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Pre-Famine Ireland: Social Structure Copyright © 2000 by Desmond Keenan Hard copy of book available from and

Chapter Seventeen

                  The Irish Government II

Summary of chapter. In this chapter the various policies of the Irish Government with regard to Ireland are described. Usually the policies were similar to those of the United Kingdom, but were adapted to Irish conditions. Some policies were copied from those in Britain, or on the other hand could have been adopted first in Ireland. It made little difference for all were agreed on the basic principles of government.

(i) Government Policies

(ii) Monetary Policy

(iii) Fiscal Policy and the Budget

(iv) Extraordinary Legislation

(v) Statistics, Surveys, and Valuations

(vi) The Ordnance Survey


(i) Government Policies 

             'Peace, retrenchment, and reform' was said to be the watchword of the Whigs in the Twenties, and indeed were specific Whig policies. But taken in a more general sense they were the objectives of the Tories as well. The Tories desired peace, but not at the price of concessions to Napoleon. They too favoured retrenchment of public expenditure even if they did not target royal patronage. The reforms they brought in were many, even if they opposed Parliamentary Reform. 

            It was noted earlier that the Irish Government was composed almost entirely of Irishmen. Any ideas, derived from nationalist propaganda, of a 'British' Government holding Ireland in subjection through a mixture of bribery and intimidation are ridiculous. 

            A major aim was to overhaul the Irish administration and to bring policies into line with contemporary British practice, to introduce efficiency and probity. At times, reforms were first initiated by the Irish Government, and later adopted in Britain, but this was not a case, as has been alleged, of using Ireland as a laboratory for social experiment. There were progressive politicians and officials in both countries sharing a common culture, and sometimes they succeeded first in one country or in the other. 

            One of the chief aims of any group of politicians is to keep themselves in office, and the Irish Whigs and Tories were no different from their English or Scottish counterparts. A Government in office never lost an election, at least in the immediate term. But it could not prevent independent MP’s from switching their loyalties, which was a very important factor when political parties were not tightly controlled. A very small sum of money was available for the secret service, and this will be discussed in more detail in the section on the Press. At elections the ministry in office had to exert itself to win, and this seems to have been done by promising jobs or honours to important gentlemen in crucial counties. Practice was the same in Britain. 

            The Irish Government was involved in supervising most aspects of Irish life, but only indirectly, for example it kept itself informed about affairs which were the proper responsibility of the counties, the towns and the cities. From time to time, as described in earlier chapters it had laws passed for the better regulation of these affairs. But there were other aspects of policy for which the Government was directly responsible, for example monetary and fiscal policy, and military affairs. There were other matters like the control of agrarian crime which were strictly speaking the affairs of the counties. Yet the Government from time to time was reluctantly compelled to seek special legislation to deal with it. 

             The great problem in Ireland in the first half of the century was the conquest of poverty. The views of Adam Smith were by then widely accepted especially regarding the retarding effects of Government controls and monopolies. It was agreed that private enterprise and initiative would be more effective in enabling the growth of the economy to outstrip the growth of population. Yet the Government was continually drawn in to assist local endeavours for example by introducing legislation to assist drainage, to raise capital from encumbered estates, or to get a rational system of valuation established. It can be noted in passing that other measures like restrictions on the right to marry or attempts at population control were universally rejected as unthinkable. It became obvious early in the century that Government assistance would be required in many parts of Ireland if ordinary literacy was to be taught to the bulk of the population. This will be dealt with in the chapter on education. Despite the rhetoric of nationalists like Archbishop MacHale or the sneers of writers like Marmion the overcoming of poverty was at the root of much legislation in the first half of the century. 

            To a noticeably greater extent than in England the central Government in Ireland was the agent of change and development. Time and again we find an Irish Secretary adopting a measure and imposing its implementation on the counties. But then most counties in Ireland were poor, rural, and agricultural, and so not given to social innovation. [Top] 

(ii) Monetary Policy 

            It is almost inevitable that heavy borrowing by Governments in time of war should lead to inflation as it provides a classic case of too much money chasing too few goods. 

