History Articles

The mapping of the Ordinance Survey across the Wicklow Gap in 1839

In 1791 the Ordnance Survey was established with headquarters at the Tower of London, its brief being to produce military maps, particularly of coastal areas of England and Scotland. In 1824, the Ordnance Survey was given the enormous task of carrying out a detailed survey of Ireland. Its headquarters would be at the Phoenix Park.

The survey began in 1828. First the country was divided into a series of triangles by taking sightings of distant mountain tops. Later on, details of boundaries, roads, rivers, buildings and fields were filled in. This was the more demanding task and at the height of the work, 1,500 employees worked at it, mainly members of the Royal Engineers trained in surveying and mathematics. The scale used was 6 inches to 1 mile. These maps were revised in the early 20th Century. At the same time, Griffith's Department set about defining townlands and parishes and were also given the task of valuing the land in order to establish an equitable tax system. Thus the term "Griffith's Valuation".

It has been suggested that because the Whig Government at the time depended on Daniel O'Connell's support for its survival in power they agreed with him that in conjunction with the Ordnance Survey being carried out, that a survey of Irish Placenames and Antiquities should be carried out as well. (It may be no coincidence that the coming to power of the Tory Government some years later saw the demise of the field work carried out by the Placenames & Antiquities of the Ordnance Survey).

The person in charge of the Ordnance Survey was Sir Thomas Larcom who took his obligations very seriously and even studied the Irish Language in order to understand better the Gaelic Placenames. Between the years 1838 and 1840 the Wicklow Survey of Placenames etc. was carried out by three men, John O'Donovan, Thomas O'Connor and Eugene O'Curry who traversed the county, often in the very worst weather and wrote back letters of their findings to the Phoenix Park.

Around the same time, the well know artist, George Petrie, painted some gaunt winter scenes of the Wicklow Mountains. The letters were written almost daily by ink and quill, often late at night. There are constant references to the meagre expenses they received and they often had to economise as you will gather from the letter of O'Donovan dated: Rathdrum January 7th 1839, to Larcom in the Phoenix Park.

These letters are now in the possession of the Royal Irish Academy whose kind permission to reproduce, I hereby acknowledge. A word of thanks and congratulations also to Roundwood and District historical and Folklore Society (and especially Christian Corlett and John Medlycott) who published the letters. The publication is entitled "The Ordnance Survey Letters: Wicklow" and is still available from Roundwood. Here follows the letter.

January 7th 1839
Dear Sir,

Since I wrote last we have suffered much in the mountains lying between this and Blessington. No car could be brought across the mountains in this season and we must make our way back to Blessington through Dublin, which is the cheapest and most expeditious mode of travelling, as it is impracticable to walk the distance. I shall here give a short account of the proceedings:
We left Baltinglass on Friday and travelled by car to Blessington, expecting to be able to get a car thence to Glendalough: but the Hotel Keeper would not send a car thither at the usual price per mile and I was not willing to give him more. So on the next morning, which promised to produce a fine hard day; we set out for Glendalough on foot across the mountains, thinking nothing of the distance, which is only sixteen miles around the road.

We came on in very good humour for seven miles, stopping on the way to look at old churches, but when we reached the side of what they called the Cross Mountain, the day suddenly changed its aspect, the snow fell in luxuriant heavy leaves (drops) and before we reached the top of the mountain we found ourselves in the middle of a snow storm. I stopped short and paused to consider what it was best to do. The clouds closed around us and the wind blew in a most furious manner. Here we met a countryman who told us that the distance to Glendalough was nine miles, that the road was for six miles uninhabited, and that the last flood has swept away two of the bridges. I got a good deal alarmed at finding ourselves a mile and a half into the mountain and no appearance of a cessation of the snow storm. I told O'Conor, who was determined to go on, that I would return, that I did not wish to throw away life to no purpose. I returned! (Coward) The whole side of the mountain looked like a sheet of paper horribly beautiful, but the wind was now directly in our face. We returned three and a half miles and stopped at Charley Clarke's public house, where we got infernally bad treatment.
The next morning, I felt very feverish from having slept in a damp bed in a horribly cold room, but seeing that the snow began to thaw and it being Sunday, I resolved to go on to the Churches. So we set out across the same mountain in which we had been stopped by the snow. I never felt so tired! Sinking thro' the half dissolved masses of snow and occasionally down to the knees in ruts in the road, which proved exceedingly treacherous as being covered with the snow. One of my shoes gave way and I was afraid that I should be obliged to walk barefooted. We moved on, dipped into the mountain, and when we had travelled about four miles we met a curious old man of the name Tom Byrne, who came along with us. We were now within five miles of the Glen but a misty rain, truly annoying dashed constantly in our faces until we arrived at Saint Kevin's Shrine. Horribly beautiful and truly romantic, but not sublime!
Fortunately for us there is now a good, but most unreasonable expensive kind of a hotel in the Glen, and when I entered I procured a pair of woollen stockings and knee breeches and went at once to look at the Churches, which gave me a deal of satisfaction. (I looked like a madman!)
We got a very bad dinner and went to bed at half past twelve. I could not sleep but thinking of what we had to do and dreading a heavy fall of snow, which might detain us in the mountain. O'Conor fell asleep at once.
At one o'clock a most tremendous hurricane commenced which rocked the house beneath us as if it were a ship! Awfully sublime! But I was much in dread that the roof would be blown off the house. I attempted to wake O'Conor by shouting to him, but could not. About two o'clock the storm became so furious that I jumped up determined to make my way out, but I was no sooner out of bed than the window was dashed in upon the floor and after it a squall mighty as a thunderbolt! I then, fearing that the roof would be blown off at once, pushed out the shutter and closed it as soon as the direct squall had passed off and placed myself diagonally against it to prevent the next squall from getting at the roof inside, but the next blast shot me completely out of my position and forced in the shutter. This awoke O'Conor who was kept asleep as if by a halcyon charm! I closed the shutter again despite of the wind and kept it closed for an hour when I was as cold as ice (being naked all the time). O'Conor went to alarm the people of the house, but he could find none of them, they being away securing (saving) their cattle in the outhouses which were much wrecked by the hurricane. The man of the house at last came up and secured the window by fixing a heavy form against it. I then dressed myself and sat at the kitchen fire till morning. Pity I have not paper to tell the rest.
A tree in the Church Yard was prostrated and many cabins in the Glen much injured. The boat of the upper lake was smashed to pieces. The old people assert that this was the greatest storm that raged in the Glen these seventy years.
We go on to-night to Dublin by the coach which passes here at one o'clock. O'Conor returns to Blessington to finish the barony of Lower Talbotstown, and I shall call in to Mr. Petrie. I shall write next from Dublin

Your obedient servant,
J. O'Donovan.