The Down Survey – Closer to Home

Last week we gave a brief introduction to the wealth of historical material that we can find in the website devoted to the 17th century Down Surveyhere’s a link to that site, and another (here) to our previous article. The subject – and some of the deeper detail we can discover in the website – is well worth a further look.

The Down Survey (the above view of some of the islands out in Roaringwater Bay is extracted from it) was carried out between 1656 and 1658, and thus gives us an excellent picture of how terrain we are so personally familiar with was perceived pictorially in the mid 17th century. We don’t know who the surveyors were, except that they were under the command of Sir William Petty, ‘surgeon- general of the English army’. Ireland became one of the most-mapped countries in the world at that time, following the Cromwellian and Williamite land redistributions. The beneficiaries were the new landlords of the Ascendancy, who wanted to know exactly what they had acquired, and the initial emphasis was on boundaries and basic land-measurement.

We wanted to know what our little bit of West Cork looked like on those earliest maps. Our view is down toward Rossbrin Cove, below where we live, and our house is a mere blip on the contemporary aerial view at the top of the page. In the first example from the Down Survey mapping – under that view – the cove of ‘Rofsbrinine Harbour’ is marked, and the castle, whose remains still guard the harbour entrance to this day (above), is clearly shown.

This view looks across the channel from the site of Rossbrin Castle. Immediately in the foreground is Horse Island, while beyond is the distinctive profile of Cape Clear. Let’s look at the Down Survey entry for Cape Clear – with. for comparison – a modern map of that island below it.

That map, above, is taken from a nautical chart. It’s understandable that a 17th century map wouldn’t have the level of accuracy we would expect from a modern survey, but take a look, now, at this contemporary aerial view of Cape Clear Island:

It’s remarkable, I think, how strikingly the early map resembles the profile – if not the fine detail – of the modern chart – and also the shape of the island as shown on the aerial view. For example, the ‘Bill of Cape Clear’ shows up very clearly on the chart – the beak-like protrusion on the far western end of the land-mass – a feature which is represented as very similar on the 17th century version, and of course on the modern prospect. Here’s a view of Dún an Óir – Cape Clear’s castle – today:

Just to add to the experience, the above satellite view gives a more ‘flattened’ impression of what is really going on locally: compare this to the expanded view of our coastline from the Down Survey – note that ‘Cape Cleare’ is included on this extract:

As a further example, to finish off this brief overview (which will be continued in future posts) let’s have a look at the Down Survey entry for the Baltimore area – a little further along our coast, travelling east:

This is in fact the Down Survey entry for the Parishes of ‘Tullogh & Baltimore’. The first thing to note is that the north point is facing downwards! If you look at many of the survey pages the orientation varies considerably, and is probably more to do with what conveniently fits on a sheet than any attempt to be consistent. So that we can make an easier comparison with today’s terrain, I have also switched the orientation of this aerial view:

In my opinion it’s remarkable that the Down Survey maps do bear a very reasonable resemblance to the reality. Obviously, a great deal of detail is missing, but the purpose of the maps – to delineate land ownership – is satisfactorily served (albeit that this is to the benefit of the incoming English lords and landowners).

Here’s a view of the site of the medieval fish palace at Baltimore. The Down Survey comprises more than maps: there is other related material, including terriers. These particular terriers don’t have legs or tails – it’s a term for a written, descriptive survey of an estate: some english examples are recorded from the ninth century. Here’s the terrier for Baltimore within the Down Survey:

The terrier in this case is mainly a description of parcels of land, their owners, and the values. Here’s a closer example, from a terrier for ‘Skull’:

There’s a lot more of West Cork within the Down Survey archives. A future post will turn in greater detail to some of this material.