            In 1797 the Bank of Ireland was ordered by the Government to discontinue the issue of gold coins, and the Bank of Ireland was relieved of its obligation to pay out in gold. Further restrictions were placed on the Bank of Ireland in 1804. The object of this was to collect gold coins into the hands of the Government as they were needed to pay foreign subsidies, and issue of banknotes by British, Irish, and Scottish banks was sufficiently developed to make the actual passing of gold from hand to hand unnecessary. Though gold was not removed from circulation in Ireland in 1797 it quickly disappeared into hoards, and the price of gold coins rose sharply. The 1797 Act had allowed the issue of silver notes not only by the Bank of Ireland but also by all other Irish banks as well. As early as 1799 the Government was trying to restrict the over-issue of notes. In 1797 the total amount of notes issued by the Bank of Ireland amounted to £621,000 and by 1803 this had risen to £2,600,000 but the Bank argued that this was the amount required to compensate for the withdrawal of gold coins. The exchange value of Irish banknotes fell to 17% below the value of the corresponding British notes. Sir Henry Parnell, then beginning his political career, felt strongly that this depreciation in value was caused by over-issue but found no compelling way of convincing those who had other explanations. Nobody in fact knew how many banks there were or how many notes they had issued.

            The problem was made worse by the virtual disappearance of sound coins as well. Banks, shopkeepers, and the makers of false coin, rushed to supply the deficiency by stamping coins or tokens. These were often accepted not at face value but at whatever value a shopkeeper though fit to attribute to them. If the value of silver in a coin is equal to or greater than the face value of the coin, the coin will be melted down. If it is less than the face value, the value of the coin will be discounted, except the person handling it is certain to be able to pass it on. It was often observed that bad money drove out good, i.e. when bad money (either falsely coined or poorly backed) was circulating people hoarded good coins. As bullion was being shipped abroad there was no possibility for the moment of returning to a properly minted coinage. 

             In 1804 John Foster restricted the issue of notes to banks which were registered with the Government and approved. Over sixty private banks registered. The Government then ordered a new coinage from Matthew Boulton's patent mint, but this issue nearly met the fate of Wood's halfpence. (A patent was granted to William Wood an Englishman in 1722 to manufacture good-quality copper halfpence and farthings for use in the kingdom of Ireland. As the Irish authorities had not been consulted, there was a storm of protest led by Jonathan Swift and the patent was withdrawn.) In this case the Government insisted on its acceptance and it came to be accepted. The penny was given the value of one twelfth of a silver shilling as a first step towards the unification of the coinages.  To remedy the shortage of silver coins to some extent the Government imported Spanish silver dollars, and overstamped them with a face value of six shillings, this being greater than their bullion value. Traders accepted them at 4/10. Foster's measures were successful; inflation slowed down, and coins again circulated.  

            In 1809 Sir Henry Parnell wished to see the two currencies assimilated as this would allow Bank of England notes to circulate freely in Ireland, and to be used as legal tender.   All other banknotes and coins could then be stabilised against the English notes.  Foster did not consider this feasible so long as the English notes were not backed by gold. The paper money in Ireland did not depreciate to anything like the paper assignats of the French Republic which had become valueless within a few years. In 1810 a committee of the House of Commons was appointed to study the question of the currency, and it is known to history as the 'Bullion committee'. It was impressed by the way Irish notes depreciated in value if not firmly tied to gold, and recommended that gold should be made the basis of the currency of the United Kingdom. The Government at the time rejected its recommendations, but some years later Robert Peel became converted to its principles and did in fact tie the currency firmly to the issue or holdings of gold. 

            The first step was to re-mint the coinage, and this was done as soon as the War was over, William Wellesley Pole then being the Master of the Mint. The entire coinage was called in and re-minted as proper silver coins. A new gold coin, the sovereign, was also minted, though the older guinea now valued at 21 shillings was not withdrawn. These new coins were made legal tender in Ireland as well. Some Irish coins were minted when George IV came to the throne but the issue was merely a token one. A separate Irish coinage was discontinued in 1826.

