Atlas of the Irish Rural Landscape, F.H.A. Aalen, Kevin Whelan and Matthew Stout (eds). (Cork University Press, £35) ISBN 1-85918-095-7

Published in 18th-19th Century Social Perspectives, 18th–19th - Century History, 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Book Reviews, Early Modern History (1500–1700), Early Modern History Social Perspectives, Issue 4 (Winter 1997), Medieval History (pre-1500), Medieval Social Perspectives, Pre-Norman History, Pre-Norman Social Perspectives, Reviews, Volume 5

Among the various terms applied to works of reference, ‘atlas’ has now become the most user-friendly, more companionable than ‘companion’ and certainly less repellent than ‘dictionary’, ‘directory’ or ‘encyclopaedia’. To match its changing semantic context, the typical modern atlas has fewer and simpler maps than its mid-century predecessors; it also has more non-cartographic illustrations, especially photographs, and more text—though apparently the text now has to be diversified with eye-catching panels and boxes or by printing it on a variety of coloured papers. The result is often a visual cacophony, marketable by virtue of its immediate impact but then left to languish unopened on the coffee table, too fussy for quick and convenient reference and impossible to read with pleasure for more than a few minutes at a time.
None of this applies to Fred Aalen, Kevin Whelan and Matthew Stout. In their admirable Atlas of the Irish Rural Landscape the descent into gimmickry has been recognised, arrested, and turned to triumphant advantage. On a rough estimate they have given us 353 photographs, sixty-two pictures and fifty-seven diagrams, none of them thematically irrelevant and all a delight to the eye. There are also 307 maps, some being representative extracts from large-scale surveys old and new, others showing spatial patterns for the whole of Ireland or large parts of it. Geography is given its due by keying each local scene into a miniature national map. But in another sense it is the non-cartographic illustrations that have called the tune. More than four-fifths of them are in full colour, which means that to achieve parity of esteem the maps must be coloured too, regardless of subject matter. This breaks the long-established rule of traditional cartography that colour on maps, like nudity in the theatre, must always be essential to the plot. However, Matthew Stout has met the challenge of modern production values with skill and discrimination. His ‘greening’ of numerous early six-inch Ordnance Survey extracts brings out their affinity with the best contemporary Irish estate maps. In his own designs, colour extends the range of communicable data, notably in the regular provision of meaningful base maps. In some cases it also carries a metaphorical significance, as when red, signalling danger, provides an appropriate medium for the recasting of T.W. Freeman’s famous pre-famine population map. A cartographer who can handle colour has probably mastered every other aspect of his craft, and indeed throughout this atlas line-work, lettering, symbol-design and marginalia are models of consistency and good taste.
Yet in some respects the word ‘atlas’ is best forgotten. ‘I’d lend you my copy but so-and-so is reading it’ was a reference to this volume recently overheard in Dublin. Who reads an atlas? By the judgement of its purchasers, this is simply a book, attractive enough to the browser but also demanding to be enjoyed chapter by chapter as one would enjoy a novel. High standards of readability are set near the beginning—whether by Aalen’s lucidity and precision or Whelan’s command of metaphor and epigram—and maintained by all thirteen of their principal collaborators as well as by four other authors who put in cameo appearances at various points in the text. Documentation is unobtrusively helpful—a short bibliography after each chapter and a single list of sources for the graphics. There are no figure-citations to break the flow, but each illustration has landed as if by magic on the right page. And not the least of many physical assets is a comparatively modest height of just over thirty centimetres. Here is one atlas that no librarian need banish to the unvisited wastelands of the oversize section: literally as well as figuratively, it can stand on the same shelf as Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary  or Craig’s Classic Irish Houses.
