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A fascinating Irish atlas has recently been published

by Christopher Moriarty

Some Irish towns have been growing for more than a thousand years. Others are new, converted from green-field sites a mere three or four centuries ago. The stories of their foundation and growth have been more or less familiar to scholars and specialists for a long time. But the same information has been well hidden from citizens and visitors and even from historians who donít have the time to delve into the original source material.

Which is why the Royal Irish Academy set to work in 1978 to compile the Irish Historic Towns Atlas. The first volume was completed recently and you can buy a copy for about $135. That is quite expensive by the standards of coffee-table books and if you donít want to leave it on your coffee table it may cause problems because few bookcases can take a volume which is nearly 17 inches high. However, the volume is more than a piece of decoration and is an essential item for any comprehensive library of Irish material.

Individual towns
But the atlas exists in another form which is very much more attractive at a personal level and the ideal gift or souvenir for anybody whose ancestral home was in one of the places described. The atlas for each town is available as a separate fascicle. That gets over the storage problem, allows for a reasonable price from $ 21 to $25 per town and provides a readable history together with a fascinating collection of maps. The towns available to date are Kildare, Carrickfergus, Bandon, Kells, Mullingar, Athlone, Maynooth and Downpatrick while Bray will appear before long. Ultimately at least 40 towns will be covered in the series.

Each fascicle follows the same pattern. The Introduction begins with the underlying geology which explains why the town came to be built in a particular spot. Next come references to its existence (if it had one) in prehistoric times and then follow the details from written history.

The Introduction is followed by ĎTopographical informationí which is in note form but contains an almost incredible amount of detail. It begins with a list of the various names of the town itself throughout history, traces the development of each street, lists the many churches, shows where the schools, factories, mills and places of entertainment were and lists the principal houses. Just to read down these lists is fascinating, leading to all kinds of discoveries. Few people know that there was a Turkish bath in Downpatrick in 1861 for example, or a cockpit in Firehouse Lane in Kildare at the beginning of the 19th century.

Special documents giving details of rent paid, or contemporary descriptions of the town in the past are given in appendices and there is a very detailed bibliography for each. Finally there are the maps - which are the real basis of any atlas. Each fascicle has reprints of two standard maps and one specially drawn plan showing how the town appeared in or close to the year 1840. The first standard map is a small-scale 19th century Ordnance Survey map which shows the position of the town in relation to the surrounding country. The second is the latest available large scale map.

Before the famine
The town plan of 1840 is based on manuscript maps made by the Ordnance Survey. Besides the interest of these old, unpublished maps, the date was very significant in Irish history. It was just a few years before the great famine led to the death and emigration of millions. It was also close to the time of the development of the railways which quickly revolutionised urban life throughout Ireland. Earlier maps come from a great variety of sources: some of value only because there is nothing else available. Others, like the 18th century maps by John Rocque are works of art in themselves.

The 19th century maps, by and large, are more detailed and useful but less fun than the earlier ones. They lack something too, because the best of the older maps show the appearance of the fronts of the houses in addition to their positions on the plan. Most of the earliest maps date to the 17th century, following the various invasions of the country from the times of Queen Elizabeth onwards. Irish maps of earlier dates are extremely rare but the Elizabethans and their successors were enthusiastic about delineating the properties that they had seized. The old maps are often more picturesque than accurate, but they serve to give very good impressions of the appearance of the towns. A particularly beautiful one is that of Carrickfergus in 1560 in which the magnificent castles of the wealthy contrast with the hutments of the lower orders.

Fascinating contrasts
The contrasts between the towns are endless. Some, such as Kildare, are ancient pre-Christian foundations. It was already an important centre which became even greater when St Brigid founded a nunnery there in the 6th century. Kildare is well documented in manuscripts going back as far as 520 AD. In 630 it was described by a writer as a city which was so peaceful that it did not need walls for defence and was the scene of a great festival each year on St Brigidís Day, 1st February. Others are relatively modern: Bandon, in Co. Cork, was set up as a market town early in the 17th century by two families of settlers who saw both the need for a market town in the rich farmland and the chances of generating a good income from renting houses in it. Carrickfergus began as a castle guarding a harbour which the Anglo-Normans used, while Kells was a monastery founded by St Columba. Mullingar began life as an Anglo-Norman manor while Athlone, like Carrickfergus, grew around an important strategic castle.

Each fascicle has been written by one or more top academics and they are aimed primarily towards research workers. That ensures their high quality, but in no way detracts from their readability or from the standards of production. They are obtainable from :

The Royal Irish Academy, 19 Dawson Street, Dublin 2

or from

International Specialised Book Services, 5804 NE Hassalo Street, Portland, Oregon 97213, U.S.A.




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