            When Peel became Home Secretary he took the question of currency seriously. The issue of small, or silver, notes was stopped in England, and larger banknotes made instantly convertible into gold coins. In Ireland and Scotland he was satisfied that the silver notes answered a real need and were not then inflationary, so he allowed their continuance. Though he was later to insist that note-issues above a certain figure should be backed by gold, this was aimed at protecting customers of the banks, not at stabilising the currency. 

            With the onset of the Famine silver coins disappeared briefly from Ireland. The precise reason for this never emerged, but one economist at the time said it was not due to hoarding. No Government intervention in currency matters proved necessary for this or any other reason during the Famine. An article in the Irish Railway Gazette attributed the stability of the Irish currency over the preceding thirty years to the prudence of the managers of the joint-stock banks who had never allowed themselves to be drawn into a cycle of over-issue during booms and contraction, or credit squeeze, in the following depressions.  It is possible that a more adventurous policy by Irish banks by increasing the supply of money slightly faster than the expansion of the economy would have benefited Ireland more.[Top] 

(iii) Fiscal Policy and the Budget 

            By the terms of the Act of Union Ireland was to contribute two seventeenths of the total revenue of the United Kingdom until the National Debts stood in that ratio, and then the Exchequers were to be merged. The formal merger took place in 1817 but it never proved quite possible totally to merge the accounts. Even into the twentieth century the cost of the Irish administration, civil service, etc., were kept separate. In the first half of the century the Irish estimates which included such peculiarities as the annual grant to maintain Maynooth College had to be presented annually to Parliament. 

            The proportion of revenue assigned as Ireland's share of the joint revenue was fixed according to the proportions of the separate revenues raised in the two countries in the three years immediately preceding the Act of Union. Though this was not obvious at the time Ireland had then about reached the limits of her tax capability while Britain had not. Though both countries had to borrow large sums to help finance the War, Ireland had proportionately to borrow far more. This meant that Ireland's National Debt rose rapidly to reach the proportion of two to fifteen.  

            In 1801 William Pitt introduced his first budget in the new United Kingdom seeking a total of £35 million. Ireland's contribution therefore was to be just over £4 million. He noted that the United Parliament had taken over some commitments of the former Irish Parliament such as the Sinking Fund and Compensation Treasury Bills. He noted that the Irish Chancellor proposed to borrow £2.3 million out of a total Government borrowing requirement of £25 million. 

            The Irish Chancellor of the Exchequer, Isaac Corry, then presented the Irish budget. The Irish debt, he said, stood at £36 million on which £1.7 million was paid in interest annually. The income tax was not to be applied to Ireland. The various grants formerly made by the Irish Parliament for religious, charitable, and religious purposes were by the terms of the Act of Union to be maintained for twenty years. He then listed the various duties and excises that he considered would be sufficient to raise the necessary sum. 

            Corry was not popular, nor very capable, and when the former Irish Chancellor of the Exchequer John Foster finally took his seat in Westminster he vigorously attacked him. Foster soon found himself appointed Chancellor in Corry's place. He took vigorous steps to root out bribery and corruption in the Revenue Service, and saw that moneys were collected promptly. He threatened the country gentlemen with a property tax if they did not make greater efforts to stamp out illicit distillation. He added taxes on wines, malt, tea (duty doubled), tobacco, sugar, spirits, and stamps. He and his successors continued increasing these taxes until in some cases the trade was killed off. 

            In 1808 about £2,200,000 was derived from Customs duties, £1,700,000 from excises, £580,000 from stamps, £69,000 from the Post Office, and £124,000 from the lottery. In 1826, the figures were Customs, £1,500,000, excises, £1,420,000, stamps £425,000, and Post Office £74,000. 

