling out family stories

by Mary F. Wack

The Ordnance Survey Memoirs provide historians of Ulster families and localities with an unparalleled source of detail for filling out the story of ancestors’ lives between the isolated snapshots of censuses and census substitutes. The Memoirs were written during the mid-1830s, which positions them in the period of the Tithe Applotment Books (1820s–30s) and the 1831 census, and they can be used to validate or expand upon the information in those sources.

More than that, the evidence they preserve enables a rare glimpse back into the eighteenth century as well as a forward look to Griffith’s and other later ,nineteenth-century sources. As the OS fieldsmen had been directed to collect local traditions, they sought out older inhabitants as well as younger. Assuming that informants ranged in age from 20 to 80 or more, the lived experience recalled by the oldest informants reaches back to about 1750, while some of the youngest will have lived to the 1880s. Thus Memoir information can be correlated with information from the 1766 religious census for locales where those fragments survive (PRONI T/808/15264), or with surviving wills and leases from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (now with searchable indexes on the PRONI website). On the other end of the timeline, the younger named informants may show up in Griffith’s survey, church records, or civil death records after 1864. Just as importantly, the rich information about rural society collected in the Memoirs can be used to recreate the texture of daily life for one’s forebears.

Researchers focusing on the north are doubly fortunate in the information the Survey preserved: not only was Ulster memorialized in greatest detail of all the Irish provinces, but in Co. Londonderry many of the OS fieldsmen and memoirists captured the names and residences of their informants.

The parish of my ancestors, Bovevagh, enjoyed the local expertise of Thomas Fagan, a one-time Limavady innkeeper, tax ,collector, and speaker of Irish. Fagan both elicited considerable local information and traditional lore from his contacts among the people, and also kept careful notes of who his informants were and what townlands they lived in. Thanks to him, and the OS Memoirs for Bovevagh ,and Banagher parishes, I have been able to recreate the stories behind isolated facts about my ancestors, and even grasp a bit of the character of my great-great-great-grandfather, Thomas Campbell (1800–1858) ,of Ballymonie townland.

Article First Published in Familia: Ulster Genealogical Review, No. 25 (2009)