Your way or the Wicklow way

An Irishman’s Diary: The perils of relying on maps

‘In remoter parts of the country, still, such fingerposts as exist appear to date from the War of Independence and to have been designed to prevent information on the whereabouts of the nearest town from falling into enemy hands’. Photograph: iStockphoto

‘In remoter parts of the country, still, such fingerposts as exist appear to date from the War of Independence and to have been designed to prevent information on the whereabouts of the nearest town from falling into enemy hands’. Photograph: iStockphoto

Thu, Apr 18, 2013, 06:00

The unreliability of Irish road signs is well known. In remoter parts of the country, still, such fingerposts as exist appear to date from the War of Independence and to have been designed to prevent information on the whereabouts of the nearest town from falling into enemy hands.

But maps can be unreliable too, as reader and occasional contributor to this newspaper, Brendan Bracken, has discovered. Brendan and friends were out climbing in the Wicklow mountains last weekend, near two peaks known as Moanbane (from the Irish “White Bog”) and Silsean (“Place of Lights”).

Whereat, checking their positions, they noticed a certain cartographical confusion on the issue. To wit: the Ordnance Survey had Moanbane located to the northeast of Silsean. But a company called EastWest Mapping had them precisely the other way around.

It’s easy to see how you could mix the two up. They are twin peaks: almost exactly the same height and only a mile apart. Indeed, it appears that both mapping organisations are to some extent correct, because there are competing schools of thought as to which mountain is which, titularly-speaking.

EastWest Mapping goes with contemporary local usage, I gather. OSI cites historical authenticity, via the precedent of earlier maps. And no doubt this is only an academic question, most of the time. Nobody lives on top of either mountain, so problems with postal deliveries are probably minimal.

But what happens if you’re climbing one and you break a leg? The person taking the SOS call will naturally want to know your location. Then what? It may be all right for governments, explaining to people why they have to pay other people’s multi-billion debts, to say “we are where we are” and leave it at that. But this doesn’t work so well in phone-calls to the rescue services.

Brendan Bracken suggests that, before an emergency arises, the two map makers should “get together and agree” a joint position. I second that motion, if only because newspapers could then refer to such a meeting as a “mountain summit”.

Of course, until the confusion is sorted, neither of the actual summits would be a suitable venue for the get-together. So I suggest instead the nearby village of Ballyknockan, which as far as I know is unique, even in Irish mapping circles.

Maybe this case highlights the unsuspected wisdom of the goat herd in Heidi who, responding to her query about the identity of a snow-covered peak in the distance, replies: “Mountains don’t have names”. In the era before organised tourism, apparently, he would have been right. According to the Swiss foreign ministry’s website, mountains being useless once, locals didn’t see any point labelling them. Only the passes and valleys had names, some of which eventually extended to the peaks.

This resulted in much confusion when the tourists started arriving. “In 1841 a group of eminent explorers thought they had climbed the Shreckhorn when in fact they were on the Lauteraarhorn . . . A couple of weeks later, one of the same climbers was aiming for the Jungfrau, but having arrived at the Konkordia Platz, where several mountains meet, he set his sights on the wrong peak. When finally persuaded of his error, he named the second one the Trugberg, or Deceitful Mountain.”

Modest as Irish mountains are, by comparison, names are one thing they don’t lack. Every hump and hollow has an identity here. In fact, usually, it has two: the old Irish and the anglicised version. The anglicisations are usually just phonetic renderings of the original, although on rare occasions they accidentally improve it.

I think of the dramatically-translated War Hill in Wicklow, where I was once ambushed by a snowstorm. In the original, prosaically, it’s Cnoc an Bhairr, or “Hill of the Summit”. But if you ever find a hill without a summit, send me a picture please.

Even two names is not enough for some Irish mountains. The holy ones, like Croagh Patrick, tend to have at least three, including the pagan original. Which may in some case linger, despite the famously successful rebranding campaign of the early Christians.

This reminds me, by the way, to thank the several alert readers who drew my attention recently to the name of France’s new minister for European affairs. Which – at a time when his country is struggling to meet EU budget rules – appears to qualify as a classic aptonym.

Thierry Repentin, he’s called. And I know the French pronunciation underplays any implied wearing of sackcloth. Even so, I noted that according to our Paris correspondent, he and his family hail “from the Alps”. If nothing else, Repentins would seem to be a very good name for a mountain.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com