If Maps Could Speak


Interview with Richard Kirwan on 103.2 Dublin City FM, Broadcast 6th Jan 2011

Author:  Richard Kirwan

Publisher:  Londubh Books

Price: €14.99

Aged six he saw a very old map of Waterford hanging in the shop window. It was love at first sight. The fan-shaped outline of the old Viking city – his home town – left an indelible impression on young Richard Kirwan, former director of the Ordnance Survey.

This is a story about maps, map-makers, people and places. It is also a biography that charts the life and times of Ireland’s leading map-maker across several decades. It is a charming, honest book by a man who could proudly state by the time of his retirement that Ireland had been entirely re-mapped for the first time since its independence in 1922.

In parts it is also an intensely personal book that describes a life-changing event, which caused the author to re-evaluate his life, and move into unexplored new areas.

In the passages describing the Waterford of his youth, and his explorations around the city with his father and grandfather, his love of the town is clear. The author accepts that for many people the town might have appeared dull and depressed in the 1950s, with the emigrant boats leaving, but, not for him. He was too busy exploring, and feeding his mind.

He made maps of his city in his mind, and came to know every road, laneway and building in intricate detail. His childish dreams fused with his innate map-making to create a mind’s-eye map that was colourful, multi-layered and full of social meaning.

It was perhaps inevitable that he would be drawn to the Ordnance Survey, which he joined in 1971, after some initial hesitation. There were plenty of attractive jobs available back then for a young civil engineering graduate, and joining the Survey meant also joining the army, something he never really fancied. Nevertheless, he signed up.

He was mentored by Gerry Madden, the then Assistant Director of the Survey, and under his guidance, rose quickly through the ranks. He took a post-graduate degree in surveying and mapping with the British Army, and returned to start work in the field.

Ireland was perhaps the world’s best mapped country by1922. The British Ordnance Survey was set up in 1791. In Ireland, priority for the Survey was to assess the acreage of townlands to ensure a ‘fair’ taxation system was applied to Irish landowners. In England and Scotland, meanwhile, the priority was to draw up accurate topographic maps for the military in advance of a possible attack from Napoleon’s France.

The author describes some of the pioneers of British map-making. Thomas Colby, for example, was appointed to lead the British Ordnance Survey in 1920. He set about drawing up new maps for Ireland. He struggled with developing Anglicized forms for Irish place names and brought in an Irish scholar John O’Donovan to help out.

There was more sympathy towards retaining at least the spirit or meaning of Irish place names by another big early name in the Survey, Thomas Larcom. There are other map-makers mentioned, but Colby and Larcom stand out as the two early giants.

Ireland was mapped in great detail by the time of its independence. Following independence, however, there was no great renewed period of activity by the new state. In fact, it took years, decades, before the Irish were to re-map their own country.

One of the great motivating factors for the author throughout his career was to re-establish the reputation of map-makers in Ireland as innovators, and to restore map-making to its former glory by re-mapping the entire county. He achieved all of that.

The author describes the changes that took place across four decades, including the arrival of women in the map-making office around 1973, which broke the all-male map-making profession, as it had been up to then. He describes the impact of the new printing building for creating maps in 1977, the expansion of the service throughout the 1970s, and the cutbacks and recruitment embargos of the 1980s, and the changes that computers and software brought to the map-making profession.

It is also a personal account, of a man’s life. Richard’s beloved father died when he was 13. He didn’t grieve properly at the time, and, one day in 1998, an avalanche of grief hit him, during a hypnosis and relaxation session at the Irish Management Institute.

Richard was shell-shocked by the emotions that were unleashed that day, and it changed his life. He became a ‘healer’ and a ‘Reiki master’. He surprised even himself, as he says that up until that point, he had always been a logical person.

I would recommend this book, as it is beautifully written, evocative in many places of a bygone era, and with enough personal reminiscences included to hold the attention of readers that might have little or no interest in maps, or map makers.