             The loans were at first raised in London, but soon Irish private banks were tendering on equal terms. In 1806 Messrs Gibbons and Williams of Dublin bid to offer £2 million of the loan but were allowed only half of that. In 1809 Foster was budgeting for £10.5 million, of which £4.5 million were to be raised by loans. Of this £1.25 million were to be raised in Ireland, a tender of J.C. Beresford for this sum being accepted. The object in not raising all the money in Ireland was to prevent Irish capital being sucked into safe, low-interest, but unprofitable war loans, thereby removing capital essential for commercial development. On the other hand, by raising the war loans in England and spending the money for military purposes in Ireland, for example, in building fortifications, British capital was drawn into Ireland.

            In 1812 Wellesley Pole who had succeeded Foster was seeking £14 million, and in 1813 William Vesey Fitzgerald was seeking £16.5 million. By 1816 the Irish National Debt stood at two seventeenths of the British debt, and a Bill was introduced, which became effective the following year, to amalgamate the exchequers. 

            In theory if uniform taxes were applied over the whole of the United Kingdom each part would contribute in proportion to its income. But up to 1850 such uniformity was not imposed.  For one thing Parliament still continued to pay for Irish expenditures which had no equivalent in Britain, namely the grants for religious and charitable purposes. On the other hand, some taxes like stamp duty and the excise on whiskey were set at lower rates in Ireland. 

            Nationalists argued that Ireland was over-taxed under the Union. One particular argument was that Ireland was saddled with a much larger National Debt than would have been the case otherwise.  This overlooks the fact that Irish ships everywhere depended on the protection of the Royal Navy, and that the Irish everywhere benefited from the diplomatic and consular services of the United Kingdom, that Irishmen had full and free access to all British colonies to trade, to work, and to official employment, and also to all ranks in the army and navy at home and abroad. (It was a deliberate decision of the Government of the United Kingdom after the battle of Waterloo to open all seas to the ships of all countries, and the Navy could enforce this policy. Had France won the War both Britain and Ireland would have been excluded from trading with most parts of the world.).  One may argue over political issues involved, but financially Ireland did well out of the deal. .[Top] 

(iv) Extraordinary Legislation 

            This was legislation passed by Parliament at the request of the Irish Government giving it for short periods extraordinary powers to deal with outbreaks of agrarian crime, or occasionally insurrection. Extraordinary legislation was not confined to Ireland, for similar Acts were passed in England at the outbreak of the French Revolution, and again in a series called the 'Six Acts' in the years following the battle of Waterloo. In Ireland the need for extraordinary legislation was endemic and recurrent, and the need has persisted to the present day. Parliament was reluctant to admit that there was any crime that could not be dealt with through the ordinary processes of law. Extraordinary powers were therefore granted only for short periods. In the twentieth century the Parliaments in both parts of Ireland were compelled to make the legislation permanent. 

            The perennial problem with agrarian and related crimes was that witnesses and jurors could be easily intimidated, and if unco-operative, murdered. The Government only applied to Parliament for extra powers after repeated assurances by the county gentlemen that ordinary measures were ineffective.  When the outbreak of crime was suppressed the legislation was allowed to lapse, and the Government hoped that increased prosperity, better education, and the influence of religion and the clergy, would cause each outbreak to be the last. 

            Only three Acts were regarded as being permanently on the statute book. These were the Whiteboy Act (1776), (first passed in 1766, revised and renewed in 1776, and made permanent in 1800), the Convention Act (1793), and the Peace Preservation or Police Act  (1813), though the introduction of the New Police in 1822 made the provisions of the latter redundant. The Whiteboy Act applied to groups of five or more, beating, burning, houghing, digging up fields, levelling hedges, etc., with capital punishment for acts at night and transportation for acts during daylight. The inhabitants of the adjoining townlands were obliged, by the Act, to apprehend the malefactors under penalty if they failed to do so of having a sum for compensation levied on the barony or county. Those attempting to rescue prisoners were liable to the death penalty as were those imposing illegal oaths. The savagery of the penalties reflects the weakness of the law-enforcing agencies. 

