On the Map: Why the World Looks the Way It Does
In the introduction to his atlas, Blaeu wrote of the joy of being able to “set eyes on far-off places without so much as leaving home”. For Garfield, one great pleasure of looking at a map is finding “the You Are Here spot”. On a globe or a world map we Irish tend to look for the teddy-bear shape of our island, with its protective (or invasive) larger land mass to the east. And although Ireland doesn’t figure much in this history – until the Ordnance Survey of the 19th century, which mapped the whole country at 6in to the mile – the plump bear and his thinner predecessors have been a clear presence on maps since the time of Ptolemy, in the second century.
A reservation about this fascinating book is that though it is profusely illustrated there is no colour, so the visual delights of the older maps are muted. A more basic point: the author does not explain how in fact a map was made. There is mention of triangulation, the 16th-century practice that made the Carte de France possible (and, later, Roy’s Ordnance Survey), but we are not told exactly what is involved: how the surveyor on the ground, with theodolite and chains, translated his measurements to the finished folding sheet.
On the chauvinist, You Are Here side, Irish readers may be surprised at the omission of Tim Robinson, mapper of Aran, the Burren and Connemara, one of the last great presatellite mapmakers, whose working method has consisted of walking the ground and talking to the people he meets.
More recently, a company called EastWest Mapping has produced fine paper maps for those who walk in the Dublin and Wicklow mountains. They are not mentioned here either. But Garfield does reckon that the paper map – cheaper, better, more perspective – has not surrendered to the electronic gadget, and he wonders about “the map-less clowns who yomp up Ben Nevis at teatime with a fading single bar on their iPhones”.
Robert Louis Stevenson said: “I am told there are people who do not care for maps, and find it hard to believe.” On the Map is for people who share that disbelief, whether they are, like Stevenson, off to the South Seas or content merely to stay at home and dream of Treasure Island.
John S Doyle is a journalist and broadcaster. His archive series on the four seasons for RTÉ Lyric FM, now available on the station’s website, starts with Autumn: Golden Fields