The First Aerial Survey of the Twenty Six Counties


In an earlier post, I mentioned that I was undergoing an internship with the Irish Military Archive (IMA) to gain practical experience on an active Digital Humanities (DH) project. The DH project I am engaged with involves the development of a web-based resource for making available the Air Corps Aerial Photographs and Vertical Negative collections online. The vertical negatives are aerial photographs of Ireland taken by the Irish Aer Corps from the 1930s to the 1980s, and were recently digitised. The digital collection now consists of 230 flight maps and over 45,000 digital aerial images. Part of this project entails the browsing of archived administration related to the aerial surveys, in order to find additional material to support the collection as a web-based resource. During this process it was noticed that some of this administration is rich in historical content. Based on the perspective of my own observations, this post is an attempt to put some of this content in a historical context.

From the archived administration it seems that aerial photography was confined to specific locations prior to the 1950s. Indeed, the administration indicates that there had never been a full aerial survey of Ireland since the inception of the state. It further reveals that the first proposal for a complete aerial survey of the twenty six counties was introduced by the Minister and Department of Agriculture in 1949.


James Dillon. Image Source: Elaine Byrne

At this time, De Valera and the Fianna Fáil party had been in government since the 1932 election, however, they were replaced in 1948 by a coalition government of Fine Gael, Labour Party, Clann na Poblachta, Clann na Talmhan and National Labour (Haddock Flynn; Wikipedia “Irish Cabinets since 1919”). Certainly, it was quite an achievement for members of such parties to sit at a table, let alone form a government, as many of them still harboured ill-feeling from the Irish Civil War (Hill, Chpt. IX). It was the first inter-party government, and James Dillon, an Independent, was appointed as Minister of Agriculture (although he had been a member of Fine Gael up until 1942) (Hill, Chpt. IX).[[1]] The proposal was put forward on the grounds that undiscovered archaeological remains would be disturbed and even destroyed due to the introduction of the Land Rehabilitation Project.


Aerial reconnaissance had been used in World War One for the purpose of military intelligence (Flying through Corwall’s Past). However, it was perceived by O.G.S. Crawford, an observational flying officer of the Royal Flying Corps, that this type of exercise was extremely beneficial for the field of archaeology. According to Crawford, a Royal Flying Corps colleague showed him “some photographs taken for practice near Winchester”, and he immediately realised “that they marked the beginning of a new epoch in archaeology” (Crawford). These photographs revealed unusual soil marks which turned out to be “ancient British ‘lynchets’, or field boundaries, which were formed during the Roman occupation” (Crawford). Dubbed as the “Father” of aerial archaeology in the UK (Archaeology Archives Oxford), Crawford recognised that aerial photographs revealed crop marks and soil marks which were potential indicators of buried archaeological sites that were not visible from the ground.[[2]] However, it was not until after World War Two that aerial photography became a popular practice, and prompted the need to train archaeological personnel for “the accurate interpretation of aerial photographs” (Grahame).


Crawford -forgotten fields taken by the camera

Image Source: Crawford in the Observer, 1923.


The Land Rehabilitation Project, more commonly known as the ‘Land Project’, was an ambitious effort “to reclaim more than a million acres, mainly in the poorer west” in Ireland (Lee 303). The scheme was aimed to increase productivity in areas of less fertile land to assist “marginal farmers” to make a living, and provide for the next generation and consequently, was part of a strategy to curb emigration (Lee 303). It also entailed the provision of a fertiliser scheme to increase tillage production from the 1950s-1960s (Weir). The Land Project was funded by Marshall Aid via the European Recovery Programme (Marshall Plan) which was set up in 1947 by the US with “the objective of reducing reliance on American imports by Europe” (Weir; also Lee 303). The Department of Agriculture sanctioned the set-up of a land development authority, and the Land Project was officially launched in August 1949 (Weir). The Irish Times reported that there was an “extremely good” response to the Land Project, which was estimated to cost £8,839,630, with an additional supplement of £1 million. The archived administration specifies that there was an increased use of heavy machinery in untilled areas due to the Land Project, and thus, greater fears for the destruction of unidentified archaeological sites or a fear of “archaeological vandalism” as one document notes it. Nonetheless, the administration also indicates that no actions were taken to perform an aerial survey from this first proposal, although it is noted that greater collaboration was promoted between the Land Project and the Office of Public Works. Additionally, the inter-party government was replaced by Fianna Fáil in the 1951 election, and this may have disrupted the proposed plan.

While a further review of the archived administration is needed, it seems prima facie that a proposal for an aerial survey of the twenty six counties was reignited in early 1955 by the Minister and the Department of Agriculture. The coalition government of Fine Gael, Labour Party and Clann na Talmhan replaced Fianna Fáil in the election of 1954, and once again, James Dillon was appointed as the Minister for Agriculture (he re-joined Fine Gael in 1953) (Wikipedia “James Dillon (Fine Gael Politician)”).[[3]] However, this time the proposal for an aerial survey of the twenty six counties was not merely for the purpose of uncovering archaeological remains. Rather, an aerial survey was also recommended on the basis of a 1952 OEEC report which emphasised the significance of aerial photography for the purpose of “soil survey work and land development”. Additionally, other benefits are noted such as ordnance survey and forestry assessment. Hence, it was proposed by the Minister and Department of Agriculture to organise an inter-Departmental meeting in March 1955 to discuss the implementation of an aerial survey, to be inclusive of representatives from the Departments of Agriculture, Defence, Education, Finance and the Office of Public Works. From the documentation, it is evident that this meeting took place and from there the implementation of an aerial survey of the twenty six counties was conceived. A brief glance at other archived administration reveals that there were many obstacles to overcome to secure a feasible plan; however, I will need to investigate this further before surmising an account.

On reflection, an examination of some of the archived administration that relates to the Vertical Negatives collection has been beneficial for the purpose of retrieving support material for the collection. However, it has also revealed other historical content which contributes to the significance of the collection in terms of archaeological development, land development, ordnance survey development but also political history. Indeed, it provides an excellent source of primary documentation for the study of inter-Departmental politics in Ireland during the 1950s.



[1] Incidentally, in December 1948, the Republic of Ireland Act was signed into law, and then came into force on Easter Monday (18 April) 1949. This Act officially declared Ireland as a Republic.

[2] According to Flying through Corwall’s Past, “[c]ropmarks are patterns in vegetation caused by differences in the rate of growth and ripening of crops [. . .] differences can be brought about by the presence of buried archaeological features. A ditch cutting into bedrock, for example, will contain a greater depth of soil than the surrounding area. Crops growing over the ditch will grow taller and ripen later than elsewhere because they are able to tap into extra reserves of moisture.” On the other hand soil marks are observable “when ploughing brings to the surface buried archaeological deposits which are a different colour to the surrounding topsoil” (Ibid.).

[3] Consequently, from a brief analysis of the archived information, Dillon (and the Department of Agriculture) appear to be the main instigators for the pursuit of an aerial survey project for the twenty six counties.



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