            The Home Office in England and the Irish Government never harmonised their activities, and an Act passed for England did not apply in Ireland, and vice verse. The laws were drafted by the legal authorities in each country totally disregarding what was enacted for the other. A British Act of 1799 had a clause against membership of an illegal organisation, while the corresponding Irish Act forbade the taking of illegal oaths but did not forbid actual membership. This was rectified in 1823. 

             One has carefully to study the Acts, or the summaries provided by the Irish Secretary to Parliament, to see what the Government had in mind, for the name of the Act can be misleading. For example, a Martial Law Act was passed in Ireland to allow civil courts, which would normally be suspended, to continue to function even after a district was placed under martial law.  In many cases too, early in the century, the laws passed were little used for as soon as a district was proclaimed the conspirators went elsewhere. This was not the case in the Thirties during the bitter agrarian disturbances that accompanied the so-called 'Tithe War'. 

            The most severe measures involved the suspension of habeas corpus and the imposition of martial law. This was normally done by two different acts, so that Parliament could review the need for each separately. Habeas corpus was suspended twice, from 1798 until 1806 and from 1848 until 1850. In both cases civil disturbances accompanied the usual wave of agrarian crime. Suspension was normally granted only for one year, and the following year the Government had to come before Parliament to make a case for a renewal of the Act. 

            Suspension of habeas corpus meant that suspected persons could be interned without trial. By suspected persons was meant those about whom information was sworn before a magistrate, but against whom the witness was unwilling to testify in open courts. (As noted earlier magistrates were usually remiss in cross-examining those swearing affidavits. In 1808 Sheridan stated that some were imprisoned in virtue of another Act which enabled the Government to accept evidence not duly sworn before a magistrate.) In 1803 some young men were suspected of being in league with the French and were imprisoned until 1806. In 1848 the Government was able to nip a possible insurrection in the bud by getting Parliament to hastily pass a Suspension Act. 

            Three Acts were passed in 1803, a Suppression of Rebellion Act (1803), a Martial Law Act (1803), and a Suspension of habeas corpus Act. Martial law never came into force until a district, either a barony or a county, was proclaimed by the Lord Lieutenant in Council. This was never done in the first half of the century but the various proclamations in 1798 remained in force in some districts for a few years. 

            Martial courts were not the same as courts martial, the military courts under the Mutiny Act for members of the armed forces. They did not deal with civil cases but only with the crimes associated with armed rebellion. No special procedure was specified for them and they were not record courts. They could be established ad hoc by the military general officer commanding in the district. 

            The vast bulk of the legislation dealt with ordinary agrarian crime. Widespread outbreaks attributed to the Whiteboys, Oakboys, Steelboys, etc began to occur in the 1760's and the first Acts to try to deal with them were passed by the Irish Parliament in 1775 and 1776. (Other names like Carders and Threshers were used in the nineteenth century, but the most common name was Ribbonmen.) They were the most severe ever passed by either the Irish or British Parliament. For this reason successive Governments were reluctant to use them, and requested their own Law Officers to draw up milder yet sufficient legislation to deal with the problem. The Lord Lieutenant invoked the Whiteboy Act (1776) in 1811 at a time when the Insurrection Act (1807) had lapsed. The Solicitor General, Kendall Bushe, explained that the Lord Lieutenant was very reluctant to invoke the Act because of the extreme penalties it contained. For example, any connection at all with conspirators was punishable with death (SNL 15 Feb 1811). 

            In their normal form, Insurrection or Coercion Acts were based on a draft made by the constitutional lawyer Arthur Wolfe (Lord Kilwarden, later murdered by Emmett's supporters) in 1796. He aimed at being effective without being harsh, and without violating as far as possible the constitutional liberties of the king's subjects. Subsequent Acts reduced further what he regarded as a minimum. One problem to be tackled was how to search women's bedrooms at night when looking for concealed arms. Waves of agrarian crime always began by widespread theft of firearms, and if women's bedrooms were exempt from searching they would make ideal depositories. 

