First Land Survey of Ireland

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The 17th century was an extremely turbulent time in Ireland. Post the Battle of Kinsale in 1601, resentment festered amongst the Gaelic Irish until a rebellion followed in 1641. The infamous witness statements of the Protestant settlers, the 1641 Depositions, recorded massacres and outrages against them by their native neighbours over the following year. Thousands of deaths were recorded on both sides but it’s now believed that many of the accounts may have been exaggerated.

Bandon Aprill 24th 1654
Depositions taken Concerninge John Donagh McTeige Diermott O’ Coghlane of the Longe Iland in the Barrony of Carbery in the yeare -41
Teig O Mahony of Bally disert in the Barrony of Carbery Aged about 34 yeares beinge Sworne & Examined Saith
That the afforesaid o Coghlane was in Actuall Armes in the yeare afforesaid
The Cause of this deponent knowledge is that hee hath often Seine the said Coghlane in Arm{es} in the yeare afforesaid & farther Saith not


A Civil War in England delayed retribution, so it was 1649 by the time Oliver Cromwell and his army were sent to Ireland to sort out the situation through brutal force, mass killings and a ‘scorched earth’ policy. In the terrible four years that followed, about a quarter of the population died from war, disease and deliberately-induced Famine. By the final surrender of 1653, Ireland was destroyed, the Gaelic Irish cowed, and the country was considered to be ready for ‘plantation’ by English settlers.

Out of a total estimated population of 1,466,000 in 1641 when the rebellion first broke out, ‘about 504,000 of the Irish perished, and were wasted by the Sword, Famine, Hardship and Banishment’ post-Cromwell. One Irish poet described it as an cogadh do chríochnaigh Éire, ‘the war that finished Ireland‘.

Both the Civil War and the reconquest of Ireland had been paid for with promises of land in Ireland. All Catholics who could not prove their ‘constant good affection’ to the parliamentary cause had their land confiscated and were relocated to ‘hell or to Connaught’. However, before the biggest land-grab of Ireland could take place, the country had to be mapped.  

While Catholics owned 60% of the land in Ireland before the 1641 Rebellion, by 1660 their share had fallen to a mere 9%

Sir William Petty arrived in Ireland in 1652 by which time there were said to be 35,000 pending legal claims for land by soldiers waiting for their pay, alongside investors who had ‘adventured’ money for the parliamentary cause. More than half the land of Ireland was forfeited. Petty approached the government with a plan to conduct a study which would ‘admeasure all the forfeited lands within the three provinces, according to the naturall, artificiall, and civill bounds thereoff, and whereby the said land is distinguised into wood, bog, mountaine, arable, meadown and pasture, moreover to and sett out each auxiliary lines and lymits as may facillitate and ascertaine the intended subdivision without any readmeasurement’. He got the job and so the ‘Down Survey’ began, so called because it was put ‘down’ on paper.


Sir William Petty made his fortune with the Down Survey. He was well paid for his work but, in reality, he made his fortune by using his position. He ran the committee that allocated land to soldiers and many of them, unwilling to wait for their pay, sold out to Petty at an enormous discount. Petty became one of Ireland’s wealthiest landlords. He arrived in Ireland with less than £50 in his pockets, and by 1685 he was earning an income of £6,700 per year. By his death he owned 50,000 acres of Irish land, much of it in the south-west of Ireland.


Employing over 1000 soldiers, the survey covered an area of nearly 8.5 million acres, extending over the greater part of 29 of Ireland’s 34 counties, including West Cork. The state of Ireland after 10 years of war was a huge obstacle to the work. Throughout the countryside dwellings and fields had been destroyed and bands of rebels still remained to attack the surveyors.

Petty’s parish maps still make for fascinating reading and they can be viewed online here

The subsequent ‘Books of Survey and Distribution’ record the names of the settlers who were granted the lands of the dispossessed Irish of  West Cork. Their descendants would become the landlords of Ireland up the Land War of the late nineteenth-century.

The Petty Parish Map of Caheragh
How the land was re-allocated to settlers, who were primarily of English and Scottish descent.

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