The cartographer as witness

Richard Bartlett’s maps of early 17th-century Ireland were a great boon to his employer, the queen of England

Richard Bartlett’s maps of early 17th-century Ireland were a great boon to his employer, the queen of England. But his career – and his life – ended abruptly when the people of Tyrconnell made known their resistance to his cartographic endeavours

MAPS ARE POWER; they provide information, insight, and the required practical clues towards negotiating a given territory, be it a city layout, the floor plan of a museum or a vast ocean concealing vicious reefs. The modern map draws on all that science and technology can offer, and is an impersonal entity devised by computers and mathematical graphics. Cartography is most obviously an ancient art which became a modern science. In order to grasp the complex intelligence of maps, it is vital and exciting to study the maps of the past, most particularly dating from the medieval period when the Dutch mastered cartography in the process of exploring the seas that lay beyond Europe. That exploration undertaken in the pursuit of commercial riches led to extensive colonialisation.

There was no such ambiguity about the tentative early mapping of Ireland. The British despatched surveyors as part of military expeditions with one express purpose, to lay bare the geography and open the countryside to political conquest. It is ironic that one of those surveyors, Richard Bartlett, not only did his job, supplying beautiful narrative studies that recorded that landscape, he documented the defeat and collapse of the last Irish stronghold, Gaelic Ulster, and with it, chronicled the death of Gaelic Ireland.

Bartlett is a hero to students of cartography. He is also an enigma and ultimately, as we shall see, a martyr despatched by natives opposed to having their territory mapped. “Our geographers do not forget,” wrote Sir John Davies in September 1609, “what entertainment the Irish of Tyrconnell gave to a mapmaker about the end of the late rebellion for one Berkeley [he is referring to Bartlett] being appointed by the late earl of Devonshire to draw a true and perfect map of the North part of Ulster . . . when he came to Tyrconnell the inhabitants took off his head, because they would not have their country discovered.”


There is no portrait of him; he left no letters, no known heirs, only a number of beautiful and unusually sympathetic maps that record natural and man-made features, and also capture the devastation caused by his masters – the ruined churches and the abiding sense of mayhem. Here is cartographer as witness. John Andrews, former professor of geography at Trinity College, the pioneering figure in Irish historical geography and author of A Paper Landscape(1993), a history of the Ordnance Survey in Ireland, assumes the role of detective in a brilliantly forensic study, The Queen's Last Map-Maker. In this he looks at the cartographic legacy of Richard Bartlett, under the command of Charles Blount, Baron Mountjoy, who became lord deputy of Ireland in February 1600.

It was Mountjoy who finally defeated Hugh O’Neill, second Earl of Tyrone, and it was Bartlett who recorded the queen’s relentless progress north-westwards from Dundalk and Newry into O’Neill’s territory west of Lough Neagh. According to Andrews, Bartlett’s first surviving production “is an uncoloured but finely drawn map signed ‘Rich. Bartlett Norf desc: A 1600’ here designated as Cotton after its early 17th-century owner.” Andrews continues: “It (the map) has a scale and a compass indicator (with north at the top) but no title. The area represented stretches from Dromore westwards to a point near the present town of Caledon and latitudinally from the neighbourhood of Dundalk to the southern end of Lough Neagh, stopping short of O’Neill’s principal base at Dungannon, which was presumably regarded as out of reach.”

ANDREWS HAS A dramatic story to tell. The only people with an interest in mapping Tudor Ireland were foreigners intent on conquest and control, yet his approach is cool and detached. He never engages in dramatics; he allows the maps to provide the facts.

Bartlett's contribution to the mapping of Tudor Ireland has already been celebrated by Gerard Hayes McCoy in Ulster and other Irish maps, which was published by the Irish Manuscripts Commission in 1964. For Andrews, who said of historical geography in an interview with me in 1997 that "it means trying to become an historian while remaining a geographer", Bartlett's map-making combines geographical judgement, cartographic professionalism and artistic flair. In Map-Making, Landscapes and Memory(2006), William Smyth refers to Bartlett as "the greatest artist/cartographer ever to work in Ireland". The jacket of Smyth's monumental, imaginative work features Bartlett's beautiful map of South Ulster 1602-3, which is held in the Public Record Office in London.