             Other minor Acts were often passed dealing with firearms, which annoyed the county gentlemen intensely, though we take them for granted nowadays. Such were Acts placing restrictions on the importation or sale of gunpowder, and requiring licences for firearms. 

            The Whigs, when out of office, at various times attributed the outbreaks of violence to an unwillingness of the Tories to enact necessary reforms. But they invariably found that when they themselves took office they had to pass yet another Coercion Act. The real problem the complacency with which the murder of opponents was regarded in Ireland, and the readiness with which such murders were excused if it were claimed that local interests were being protected.   

            Peel hoped to end the series of extraordinary Acts by developing an efficient police force, but it never proved possible to dispense with them, and they finally were made permanent in both parts of Ireland.

            There was another series of Acts beginning with the Convention Act (1793) which prohibited persons or societies from assembling for unlawful, i.e. revolutionary purposes, to assemble in order to overthrow or intimidate Parliament, or to set up a body to rival Parliament. There was nothing unusual about this Act. A similar one had been passed in England at the Restoration of Charles II.  

            This series of Acts would not have been at all important if O’Connell had not devoted his entire career to trying to circumvent the Convention Act. There never was any logical reason for this for political organisations were perfectly legal so long as they assembled only to petition Parliament, or to secure the return of a Member of Parliament, and did not attempt to organise on a national scale. The wording of an Act against unlawful assemblies proved difficult because there were all sorts of societies for useful or even convivial purposes. The Government finally had an Act passed enabling the Lord Lieutenant on the spot to decide what society or association was unlawful. 

            The Convention Act was a strange obsession of O’Connell's for at various times he formed perfectly legal societies. Yet he was never satisfied with these.  He hankered for a massive, nationally organised, and well-funded body, which he felt could shake the Government. But he always overlooked the fact that the Orange faction proved better organisers, and formed larger and better-funded associations, and if not armed, with easier access to arms. 

             Again, if his language had been moderate the Government might have overlooked his societies. Yet he always persisted in haranguing his followers in the most violent language. His favourite quotation was from Byron

            Hereditary bondsmen! know ye not
Who would be free themselves must strike the blow.

He always maintained that this did not refer to physical violence, though many doubted if that is how his followers interpreted it.  His Young Ireland followers certainly at first believed that he would lead them into battle. .[Top] 

(v) Statistics, Surveys, and Valuations 

            By statistics originally was meant information useful for governing the state. The term was used by Sir John Sinclair to describe agricultural, industrial, and commercial resources of Scotland, though he intended his surveys to be used by private individuals for commercial development. 

            The Irish Government was anxious to promote agriculture, industry, and fishing and wished to see surveys like Sinclair's carried out in Ireland, and the Irish Secretary, Wickham, and the Dublin Society in the opening years of the century tried to organise a statistical survey of all the Irish counties. The means adopted was to ask a gentleman, if possible a clergyman, to survey his own county. This the gentleman did by writing to other gentlemen and clergymen in the various parishes asking them what was notable in the parish and what were the possibilities of commercial improvement. He then collated the replies. Several county surveys were published by the Society, some being worse than others but none were particularly good. John Foster, when he was Irish Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1807, asked Edward Wakefield, a fellow-mercantilist and a proponent of corn-growing, to try to prepare a better one. But Wakefield had no way of evaluating the information supplied to him. Robert Peel, in his turn invited the competent statistician William Shaw Mason to make the attempt, and his survey was published between 1814 and 1819. 

            The Dublin Society, in addition, made an extensive survey of Irish coalfields and also persuaded the Government to appoint Bog Commissioners to evaluate the potential of bogs. The Board of Inland Navigation was charged with evaluating the commercial possibilities of various new canals proposed to it. Lord Cornwallis, when he was Lord Lieutenant, despite the troubled state of parts of the country, had the Nymph Bank re-surveyed with a view to developing fisheries. 

