Charted territory: romantic Ireland, trekked and drawn


ANOTHER LIFE:A FRAGMENT of a map appeared among my e-mails, its Tudor calligraphy stark on the screen. Sent in by a reader, it shows Westport, Co Mayo, in Hiberniae Delineato, William Petty’s famous survey of around 1650. How amazing to find, below the crudely drawn clump of mountains, remote townlands with names surviving today: Aghanny, Askellen, Kinnadoughy and empty Aghgoule on the shore at the foot of Mweelrea.

My wife and I love maps; among our favourites are a fistful of slim, red-jacketed early editions, folding out on stiff linen and handled with care. Each is a small rectangle of the west, mapped at one inch to the mile. Here’s one I took to camp in the mists on top of soggy Mangerton, in Kerry, half a century ago; there’s one of the island where we cast ourselves away as newly weds, beside the seals of Clew Bay.

Their claim on our lives is all the more romantic for conjuring an Ireland long gone – much earlier, even, than the Ordnance Survey printing date of 1909. Their hachures – meticulous, hand-penned shading – shaped mountains long before contour lines; stony, walkable roads meander to little dots of farmhouses; discrete symbols distinguish churches and chapels with towers or spires. The cursive script of place names, the antique blue of the sea and green of woods embellish cartography that grew from men hauling heavy theodolites in boxes across bogs and up the highest peaks. Their vital triangulations were made by squinting at night, in all weathers, for a pinpoint of limelight on another summit, perhaps 70 miles away.

I’ve been squinting along with these men, such is the imagery of a remarkable book by a man who lived for making maps of Ireland – and almost wrecked himself in the process. Fascinating, lyrical, affecting in its candour, Richard Kirwan’s If Maps Could Speak(Londubh Books, €14.99) is a striking testament to a changing Ireland, right up to the Tiger years.

Kirwan, born in Waterford, qualified as a civil engineer at UCC and ended up as director of the Ordnance Survey from 1996 to 2006. He still advises international mapping agencies, but he also tends the garden and teaches Reiki, such are the salvations of a recovered workaholic.

The book’s first surprise is that to start with the Ordnance Survey in 1970, Kirwan had to join the Army, interviewed by officers in full uniform with medals and shiny Sam Brown belts. In Britain, its birthplace, the OS served military, strategic needs; in Ireland, those of taxing 60,000 townlands. Even so, the macho origins of mapping lived on, and the Phoenix Park community continued as a close-knit, male guild of cartographers and printers.

The Ordnance Survey in Ireland dates from 1824 and the boots-on-mountains pioneering of its first director, the admirable polymath Major Thomas Colby. During his own years in wellies (and so many “cold nights in old hotels”) Kirwan tramped an Ireland already well-studded with sappers’ elevation marks (the “crow’s foot” carved into rocks and gate pillars) and hundreds of buried red tiles dating from the early triangulations.

The story of the changes in map-making is fascinating, but it’s Kirwan’s own story that lingers. As he moved into novel aerial and computer techniques to produce today’s OS Discovery Series, he found himself “too busy to laugh” and also – to a later disillusion – obsessed with a mechanistic “stripping the clothes off nature”.

His intense feeling for the natural world and textures of the countryside is obvious from childhood onwards. The old-style fieldwork of mapping was strenuous but human. Woven into a soda-bread-and-mug-of-tea intimacy with the countryside and its farming people, their leisurely memories rooted in landscape, it suited Kirwan – literally, one could say – down to the ground. But as director of the Ordnance Survey he embraced digital change with enthusiasm: Ireland should, as in Colby’s day, be at the cutting-edge of cartography. Between endless air travelling and a master’s degree in management science, he preached the new gospels, flowchart at the ready: “All hedges and fences will be represented by closed polygons. There will be no exceptions. Every field corner will be classified as a node and identified by a number; narrow streams will be depicted as single lines. . .”

As he says now: “I was in my own insensible, ambitious world and would not be deterred . . . I just needed a little more and the tourist maps would be finished and recognised as a masterpiece of computer cartography.”

How he got himself sorted, and came home to wife and garden, is best left to his final narrative. His maps, crisply accurate if digitally robotic, are in the anorak pockets of a whole new generation of hill-walkers. Like anyone who cares about the Irish countryside, they owe him the pleasure of reading his book.

Eye on nature

Why do goldfinches never feed on trays of food, and only eat from hanging feeders.

Louis Mullen, Riverstown, Co Louth

Goldfinches normally feed by clinging on to plants in seed; feeders provide the same opportunity.

We found an unusual ladybird sheltering in a crevice of our wooden front door. It is the pale brown of my yellow ochre oil paints, with 16 white spots, two of which are very small spots near its rear-end. It is just under 5mm long.

Philip and Brigid Jacob, Glenageary

It is the cream-spot ladybird Calvia 14-guttata, a 14-spot ladybird that is usually found on shrubs and small trees and is quite common.

My son Rory, a student in Cork, sent me a text on February 10th to say he had seen a swallow. I sent a text back to say it was probably a bat, but he reckoned that it was definitely a swallow. Now I know that the south get the early swallows but hardly in Feburary!

Marie Mullen, Kildare

On February 7th 2004, swallows arrived in the south of England and Eye on Nature had a report of one seen at Glanmore Lake in Kerry on the same day. A mild southwesterly airflow brought out flights of insects on their migration path.

Michael Viney welcomes observations at Thallabawn, Carrowniskey PO, Westport, Co Mayo, or

Please include a postal address