Maps. I can get lost in them.
My first encounter with maps was through TripTiks – Triple A’s wonderful little travel guides that our family always took along on road trips. From age 8 – 12 or so, being the only kid at home, I got the role of navigator. Or at least I assumed that role. For the uninitiated, the TripTik was a vertical spiral bound booklet that followed your road plan – address to address – with tips along the way, places to stop for dinner or lodging. They are still available from AAA, online and interactive of course. (and you can find the old ones on eBay.)
I loved following the road, flipping the page, looking for the town signs coming up, watching for the rivers, train tracks, any sites of historical importance along the way. We should have had a bumper sticker that said, “this car stops for historical markers.”
Flat maps, globes (spin it and you’ll go where your finger lands) and huge atlases you could only read on the floor – all promising adventure for the taking. They were the stuff of imagination and the inspiration for travel-lust. I keep maps of places I’ve visited, and confess to buying maps of places I long to go. In my bookshelf you’ll find an old Paris metro map and the wonderful “Plan de Paris” from a couple of trips for work. I can open the fold-out map in back of the Plan, and trace my figure over the Pont Saint Louis from Ile de Cite to Ile Saint Louis, remembering the street musicians on the bridge playing an old upright piano and accordion on a spectacularly bright golden day. I can find the outdoor cafe on the rue Cler that served the best cafe creme ever and not far away, the Metro stop beside the little crepe station with the yummy Nutella crepes.
Once I did a little google map experiment. I googled the address of the small house where I grew up on the north side of St. Louis, and wondered if I could find my grade school by “walking” to school. I “walked” down the street, turned the corner, up three blocks to my girlfriend’s block where I would stop by her house, and we would walk the rest of the way together. Then several more blocks, across the “big street” and onto the Walnut Park school grounds. The whole experience had a comforting feeling, like running into an old friend.
But the maps of my dreams? Hands down, they are the Ordnance Survey maps of Ireland. They are a family historian’s (with Irish roots) goldmine of information.
Begun as a massive project in that expansive British way, it ran from 1825 to 1846. The idea was to map all of Ireland. 6 inches to a mile. Map everything that exists – ancient standing stones right down to eel runs. And in the process, get the names of townlands and place names of holy wells, rivers, mountains – in short, everything. The primary purpose was to enable a valuation for taxation purposes. ”Precise measurements of the country’s 62,000 town lands and 2,500 civil parishes were taken. Meresmen marked out the mereings or boundaries; these were often the collectors of the county cess, unpopular figures compelled to work at 2s. per day to conduct surveys along the boundaries.” (Stiofán Ó Cadhla, Civilizing Ireland)
In addition to the maps themselves, two written records of this enterprise remain. The Name Books and Letters from the Field. The Name Books contain the attempt by the British to translate or Anglicize the Irish language place names, which were then used on the map. Brian Friel’s fine play Translations illuminates the problems that occur when the colonizer attempts to “translate” the language and culture of the colonized. Letters from the Field contain notes that include folklore and local history gathered from the people by the field workers (especially Irishmen O’Donovan and Curry) assigned to the task.
Mapping by the British in mid-nineteenth century Ireland – as mapping done by any colonizer – had as its core purpose the control of the places and people mapped. Spain mapped the Americas as they moved in to colonize. In America, when Lewis and Clark were charged with mapping the newly acquired West, it was not for academic reasons. The places traveled by Lewis and Clark and their young Shoshone guide Sacagawea would never be the same (nor would the Shoshone people) once maps were available to those who would “settle” the American West.
But as laden with historical import and cultural ambiguity as the early Ordnance maps are, today they provide a window to place and time for anyone looking to understand the world in which their Irish ancestors lived. At least that is what they have been for me. The Survey was happening at the time my great-grandfather was a child (he was born in 1836), and continued up until the second year of an Gorta Mor (the Great Hunger; the Potato Famine.) I wonder how it felt to him and his family to see British soldiers in their bright red uniforms suddenly appear with their surveying tools on his familiar roads and land.
Those original Ordnance Surveys were under the auspices of the British up until 1922. Since then, Irish survey maps are revised and reprinted by Ordnance Survey Ireland. The entire country of Ireland (Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland) is divided into 89 mapped sections. They are excellent detailed resources when you’re traveling in the country. And if you are fortunate enough to find a copy of one of the old Ordnance maps before 1922, you can compare it to the present map of the same area. The new one will help you get there and the old one can show you what you would have found in the mid-1800s and early 1900s.
Have you ever had one of those moments when things unfold in a ‘more than just coincidence’ way? I find that when I’m in a particular root-seeking mindset it sometimes happens. I’d like to believe that some intangible force draws me like a magnet when I get close to something of importance. Like a ghostly divining rod.
I had one of those experiences that led to a map. An old ordnance survey map was waiting for me in the basement of Catach Books in Dublin last fall. It was a cool and rainy October day last fall, and wanting to get away from the Grafton Street crowd, my husband and I turned onto Duke Street. We popped into a bookstore to get out of the rain and dry off for a moment. I’d been in this shop years ago but hadn’t remembered where it was. After browsing the rare books upstairs, we went down to the basement where they keep old prints. As I turned to go back up the stairs, my eye caught a little shelf on the counter with what looked like Ordnance maps, their covers old and worn. There were maybe 10 of them. You had to open them carefully to see what area they covered. Most of them were of Dublin, one of Donegal and oh my goodness – one that covered part of Cavan, Meath and Monahan. I opened it carefully to find that it covered the entire space of my family’s early life in Ireland. This is not a large area. Probably we’re talking a few square miles. We bought it of course: 20 Euro. It was the treasure map of my treasure hunt. The rain had stopped and as we left I silently thanked the invisible force that led us in there.
It’s beautiful. On it you can find the old flax mill, the holy well, dots representing tiny cottages and the “lodge” of the only landowner in the townland. And now, along with the information from the fragment of the 1821 census I’d found earlier in the week at the Irish National Archives, I could start to piece things together.
I’ve been to this tiny part of Ireland so many times – driven the little country roads around and through Curraghmore, the sleepy townland where my great-grandfather was born and raised. But there was always something missing. I would look out over the fields and wish that they would just lay open their past, tell me their secrets. They’re silent of course.
But now my bookstore basement map helped fill in the picture of my family’s history I’ve been struggling to paint in words. I can almost see them there – working hard growing and spinning flax, struggling to pay their rent to the landlord, just living their lives through good times and harder ones and hoping against hope that calamity would not visit their door.
The land in Curraghmore hasn’t changed much – it is both beautiful and rugged. Far off the main road – “the back of beyond” as my Irish friends would say – the small townland has a quiet peaceful feel that seeps into the rolling hills, the little stream, the ruins an old abbey, the abandoned flax mill, the woods that surround the holy well.
Getting lost in maps – well, this time it meant getting found. It’s important of course, to do your research and get your feet on the ground – but in the end, it’s often just plain serendipity that helps you get where you’re going.
I found the “before” picture of one family (mine!) in one small place in one particular time – a picture that would break apart in just a few years as the distinct smell of potatoes rotting in the fields brought misery – and eventually the emigration that brought my family to this side of the Atlantic.