Maps have their own gravitational field. Put one in a room, stand back and watch. It will pull people towards it and soon you will overhear ‘oh look at that’. This goes for double if it is a map of somewhere you are familiar with, like where you grew up.
The accessibility to maps through the internet is accelerating our knowledge of and connection to place. The days of asking for directions are near an end. Give someone an address and it’s instantly found through Google maps. Who hasn’t spent hours exploring their own neighbourhood in Google Street View?
The increasing availability of historical sources online means that our connection to place is being extended into the past. The Ordnance Survey Ireland Map Viewer lets you see what an area looked like as far back as the 1830s, while Griffith’s Valuation of Ireland and the 1901/1911 Census of Ireland can give you details about who was living in an area and how much the land was worth.
An example will help me here. I grew up in Firhouse on the outskirts of Tallaght in south Dublin, where I spent my youth working in the local Carmelite convent. Within a few clicks of the mouse I have found what the area looked like, who ran the convent, who owned the land, and how much it was worth in the mid-1800s, while also finding out the details of each nun living there in 1901 and 1911. Turns out none of the sisters in the convent were born anywhere near Firhouse. The eldest nun there was Ann Grant (80) from County Wicklow and could not speak Irish, while Bridget Hickey (19) joined the convent from Co. Clare not long before 1911. With this information freely available and easily accessible you don’t have to be a local historian to work out the story of a locality.
Now thanks to work carried out in Trinity College, this knowledge can be stretched even further back in time. Earlier this month saw the launch of the Down Survey of Ireland online. The Irish rebellion of 1641 and subsequent invasion by Oliver Cromwell in 1649 resulted in a massive transfer of land from Catholic Irish landowners to English and Scottish Protestant settlers. This process is widely remembered by Cromwell’s “to Hell or to Connaught.” A survey was conducted to facilitate the transfer. This later became known as the Down Survey. The resulting maps were the first systematic mapping series produced at this scale anywhere in the world. Thanks to the work of The Down Survey of Ireland Project in Trinity College, which had Mark Hennessy from Geography on the project board, the information from the survey is now easily accessible. This means you can now find out what your local area looked like in the mid-1600s, who owned the land and who that land transferred to after it was dispossessed.
So back to Firhouse where it turns out the land was owned by the Protestant Adam Loftus, the Lord Viscount of Ely, before and after the transfer of land, who owned a large stretch of land from Rathfarnham to Dublin’s border with Wicklow.
Previously, these sources would have only been accessible to the hardened historian who was willing to trawl through archives for years to obtain the information that is now available at our fingertips. So have a go and start exploring the history of your local area. While exploring your area you will realise that there is a never ending stream of questions that can emerge.