Where Do You Think They Were?
It now seems more straightforward than ever to go looking for your ancestral roots. These days your search may be simpler, but not necessarily easier. Any number of online family history sources can overpower you with detail. However, the basics remain the same, and the three most important pieces of genealogical information for most of us remain, dates of birth, marriage and death and it is important to note that all of these events have to have happened somewhere. Location is important. In this regard a much underused online facility in the search is the availability of the historical mapping from Ordnance Survey Ireland. Now an online service that is free to access and view, this older 19th century mapping may not help you find your roots, but they can be invaluable in giving the search some context and a visual impression of what the area looked like where those ancestors lived.
Although established in 1824, it took almost ten years of preparation including baseline measurement and triangulation, before the real work of detailed mapping began in 1834. At a scale of 6” to one mile it has the distinction of being the first complete topographical survey of any country to a fixed at a large scale and specification. Initially conceived and planned as a “Townland Boundary Map” it soon went way beyond that in its recording of fields boundaries, rivers , dwellings and all relevant features on the landscape.
A notable feature of the original specifications was that each of the 32 counties would exist as a separate series of map tiles. This reflected the idea that each county was a separate entity for administration purposes. In all there are in the region of 1600 map tiles covering the country. By 1843 this survey was complete, and available to the public.
A campaign to update the maps began in the 1850’s but before it was complete it was deemed inadequate to the needs of the time and therefore necessary to embark on even more ambitious undertaking to map the country at a scale of 25” to one mile.
This 25” survey began in 1893 and finished in 1913 and this increase in scale allowed more detail to be captured and represented more accurately. The significance of this can be seen particularly in towns where divisions between properties can be seen (a feature not present in the earlier 6” mapping).
For the genealogist the timing of these two original surveys is fortuitous. The original 6” survey 1832-43 was completed just before the The Great Famine of the 1840’s. This means that we have a full and accurate picture of what the landscape looked like in terms of roads, Townlands, field boundaries and dwelling houses at a moment in Irish history when the population was at its highest.
If you are lucky enough to have been able to trace your family history back to the 1840’s, or even luckier to have identified a parish or townland, then this series of mapping will yield a good idea of the environment in which they lived. You will see what the landscape looked like.
Happily the 25” series (1893-1913) coincided with the census of 1901 & 1911. This means that we have at our disposal a unique “picture” of the country at the same time as that of the official written record.
Even more beneficially, key search fields in the census are also recorded and searchable on our mapping website. Street names and locations such as Townland names are common to both datasets and provide a solid means of cross referencing.
Several years ago, we decided to scan and digitally store all tiles from the original series of mapping. This means in effect that we have a seamless database of mapping available to us for both periods. These are freely available to view online at GeoHive.
It is well worth your while exploring this website. You can search by street name, Townland, Sheet Number or by Co-ordinate. It allows access to current and historical mapping, where layers of genealogical information can be switched on or off.
Let’s look at an example
My maternal grandfather was born in 1896 and shows up in the 1901 & 1911 Census as living in Mallow Lane, Doneraile, Co Cork. With this information I can now go to the GeoHive web site and I find it better to start by looking at the current map.
There is no such lane in Doneraile today so I try some variants and I discover a “Mallow Road”.
When I navigate to the site and then switch on the older map layer (by choosing Historic 25” from “Base Information and Mapping”) I see that Mallow Road was named Mallow Lane at the turn of the 19th/20th Century. This gives me a present day location that I can visit, but also a view of the area where my grandfather grew up at the time he lived there.
A well-presented map will not overpower the reader, but reveal its treasures slowly. In other words, the more you look at it, the more you are likely to see and understand. The basic language of a map is made up of Linetype, Symbology, and Text, and understanding this vocabulary helps you understand the map. A lot of the symbology used is self-explanatory and is utilised by the cartographer (mapmaker) to represent and characterise the nature of the land.
In the Doneraile example from 1899 above (click to expand), we can interpret the following
- A line usually means a solid feature such as wall, fence or side of river.
- The absence of a symbol can be interpreted as pasture or tillage.
- Numerical value in the centre of a field means the acreage of that field.
- Hatching means the building is roofed. Cross hatching means the building is a glass house.
- A tiny cross + with a number alongside (+ 223) means the height above sea level of that point is that value. If you look at a series of these points along the road, you can ascertain the rise or fall of the road
- B.M. and a numerical value indicates the presence of a “Bench Mark” carved into the side of a building near ground level. The height above sea level of that point is known to a high level of accuracy. (see image)
- A continuous line with dots means a Townland Boundary. (see image)
- Rocky or rougher areas can be seen, as well as woodland areas which are classified as deciduous coniferous or mixed.
The older maps are a means to an end. They help us visualise the landscape at a particular moment in time. They may not always give us the answers that we want, but quite often, with a bit of patience, they may give us the questions we need, to find those answers.
You can buy historic maps from our Online Shop.
Dominic Cronin – Ordnance Survey Ireland