            Sir John Sinclair persuaded William Pitt to hold a census of Great Britain in 1801. Ireland was excluded because of the disturbances, and so the Government had to continue to rely on estimates made by private individuals. In 1811 Ireland was again excluded because of agrarian crime. In 1813, Sir John Newport, assisted by Peel got an Act passed to enable the first Irish census to be taken. The enumeration was entrusted to the baronial constabulary (the 'ould Barnies') but some counties were never finished. A certain amount of extrapolation was therefore required. In 1821 the first proper Irish census was taken. The organisation was entrusted to the able William Shaw Mason, and so far as matters could be organised in Dublin, nothing was left to chance. The weak link in this and the following census in 1831 was the local enumerators. In one case the enumerators were paid by results, and it was pointed out that in some places an additional pageful, say of Murphys, could be added without anyone noticing.  Additions and omissions were probably not numerous, but do make the data unsuitable for strict mathematical analysis. The problems, and possible solutions, were recognised in 1841, and this census is commonly regarded as accurate. 

            In the 1820's the Government undertook the twin massive tasks of surveying or re-surveying the whole of Ireland, and valuing, or re-valuing all the land surveyed. The Ordnance Survey is dealt with separately. 

            A rough hydrographic survey had been made of the Irish coasts at the request of the Admiralty by Murdock Mackenzie at the time of the American War of Independence. The new survey had no individual as capable and determined as Major Colby at its head to push it through to a finish, even though the head of the Hydrographic Department of the Admiralty was an Irishman, Francis Beaufort, whose standards of surveying matched those of Colby. The whole survey of the Irish coasts was eventually completed however to the now exacting Admiralty standards. 

            The Ordnance Survey, though a mammoth task, was straightforward compared with the valuation. Though he was not one of the original valuators appointed, the most important was Richard Griffith. He made several attempts to produce a uniform and satisfactory valuation, but each attempt was criticised in turn. He employed for the purpose persons who had had previous experience in valuing for landlords or their agents. He told them to take into account the nature of the soil, and the sub-soil, and the local prices of farm produce. The various 'Griffith valuations' were important in their time but were replaced by the Poor Law valuation for various purposes of civil valuation. It was however the Griffith valuation which was used in the purchase of land under the Land Acts at the end of the century.

            The Poor Law Valuation  (PLV) marked a departure from the practice of making the townland the unit of taxation. Not only the land in the townland, but also buildings, rights of way, mines opened for more than seven years, commons, profits from lands, easements on lands, tolls, navigations, indeed any species of real property from which a revenue was or could be derived was subject to the Poor Law Valuation. The Poor Law Commissioners carried out the valuations, and the Poor Law Board itself was eventually to grow into the Department of Local Government, a catch-all department. The letters PLV found a permanent place in Irish administration. 

            After the drainage of the Shannon the survey and valuation of Ireland was probably the most expensive enterprise undertaken by the Irish Government in the first half of the century. [Top] 

(vi) The Ordnance Survey 

            The civil survey is always called the Ordnance Survey because it was carried out under the direct supervision of officers seconded to the civil duties by the Board of Ordnance in London. (The original Ordnance Survey of southeast England was carried out by civil surveyors during the French Revolutionary Wars, with the aim of providing proper maps to the Royal Artillery in case of a French invasion.) In the 1820's Wellington was the Master General of Ordnance and he recommended the officers. 

            Maps of Ireland had been produced for centuries, and though the counties might be drawn roughly the correct size, and in roughly the proper relation to each other none was based on actual careful measurements.  The first attempt to produce a map of Ireland suitable for military use was made by General Vallencey in the second half of the eighteenth century. It chief purpose, like similar military maps at the time, was to indicate where there were roads suitable for the passage of ordnance (artillery). John Foster persuaded Dr. Beaufort, the rector of Collon, to produce a better map. Beaufort's map was printed in 1790 and remained the best available map for the next forty five years until the Ordnance Survey cartographers hastily drew one for the benefit of the Railways Enquiry Commission in 1835. None of these maps was on a sufficient scale to be any use in the re-valuation of townlands. The lack of a suitable map or maps was considered several times by parliamentary Committees between 1815 and 1822. 

