JIM REES remembers the man responsible for the Ordnance Survey Field Name Books and the O’Donovan topographical letters. The former are parish-by-parish alphabetical listings of the place-names that were to become the standardised English versions on the first Ordnance Survey maps in the 1830s

Polymath is a lovely word. Comprised of two Greek words, ‘poly’ (meaning ‘many’ or ‘much’) and ‘mathes’ relating to learning), it was used to describe a multi-talented individual. It is seldom heard nowadays, which is a pity.

In this age of specialisms – yes, that apparently is the current buzz-word for expertise – we find it hard to accept that some people can be good in several fields of endeavour.

We seem to have become less generous in our acknowledgement of multi-skilled people. The nearest we get is to damn them with faint praise. ‘He’s a jack of all trades’, we say, always implying and often adding, ‘and master of none’.
Whether we admit it or not, polymaths do exist and always have. John O’Donovan is a perfect example.
O’Donovan was born in the County Kilkenny townland of Atateemore on 9 July, 1806, and received his first taste of education in a local hedge school. Both his father, a farmer, and his uncle were interested in local lore and particularly in Gaelic traditions and language.

There was the touch of the seanchaí about them, instilling a love for Irish heritage and culture that would remain with John all his life.

When John was eight, his father died and the family was dispersed. His older brother brought him to Dublin and ensured that John was given the best education their limited budget allowed.

The youngster made the best of his opportunities, but was curtailed by the restrictions imposed on a Catholic living under the Penal Laws.

Nevertheless, in 1826 he joined the staff of the Irish Records Office where his knowledge of Latin and Irish allowed him to translate ancient manuscripts and law documents. Three years later, he transferred to the Placenames and Antiquities Division of the Ordnance Survey of Ireland.

This was an exciting time in the OSI. Plans were already in place to map Ireland in far more detail than had ever been done anywhere in the world.

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own