Reading the maps: a guide to the Irish Historic Towns Atlas

Published in Book Reviews, General, Issue 6 (Nov/Dec 2011), Reviews, Volume 19

Reading the maps: a guide to the Irish Historic Towns AtlasJacinta Prunty and H.B. Clarke (Royal Irish Academy in association with Blackrock Education Centre, €25) ISBN 9781904890706

Reading the maps: a guide to the Irish Historic Towns Atlas
Jacinta Prunty and H.B. Clarke
(Royal Irish Academy in association with Blackrock Education Centre, €25)
ISBN 9781904890706

Since Kildare and Carrickfergus were published in 1986, the Irish Historic Towns Atlas has produced 24 ‘fascicles’. What is a fascicle, you might ask? It is one of the divisions of a book published in parts. And, true to their word, the IHTA has bound numbers one to six and numbers seven to ten into two handsome and very expensive (€150) volumes. The later fascicles have yet to be bound. Each town is presented in a very rigid, uniform style of unassailable scholarship, accuracy and detail. Cumulatively, this represents a deep seam of information about urban landscapes. Historians Prunty and Clarke mine this rich source to produce a beautifully illustrated and extremely useful volume.Few authors are more qualified than these to bring the treasures of the IHTA to light. Clarke, professor emeritus in the Department of History at UCD, has worked on the Towns Atlas project since 1990. Prunty, who lectures in the Department of History at NUI Maynooth, is a relative newcomer to the project (in 2008). But maps have always had a central place in her research, and her Maps and map-making in local history (Four Courts Press, 2004) provides the best introduction to cartographic sources for would-be practitioners of the endangered art of historical geography. Her desire that maps have a central place in the teaching of Irish history and geography provides the impetus for this publication.The book is divided up into four sections: ‘The concept of the map’ is treated in three ‘units’; ‘Clues to the past hidden in the map’ in five units; ‘Town life’ in eight units; and ‘Key periods in the history of town life’ in six units. The term ‘unit’ unequivocally establishes this book as a source for teachers, as does the book’s co-publishers, the Blackrock Education Centre. Its composition, at 22 units (or lectures, if you will), makes a perfectly formed second- or third-level scheme of lectures.The book’s first section takes the reader/student from the basic concept of what a map is to the more detailed discussion of keys and scales specific to Irish town mapping. In this, as in all sections, there are boxes where the readers/students can test themselves by addressing key questions: ‘what do you think a map is’ or ‘why were maps made’—challenging questions that will keep the reader paying attention or provide ammunition for teachers wishing to keep students on their toes. The second section is a guide to how a town’s historic layering can be teased out by a careful analysis of its maps. Included in this section is a detailed guide to fieldwork: ‘On a field trip it is hardly practical to carry a fascicle of the IHTA, still less a bound volume! Homework must usually precede fieldwork’. The third section examines the components of the Irish town using categories from the IHTA as their model: religious life, defence and security, local and national government, industry, trade, transport, education and leisure. The fourth and final section examines how different periods in Irish history led to the creation and modification of towns, and how this can, in turn, be discerned from maps. Each of the formative periods forms a unit: monastic, Viking, Anglo-Norman, Plantation, eighteenth century and nineteenth century.It is hard to criticise a book (referred to as a ‘manual’ in the book’s acknowledgements) that so successfully accomplishes such clearly stated intentions. Reading the maps is for all readers with an interest in Irish history and geography, but, as this review has made clear, it is aimed in particular at secondary and third-level teachers. One small quibble only: the book’s suggestions for further reading rarely extend beyond the IHTA, Royal Irish Academy or Maynooth Local Studies ‘franchise’. Neglected are some extremely accomplished independent works of urban analysis: P.J. O’Connor’s studies of Limerick, the numerous ground-breaking chapters included in William Nolan’s Irish County History Series and (although I confess to some conflict of interest here) the sumptuous, authoritative and accessible Wexford: a town and its landscape by Billy Colfer (Cork University Press, 2008). Nonetheless, this book is so well laid out, beautifully illustrated and clearly explained that it is bound to be adopted by many teachers as a textbook for existing courses on urban Ireland and to inspire others to develop new courses with this book at its heart. Perhaps once it could have been said that Irish scholars neglected their urban landscapes. Not so now.  HI

Matthew Stout lectures in history at St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra. The Atlas of the Irish rural landscape (eds S.H.A. Aalen, K. Whelan and M. Stout) has just been published.



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