            In 1822 the young and energetic MP for Limerick, Thomas Spring Rice, took the matter in hand. A Parliamentary Committee in 1822 recommended that a new valuation be made of the lands of Ireland, 'uniform in every part of Ireland, founded on an accurate survey of the whole acreable contents [acreage] of the country; on a subsequent division of the lands into profitable and unprofitable' (SNL 10 June 1822). The Committee further recommended that the survey be carried out at public expense, and that the acreage of the various baronies, parishes, and townlands be determined. It voted £5,000 for immediate expenses and appointed another Committee to make more detailed proposals. 

            The Committee reported in 1824 and recommended that the survey be entrusted to the Board of Ordnance and not to local surveyors, that the survey be carried out to the level of townlands, but that it should not be a cadastral survey of each individual field, that the scale of mapping be six inches to the statute mile, and that the Admiralty should conduct a hydrographic survey of the Irish coasts. 

            Major Thomas Colby was placed in charge of the survey and his determination to accept no standards but the very best attainable caused the survey to take vastly longer and to be enormously more expensive that had been envisaged in 1822. But in carrying out the survey he set standards that were emulated throughout most of the world. He began by training a corps of civilian surveyors in Ireland. He procured the largest and most accurate optical surveying instruments from the best instrument makers in London.  He personally designed the 'compensation bars' for measuring the baseline on the shore of Lough Foyle with the utmost accuracy. The standard he demanded was an error of no more than six inches in a hundred miles. 

            The primary triangulation was based on the Culcagh, Keeper, and Kippure mountains, 101, 93, and 86 miles apart. The story is often told how Lieutenant Drummond, the future Under-secretary, used the 'lime light' to establish points across the width of Ulster. (The limelight, chiefly used in the theatre, was a brilliant white light produced by burning lime in a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen.) Heliostats were also used. To get a sighting of a point on the coast of Wales 108 miles away one surveyor had to wait for five weeks. 

            The Committee of 1824 had allowed contouring and line shading, and also, more importantly, the drawing up of 'terriers' or 'descriptive memoirs' of the various parishes. Observations under this heading could include the times of tides on various parts of the Irish coasts, the correct forms of placenames, accounts of local antiquities, points of zoological, geological, botanical, or economic interest, and the collection of botanical and other specimens. The Survey accepted only four units of division, the county, the barony, the parish, and the townland. Other traditional units like catrons and tates, used in some places were discontinued. A tate was 60 Irish acres. For other traditional units of measurement see ‘tate’ in OED and SNL 29 Sept 1824.) 

            By the time the survey was completed every field in Ireland had been surveyed. But costs caught up. The geological survey was abandoned for a time. It too had set standards for other countries to emulate, and gave a firm basis for the first time for understanding not only the geology of Ireland but also the nature of geological stratification. So too was the contouring of the maps. (These were continued later.) Only one volume of the Ordnance Survey Memoirs was printed out of the two hundred quarto manuscript volumes of information on Irish antiquities, three thousand booklets on placenames, and two hundred and sixty two memoirs on individual parishes. Even in their unpublished state they are a unique national treasure. 

            But the actual mapping was completed and maps covering the whole of Ireland were printed. The meticulous standards of engraving matched those of the survey.  A total of 1939 maps of double elephant size (about three feet by two) were printed at a scale of six inches to the mile for rural areas and sixty inches to the mile for built up areas. 

            In 1836 Colby was sent to England to bring the survey there up to Irish standards. His work formed the basis of all subsequent local government in Ireland, all valuation and local taxation, all censuses and tillage returns, all sales of property, all industrial and commercial development like roads, railways, and arterial drainage, not to mention its value for field archaeology.



Copyright Desmond J. Keenan, B.S.Sc.; Ph.D. ;.London, U.K.