So much for presentation. The subject being presented is Ireland’s cultural landscape outside the large towns and suburbs. For several decades this was a topic somewhat out of favour among historical geographers, dubiously relevant, it seemed, to the social and ideological issues that became academically fashionable in the 1960s. Whatever the theoretical merits of this criticism, for the field worker landscape study never lost its logistic unity: like archaeology, of which it may be considered a branch, it was unified by its techniques. More recently, however, a new influence has brought the landscape back within the ambit of Irish public opinion as large swathes of it have been destroyed by throwing European money at it. What was long taken for granted is now seen as a highly perishable national heritage. This book’s senior editor, it is fair to say, has always been faithful to the cause. Nearly twenty years ago he staked out the ground with Man and the landscape in Ireland. Now he and his like-minded co-authors—most of them professional geographers—have reaped a further harvest. If anyone has earned the right to include the word ‘should’ in nineteen out of twenty-five consecutive sentences devoted to the Irish landscape (pp242-3), it is Professor Fred Aalen.
We begin with a general history of the Irish countryside from earliest times until the present day in which Aalen and Whelan are joined by Geraldine and Matthew Stout. Next comes a succession of experts on individual landscape features: bogs are anatomised by John Feehan and Roy Tomlinson, forests by Tomlinson, fields jointly by Aalen and Whelan, buildings by Aalen, villages and small towns by Whelan, demesnes by Terence Reeves-Smyth, lines of communication by James Killen, mines and quarries by Colin Rynne, power plants and water installations by Fred Hamond. Each author has his or her own approach (some treatments are less ‘artifactual’ than others) but all adopt a basically historical framework with due respect for regional variations and without flinching from a consideration of present trends. The substance of many valuable papers and monographs is rescued from obscurity in these essays, and there is also much new information, especially in the form of archaeological distribution maps. As in any atlas produced fairly quickly without specially commissioned research, some gaps must be accepted as inevitable. The present reviewer’s only surprise is that the vogue for industrial archaeology has apparently left so little to be said on the subject of Irish water mills, a type of monument surpassed in visual prominence only by castles and churches.
The last six chapters are regional case studies. Given the completeness of the preceding historical and thematic surveys, it is appropriate that the examples should be chosen more for individuality than typicality. In the Hook (Billy Colfer), Lecale (R.H. Buchanan), the Burren (David Drew), the Bend of the Boyne (Geraldine Stout), the Ring of Gullion (Andrew Stott) and Connemara (Tim Robinson), Ireland’s geographical variety stands revealed, as also does the wide range of techniques by which its regions may be profitably studied. There is one general comment, however, that can be applied throughout the book. In the past, geographers have often tried to explain one particular landscape, that of our own time, as the end-product of a slow aggregative process. Any seeming endorsement of this attitude in the present work (as when the landscape itself is referred to as a ‘diary’ or a ‘narrative’) is best regarded as a figure of speech. It is clear from both text and maps that the narrative function of the world as we perceive it must always be seriously incomplete, and that many features belonging to an infinity of earlier landscapes have been lost—except in so far as they can be recovered by orthodox historical method. To recognise the destructiveness of the past is what distinguishes the true historical geographer from the dilettante.
Which brings us back to the destructiveness of the present and to Aalen’s thought-provoking essay on the contemporary scene. His judgements and exhortations are themselves thoroughly practical, even if it is not clear who will carry them out, but one philosophical question remains as a challenge to the reader: what makes a good landscape? It is not just conduciveness to future economic prosperity, though that qualification can carry us a surprisingly long way. Nor is it beauty as opposed to ugliness, a criterion which immediately demands its own criteria and which is wisely kept in the background apart from a brief appearance on page 240. Of the values that do seem implicit in Aalen’s analysis, here are the ones I spotted. Old is better than new; natural is better than artificial; slow is better than fast; variety is better than uniformity; personal unobtrusiveness is better than personal display; and ‘vertical’ relationships, linking different aspects of the same region, are better than ‘horizontal’—as when local building materials are preferred to imports. Finally, to judge from what is said about strengthening village communities, togetherness is better than solitude. Most readers will probably agree with all these propositions, even the last. But whether they agree or not, they cannot fail to welcome Atlas of the Irish Rural Landscape as a major contribution to historical geography.

J.H. Andrews


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