Finnian O’Cionnaith speaks to Maebh Butler about the release of his second book, Exercise of Authority, and the parallels between 21st and 18th century Dublin.
A book about land surveying might not be the first one most people reach to pick up upon arriving in Easons, but Finnian O’Cionnaith’s latest offering is a unique retrospective on Dublin in days gone by. Exercise of Authority is O’Cionnaith’s second book about land surveying in eighteenth century Dublin. His first book, published in 2012, is Mapping, Measurement and Metropolis: How Land Surveyors Shaped Eighteenth Century Dublin and it deals with a wide range of land surveyors and how they aided in the development of Dublin city. O’Cionnaith’s second book, however, takes a more microscopic look at land surveying in Dublin through the eyes of Thomas Owen and the Dublin Paving Board.
In contrast to Mapping, Measurement and Metropolis which was a “macro look over an industry from about 1690 to about 1810”, Exercise of Authority, O’Cionnaith’s latest publication, revisits the same subject but from the perspective of one individual.
“There were a load of really great individuals involved but there was one guy, Thomas Owen… I touched upon it in my first book and I kept coming back to it. I’d look at somebody else and say “aw they were really successful, they had a great career,” but I kept thinking about the Paving Board.” What was it for O’Cionnaith then, that kept bringing him back to this one idea and the work of Thomas Owen?
“Some of it was downright buggery or vandalism, like you get in any city. People were just going around smashing lamps or they’d push the lamp lighters from ladders, that sort of day to day violence, late night rioting.”
“You had this surveyor who was providing very important information for the running of the city, but you also had the organisation that, even though it was 250 years ago, so much of it was familiar… At the time I was actually working in the waste management industry and they were actually dealing with waste management issues in those days using the same sort of techniques. So, in many ways, I was looking at my own professional ancestor which I found very interesting.”
Certainly appealing for those with an interest in land surveying, but what about the rest of us, whose knowledge of land surveying extends as far as the people in hi-vis, on the side of the road with a funny looking camera? Is O’Cionnaith’s book for a niche readership only? Apparently not. O’Cionnaith says that although undoubtedly an interest for those concerned by 18th century history or spatial measurements in urban management (you probably can’t get more specific than that), it will also be of appeal for the general public.
“I always try and write for my friends and family and just see it from their perspective. Would they enjoy this? It’s not just a cold analysis of how an organisation works. I try and put in as many stories and anecdotes as I can just to show you that this isn’t just happening in a board room or in minute books, this is real life people with real life issues, and real life Dubliners living in the same city and having the same issues… it really is for me the human element in how mapping and measurement impacts human lives… I think anyone can appreciate that.”
O’Cionnaith isn’t wrong. As he talks about 18th century Dublin, it is impossible not to draw parallels with Dublin city of the 21st century. Exercise of Authority highlights the issues that the public and the Paving Board clashed over.
“A lot of it was resentment against taxation,” he says. “Everybody who owned a house was taxed on this and that money went towards the Paving Board. So in a lot of respects, issues we have today. People resent that intrusion into their lives, so that’s even where the title comes from. The Paving Board was an exercise of authority who controlled the streets. They were trying to organise traffic coming through College Green. They were trying to tell people which side of the road to drive on. They were implementing traffic restrictions.”
The Paving Board seemed to anger quite a number of people with these restrictions and taxes, and as a result, they were met with aggression.
“Some of it was downright buggery or vandalism, like you get in any city. People were just going around smashing lamps or they’d push the lamp lighters from ladders, that sort of day to day violence, late night rioting. The city wasn’t as peaceful as it is now with a police force, the gardaí. They didn’t really have a force like that. The board was empowered to fine or imprison anyone outside of the normal criminal justice system itself, which I always found very interesting. It would be like your local authority could send you to jail without ever even going to court and the only person you could appeal to was them.”
It’s hard to imagine the city like that today, but the people of 18th century Dublin didn’t appear to completely bow down to the power of the Paving Board either. “There was political turmoil at the time and there was a riot in College Green, I mention it in the book, and the privatisation of the Paving Board was really what broke the camel’s back.” One can’t help but notice the similarities to the Paving Board and Irish Water, which was the last straw for many 21st century Dubliners too.
With all of this talk about the city, it’s difficult to miss the passion in O’Cionnaith’s voice for the capital and its landscape. At this stage, he must know the city like the back of his hand.
“I do and the problem is, I know so many of the streets by their old pre-independent names, so I accidently find myself directing people to Sackville Street. That’s all totally my fault!” he laughs. “But yeah. I love the city and for me, it’s a passion about my own home and also my own industry. Just the history of it, and to bring the two of them together is just wonderful.”
So then, what are O’Cionnaith’s feelings about 21st century Dublin city, which can often come under criticism? “Cities have to evolve. We can’t live in a museum. I think it’s great seeing the LUAS across the city. I think the legacy we leave in our infrastructure, even things like the M50 that is a legacy that will last for centuries. Positive or negative? Hopefully positive, but it will be there. I think everyone would love to see more being done with O’Connell Street. It’s such a beautiful street… We’re doing better than a lot of cities, we’ve much to learn but this is the thing about managing a city. There’s no instruction book. Every city is different, every era is different.”
With passion and knowledge as great as O’Cionnaith’s, Exercise of Authority sounds like the makings of a captivating insight into Dublin city both 18th century and now.