Trinity’s online Down Survey gives new life to a long-gone Ireland

Culture Shock


One of the cultural revolutions we’re living through is a change in the relationship between the way knowledge is gathered and the way it is communicated. There was an old model of scholarship: experts did painstaking research. When they discovered some- thing they shared it with their colleagues and, to a greater or lesser extent, with the public. The tools and methods they used were kept from the view of that public; only the results of the process were shared. One of the better consequences of digital technology is the challenge to this basic order. The process of gathering knowledge is no longer separate from that of sharing it. And the tools and methods of research are becoming public property.

We can all see this process at work from Monday, when Trinity College Dublin launches a remarkable historical website to free public access. The online digital atlas of the 17th-century Down Survey of Ireland is one of those projects that reminds us that, for all its many problems, cyberspace can still have a wonderfully democratic side. It’s a safe bet that people who had probably never heard of the Down Survey and who certainly would not have had access to it will be using it to understand their localities for decades to come.

Conducted between 1656 and 1658, the Down Survey of Ireland was the first detailed land survey on a national scale anywhere in the world. It was not undertaken in a spirit of disinterested scientific inquiry. It was a crucial part of the reordering of Ireland after Oliver Cromwell’s victory over Charles II and the Catholic Confederacy. Soldiers who had fought in the campaigns, and adventurers who had funded them, had been promised Irish land in return. If you want to engage in a large- scale expropriation of land, and especially if you want to transfer that land to new owners, you need to know what you’ve got. The point of the survey, led by the remarkable William Petty, was to measure all the estates to be forfeited by Irish Catholics.

Used in conjunction with the “books of survey and distribution”, Petty’s detailed maps showed every townland, parish and barony in Ireland, the acreage of each townland, the type of land, the owner in 1641 (when the devastating Irish war began) and the owner in 1670, when the transfer of land was complete. (The title of the survey has nothing to do with Co Down but meant merely that the maps were “laid down by admeasurement”.)

This was one of the most remarkable sets of documents from the 17th century, anywhere. But it did not long survive intact. A fire in the surveyor general’s office in 1711 destroyed the maps for parts of Leinster and Munster and for all of Connacht. (It was long thought that Petty did not survey Connacht.) Before then, Petty’s copies of the barony maps were being sent to his family estate in England in 1707, when they were captured by French pirates. (They are now in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris.) The surviving originals were destroyed in the appalling destruction of the national archives at the Four Courts in 1922.

Part of the TCD project, led by Micheál Ó Siochrú, was to track down the copies of the maps that survived in dozens of libraries and archives in Ireland, Britain and France. More than 2,000 maps were then digitised and brought back together for the first time in 300 years as a remarkable atlas of 17th-century Ireland. By laying all the surviving maps over Ordnance Survey maps, Google maps and satellite imagery, and by employing GIS technology, the atlas has become a remarkable tool for exploring land ownership, religion and topography during one of the most crucial periods of modern Irish history.

The website thus does something the original documents cannot do: it links the maps and accompanying information to other databases – the books of “survey and distribution”, the census of 1659, the witness statements on the atrocities committed against Protestants in 1641 (previously digitised by TCD and also available free online), the first atlas of Ireland and the first Ordnance Survey.

This is a new kind of knowledge. It is not a product but a process. It consists not of conclusions but of an open-ended invitation to explore. And it does not separate the idea of research from the idea of communication. Every aspect of the project is about research and about the making public of the documents, tools and methods through which this research can be done.

Neither, though, does an online atlas like this separate the expert from the general public. Historians will use it to examine complex questions in great detail. Environmental scientists might use it to look at patterns of land use and how they may have changed. But the bulk of traffic to the site will probably be from users trying to trace their genealogy or to learn more about their neck of the woods. What’s remarkable is that the amateur genealogist will have access to exactly the same tools as has the most distinguished historian.

When so many aspects of public culture are being narrowed, it matters greatly that digital humanities projects such as this one are opening up not just access to knowledge but also ideas about how knowledge works and to whom it belongs.

The Down Survey is at

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