Maps can be Endlessly Fascinating Historical Documents – and a lot of Fun
For some, the advent of the ‘Sat Nav’ was a dream come true. For me, I love maps. With a map you know exactly where you are (most of the time!), and if lost, can begin to find a way out. Perhaps this goes back to my days at orienteering, or maybe time spent at the map library at Trinity. Either way, I have learned over the years that maps are great in many different situations.
When I started studying maps, it was necessary to go to the library in Galway or the Trinity map library in Dublin to view maps. With the advances of digitisation and the internet, it is now possible to view maps in comfort by the fire. These include old maps of major cities, Ordnance Survey maps and old county maps.
The First Edition Ordnance Survey maps are great, especially when viewed on GeoHive. The great advantage of online viewing is the ‘overlay’ feature. Overlaying the current maps with the historical map allows you to study how a place has changed over the years. Add to this the possibility of overlaying the 25 inch maps from around the 1890s, and you can get a complete picture of the changing landscape with regard to buildings, roads, field boundaries, etc. Of course, the search facility for historical features such as lime-kilns, churches etc. is also useful.
For example, it was said by the neighbours that there was a house where our house was built in the 1890s, near Athenry. Looking at the maps from that period didn’t show any house in that place. But looking at the First Edition maps indicated a house in the area – but was it in the same place? Overlaying the maps with the facility on the OSi website showed definitively that where our house was built is the site of a house in the 1840s, and that the house was demolished by the 1890s – so the neighbours were right and wrong at the same time!
Not everything on old maps is accurate though. On an 1818 map of Dublin, near the Mater Hospital, there is a very attractive oval-shaped crescent called the Royal Circus which has several streets radiating from a central oval park. I know this area of Dublin well and could never understand why there was no trace of this feature. A few years later I learned that this feature was planned by Luke Gardiner (Lord Mountjoy) who died suddenly in 1798. Another a sponsor was not found, the project was never completed. Somehow the planned feature made it onto the map in 1818.
Beyond the OSi maps, there are other old maps. These include maps of Ireland from the 1600s and city maps of Dublin, Cork, Galway, etc from the 1500s. Not many of these maps show great detail, but many hours have been spent looking at place-names from these maps that no longer exist, or trying to identify current streets on the old maps.
For some that are in a fortunate position there are old, very detailed Estate maps. One such map exists for the area where I come from in Galway. A few years ago a neighbour found the old map of a local Estate in the attic. The map is from 1833 and shows who owned each field on the Estate and where the houses were built, the road structure and the land quality. Being drawn prior to the defining of townland names, the map also shows many place-names that only exist in oral tradition, or in the memories of older people. I have spent many hours studying this map with a magnifying glass, wondering what happened to the people.
Along with this map of the locality there is the relatively detailed Larkin map of Galway from 1819. It is interesting to study this map in association with the other maps. For example, the road structure changed from 1819 to 1833, but is much the same in 2015 as it was in 1833. Place-names, seen on the 1819 and 1833 maps didn’t make it to the 1840s maps, houses have come and gone, some families are still around, while others have disappeared. Maps from the various times enable this window into the past and add a degree of interest beyond lists of names found in written family records.
When driving somewhere new I always get the relevant Discovery Series map. These maps show minor roads and are very useful to identify local historical features like castles, ring forts etc.
In summary, advances in technology have made historical maps more accessible and easier to study. The wide range of maps from national maps to city maps and local maps can now be studied in comfort from home. Additionally, current maps like the Discovery Series record current landscapes and features. The fun is in comparing the two.