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  • The Ordnance Survey and Modern Irish Literature by Cóilín Parsons
  • Nels Pearson
The Ordnance Survey and Modern Irish Literature, by Cóilín Parsons. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. 247 pages.

In light of the geocritical turn in humanities scholarship over the last decade or so, an extensive study of the impact of the Irish Ordnance Survey on modern Irish writing is a timely addition to Irish studies and modernist studies alike. This is especially the case for one as innovative and well-researched as Cóilín Parsons's The Ordnance Survey and Modern Irish Literature. The British Board of Ordnance's survey, a project to map all of Ireland that also involved the archiving of local oral histories, receives relatively frequent scholarly attention, typically as an example of British imperial hegemony and surveillance. As Parsons demonstrates, however, there was much more to it than that. Insofar as modernity is a disorienting and rapid social transformation that puts past and present, local and global, into a fraught dialectical relationship, the survey not only records but also enacts a form of modernity. The project was conducted between 1824 and 1842, on the eve of the mass migrations of the famine era and during the decline of the Irish language and the modernization of economies that marked the relatively new union of Great Britain and Ireland. An irony is therefore embedded in the survey, for its enlightenment aspirations to encyclopedic knowledge and comprehensive representation of space are undercut by the fact that the "places" it sought to record and document were being eclipsed in the same historical moment. This irony sets in motion a "dialectic of preservation and destruction" (20) that in turn engenders a climate of self-reflexive fixation on questions of place, nation, and memory.

If inadvertently, the survey also therefore fueled the imagination of cultural nationalism, insofar as the former's massive effort to record "the national at the local level" spurred interest in looking to oral histories, nomenclature, buildings, and ruins as sources not just of local but also of "Irish" authenticity and identity. Indeed, the abstraction of space required by capitalism and modernity is a feature of nationalism, at least in that it desires native artifacts that can be made to signify a cultural-geographic and historical totality. In many ways, argues Parsons, the "archive fever" of the survey era is a progenitor—perverse as it may be—of turn-of-the- [End Page 265] century Celtic revivalism. Hence the survey's unprecedented effort to imagine the "nation" as a spatial totality, but in local scales, was not simply an instrument of state power but also a nuanced and contradictory affair in which an "indifferent imperial gaze sits side by side with a sensibility that seeks out and respects indigenous forms of knowledge, Irish history, the Irish language, and the built heritage" (69).

Moreover, and more importantly for Parsons, the contradictory nature of the survey—and the shifting scalar identifications with local, national, and global orientation that it galvanized—exemplifies Irish colonial modernity. Colonial modernity is not primarily urban and industrial, as in the dominant Eurocentric model, but instead involves "radical discontinuities . . . result[ing] from the collision of modernizing forces and an older way of life" (26), including the widening spheres of orientation and problems of scale experienced in an era of mass migration, nationalization, and uneven integration into global capital. During these overlapping nineteenth-century transformations, people who had, for example, tended to think of their cultural, familial, and economic ambit as limited to the Aran Isles and western Ireland found themselves influenced by, or indentifying with, places in North America, the broader Irish "nation," and the various mercantile arcs of the British Empire.

Parsons's aim in locating the origins of Irish modernity in the survey itself, as well as the era of the survey, is not only to offer "an expanded field of modernity," which would now begin earlier and include more rural experiences, but also to propose that the literary and cultural reaction to this spatial and scalar modernity, whose arc reaches from James Clarence Mangan to Samuel Beckett, represents a central component of Irish literary modernism. This...


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