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How Ireland was mapped

Map of Ireland from 1567

Wild wolves, fearsome chieftains, forts, castles and sea monsters - one could be forgiven for thinking this a fairytale. But it isn't - this was the serious business of State map making - four centuries ago. Today, for the first time, The National Archives is launching a digitised collection of Early Irish maps (c.1558 - c.1610) from the 'State Papers Ireland'.

By Rose Mitchell
Map Specialist, The National Archives

The collection comprises more than 70 different maps , amongst the earliest cartographic representations of Ireland, depicting plantations, fortifications and townships during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I.

Attractive and colourful, these maps include the famous 1567 map of Hibernia by John Goghe, and are normally held in our safe room. But now, as a result of our digitisation programme, these valuable treasures are accessible to millions globally.

Some are signed by well known mapmakers of the day, such as Robert Lythe, Francis Jobson, Richard Bartlett and John Norden. Others bear annotations and endorsements in the hand of Sir William Cecil, one of Queen Elizabeth I's most important ministers. This indicates how these maps were used to inform and influence at the highest levels of government.

Earls and commoners
The maps detail the ownership of land

These maps were drawn at a time when the English were colonising Ireland, transferring land ownership from the native Irish to English settlers.

The maps were usually made in response to a particular threat, to show a siege or battle, or to help inform defence strategy against a background of ongoing clashes with Irish chieftains.

Maps were one of the English colonists' tools, along with the written survey and the gun. They show information useful for defence, such as the location of castles and forts, difficult terrain for armies such as mountains and lakes, and strategic islands and river crossings.

The job of map making required quick-witted, brave and determined men who were willing to risk life to paint a picture of the countries beyond the seas from England.

Chiefs, rivers and battles

The dangers are starkly revealed in an account by the Attorney General who related that Richard Bartlett, ablest of all the Queen's Anglo-Irish cartographers, was beheaded in Donegal in 1609 "because they would not have their country discovered".

And if it wasn't the natives, then it was the arduous work of surveying these wild lands that challenged the map makers. This was highlighted by the story of Robert Lythe, an English military engineer who almost went blind and lame while serving in Ireland from 1567 to 1571.

Portrush detail
And they contain some delightful details, like these rabbits

Aside from the production of beautiful, hand-drawn parchment maps, the risks endured and efforts made by these early map makers helped to lay the foundations for modern cartography today.

The period covered by this collection saw the rise of mapmaking as a profession, and the beginnings of what we now see as prerequisites for a modern map, such as drawing to scale, although not necessarily with north at the top.

In the main the maps show areas of Ireland from provinces and baronies to towns and forts, however there are a few wider maps of Britain and the Mediterranean.

Since sea was the main means of transport, some maps show coasts, harbours and rivers, with drawings of ships and boats. Others show sieges of towns and battles with firing cannons. Churches, forests and bogs are also featured along with names of local chiefs and the families dominant in particular areas.

And you can see more of the maps here.




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