Before Mountjoy arrived with Bartlett, there had been a number of surveyor/cartographers at work in Ireland, including Robert Lythe, who had arrived in 1567 with Sir Henry Sidney, the two John Brownes (uncle and nephew) under Sir Richard Bingham; Jon Thomas worked on a more localised scale under Capt (later Sir) John Dowdall, while William Jones served under Sir George Carew. Andrews points out that the more successful Irish mapping results were achieved by surveyors trained in measuring small areas. Bartlett “was given reason and opportunity to adapt his technique for an-all purpose regional map”. Lythe had been briefed to map the north but soon realised the dangers and withdrew. Bartlett didn’t – and it cost him his life.

The Campaign Map featuring South-East Ulster 1602-3 evokes a sense of the war artist at work. Elsewhere, the maps are more specific, almost polemical: the natives are depicted under siege as in Above Monaghan Fort 1602, and its lower section, featuring unidentified lake and crannógs (from the National Library collection.) Two of the most famous and evocative images captured by Bartlett are that of Armagh with its shattered churches and the iconic inauguration stone chair of the O’Neills below the rath of Tullaghoge. Both maps are held in the National Library. Within weeks of Bartlett immortalising the chair, more like a throne, Mountjoy had shattered it. The map featuring Inishloughan Fort is in fact more of a picture recording the taking of it. Bartlett appears to have been present as English forces, under Sir Henry Davies, not Mountjoy, besieged the enclosure. Two cannons are trained on the fort, while Bartlett has drawn attention to the surrounding bog. His maps invariably articulate the contrasts between the besieged natives and the conquering forces.

THERE IS FURTHER quality that sets Bartlett apart from his peers: his eye, with its awareness of castles and churches, and feel for settlement, is as much that of the antiquarian as it is the artist turned military surveyor. Archaeologists see many of their interests reflected in his work. Looking at Bartlett’s maps is to imagine that this is how the great Huguenot artist Gabriel Beranger, whose career in Ireland has been so thoroughly researched by Peter Harbison, would have approached the task of mapping.

It must be conceded that Bartlett’s decoration is understated. His maps are not lavish but they are dramatic. The Blackwater Valley (1602), dominated as it is by the thin blue ribbon of river, is beautifully shaded in a simple palette of earth colours. Interestingly, Andrews does not accept the theory that the vast oil painting held in Trinity College is the work of Bartlett. The painting, which gives a bird’s-eye view of the siege and battle of Kinsale is more likely, according to Andrews, to have been based on an earlier work by another hand.

Maps tell stories, they also acquire their own history as the centuries pass and the maps change hands and relevance. Andrews tells how Bartlett’s maps resurfaced in the London suburbs in the 1950s. Having been acquired by architect Sir Raymond Unwin (1863-1940) they were then given by his daughter-in-law some 10 years after his death to the next-door neighbour’s child. The boy’s father, child psychologist John Bowlby, thought it an odd gift and took action. In 1955 he presented the maps to the National Museum of Ireland, and within a year the collection was passed on to the National Library. The military historian Gerard Hayes McCoy proposed that the maps be published in facsimile by the manuscripts commission. It was a popular idea. The project was at last completed in 1964 and it remains central in the history of Irish cartography, particularly in the area of fortification.

The mention of forts introduces one of history’s little jokes; the boldly angled depiction of Mountjoy’s fort, built in July 1602 near the coast of Lough Neagh and, resembling to a modern viewer, a sheriff’s badge, survives only in a photographic version – the original was lost during the printing of the Hayes-McCoy book. All that remains in the National Library is a well-executed copy, doubtless more concerned with filling an unfortunate gap than with perpetrating any deception.

The Queen's Last Map-Maker; Richard Bartlett in Ireland, 1600-3by JH Andrews is published by Geography Publications, €40

Eileen Battersby

Eileen Battersby

The late Eileen Battersby was the former literary correspondent of The Irish Times