Irish Historic Towns Atlas insert

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 1 (Spring 2004), News, News, Volume 12

Commencing with the current issue, subscribers to History Ireland will receive an insert based on the Irish Historic Towns Atlas (IHTA) series, starting with medieval Dublin.

The IHTA project was set up in the early 1980s, inspired by an already successful wider European venture that had been established in 1955 under the auspices of the International Commission for the History of Towns. The underlying concept is the use of town plans in the study of urban evolution. Comparability is central to the European scheme and therefore three maps at specific scales constitute the core of each atlas. After that, how a country chooses to approach the production of an atlas is flexible and dependent on available sources, organisational circumstances and research traditions. To date, 370 towns and cities have been published from seventeen different countries. With their long history of urban morphological analysis, the Germans have already completed their national atlas of historic towns, while other countries have just begun—Croatia published its first volume in 2003. In 1993 the International Commission established an atlas working group under the joint chairmanship of Anngret Simms (Dublin) and Ferdinand Opll (Vienna).

Since its inception the IHTA project has been coordinated and published by the Royal Irish Academy. Each atlas has a cartographic editor and an editorial assistant and is overseen by an active editorial board. Each town or city is entrusted to an author or authors and is produced in the form of a fascicle. Thirteen have been published so far, with many more in progress (see overleaf).

Each publication contains a text section and a series of large-format loose sheets presenting a range of visual material, dominated by maps. Common to all fascicles are the three core maps to allow comparison with our European counterparts. The comprehensive Ordnance Survey mapping of the country since the mid-1820s is crucial to the production of these maps. The physical setting of the urban centre is highlighted on Core Map 1, which is the Ordnance Survey one-inch hachured map from the nineteenth century reduced slightly to the scale of 1:50,000. The urban form is shown at its best on Core Map 2, where the more undisturbed historic town plan of the mid-nineteenth century comes to the fore in colour at the useful scale of 1:2500 (e.g. Dublin map, above). This is compiled from the large-scale town plans of the Ordnance Survey for the period. Streets, buildings and other details are taken from the earlier manuscript plans (usually c. 1840) and plotted onto the later, more accurate printed maps. Less certain detail is shown by broken lines and the map has the advantage of showing individual plots, thanks to the plans drawn up by the General Valuation Office. Core Map 3 uses the most up-to-date Ordnance Survey data for the town/city, depicting the modern plan at a scale of 1:5000 with superimposed contours and national grid. The unusually large format of the atlas also allows the inclusion of high-quality facsimiles of views, photographs and particularly historic maps. Thus phases of growth can be detected through the town’s cartographic record. The range of Irish mapping since the sixteenth century can also be studied on the pages of the atlas, with 65 historic plans so far being made accessible through its publication (e.g. Rocque’s map of Maynooth, above). There are also maps within the text, thematic in style and explanatory in function.

When established, the Irish atlas project had the advantage of gaining knowledge from the experiences of other countries in the design ofits production framework. Most remarkable, and of particular interest to the historian, is the range of classified topographical information about each town or city, derived directly from primary sources. Historical records are explored and the details tabulated. This section is complemented by a historical essay, in which the emphasis is on the built environment. As with the maps, the topographical information facilitates comparative study and follows the same format in all fascicles. It is listed in 22 sections, e.g. name, population, streets, religion and residence. Within each of these themes, any feature relevant to the town’s morphological history before 1900 is carefully detailed and arranged in chronological order by category. Being an atlas, there is an emphasis on location—all items are either shown on one of the maps or given a grid reference. This, in conjunction with the brief dictionary-like language, creates a high degree of clarity that is inherently source-based.


Authors have worked for many years compiling the information that is eventually condensed within the deceptively slim fascicle. The result is a comprehensive research tool that is self-contained and multi-functional, providing anything from access to an attractive eighteenth-century view of your home town to a major study of the impact of religion on the morphology of urban Ireland. It is a source for many disciplines and one that should not only be read but also used, maps unfolded, text in hand. The inserts will draw on this work, providing a flavour of the Irish urban experience.


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