18 December 2009

Along the north coast

I found this postcard map on the internet and no year was given for it. My guess is that it dates from the 1930s. The basalt rock forms at the Giant’s Causeway inspired the geometric layout. I like the modernist-looking rendition of the Bushmills Distillery.

8 December 2009

The Illustration of Possession

Much Irish mapping was born of the colonial age. In fact Ireland, in the Elizabethan period, was the first country to be systemically mapped. This was not because Ireland was in the firm grip of central control, almost the opposite. It was Ireland’s very untamedness that meant it required mapping. Denis Wood, a writer and theorist on cartography would recognise this, “the truth is,” he writes, “maps are weapons.” Maps just propose territories; various enforcements then follow and make the territory happen. Or, as philosopher Jean Baudrillard neatly put it, “the map precedes the territory.”

Queen Elizabeth’s surveyor and map‐maker in Ireland, at the turn of the 17th century, was Richard Bartlett. He travelled with Lord Mountjoy during his campaign and his maps played a part in the attempt to tame Ulster. The people of Donegal, when Bartlett went to survey their locality, seem to have instinctually grasped that his maps were weapons. In 1609 Sir John Davis, the Irish Attorney General, wrote to the Earl of Salisbury of Bartlett’s fate. “ … when he came into Tyrconnell the inhabitants took off his head, because they would not have their country discovered.” But this rebellious action was by then too late. The Earls had flown. Bartlett and others had already produced folios of charts. The mapping of Ulster had preceded. Now it was territory.

Detail from the above map.

But Bartlett’s work also shows that maps were something other than a weapon of colonisation. Take his map of South East Ulster, 1603, it represents Dungannon and Tullaghoge. This chart is highly illustrative and not as directly tactical as many of Bartlett’s others. It is as much a celebration of victory as a map. At the bottom in the centre we see the inauguration stone of the O’Neill has been claimed and above it, Dungannon. With a graphic stridency, the English flag flies from the fort, backed in flat blue and centrally located on the page. It says, South‐East Ulster: under new management. Not just a map, it is the illustration of possession.

21 November 2009

Map of Friends

With social networking sites like Facebook we are able to visualise schemas of our relationships. We know someone who knows someone who knows someone who we, and here a circle is drawn, happen to know too. This social cartography is drawn in the head more than on paper and is easy to imagine as building up into complicated patterns of criss-crossing lines. There will also be a few singular lines that disappear off into unshared personal history, a friend that none of your other friends know or have even meet. They’re special those ones, they might live far away, or be in prison.

Here someone has used InFlow to chart his Twitter contacts. I took the image from here.

InFlow is a graphic programme that enables you to render databases in diagrammatic form. It could be interesting to apply it to your list of Facebook or Twitter friends, and their friends. One degree of separation ought to be enough to produce a lively chart. Large businesses take an interest in tools like InFlow too. They wish to find out how their staffs are intermingling and working together, or failing to. Consultants and companies have popped up to create the charts and help managers interpret them. According to the websites of these service providers there are many advantages to be had by charting staff networks. I will quote a selection of the reasons mainly because the jargon is irresistible, it’s a bit like being smooth-talked by an over-confident android.

Focus attention on the importance of tacit knowledge and intangible assets; Uncover your best knowledge resources and conduits in the organization; Understand what happens in the white space in the organization chart; Discover the holes in your information flows and knowledge exchanges; Identify key connections that must not be broken in reorganizations or downsizing; Develop existing and new leaders in agile and adaptive organizations; Optimize knowledge ecosystems; Expose knowledge bottlenecks, underperformers and overworked employees. Taken from: www.kmcluster.com

Given that all of the above seems an evolution of the internet age it is impressive that John Carson’s Friend Map was created way back in 1976. He used printed maps, ruled lines and glue to produce a pre-digital diagram of his social network.

John Carson, Friend Map, Photographs on map, 1976. It was exhibited in The Golden Thread Gallery, Belfast, lately.

Carson’s map features three types of connection. “Direct link lines,” going from the artist’s home to the homes of friends. “Indirect link lines,” they link to friend’s homes but also to places where they and the artist associate, for example the pilot station in Carrickfergus. And finally “secondary link lines” that connect friends of the artist who also know each other. Carson has covered his map in these lines, evoking a web of friendship pegged out across the city. It is also worth remembering that 1976 was the height of the Troubles. That was not a time of free-and-easy interaction in Belfast however this map tells an alternative story, one that was going on despite the Troubles.

John Carson lived in Carrickfergus when the map was made and it is given close-up.

Carson's Belfast friends, 1976.

A programme like InFlow could be used to describe the straight facts of the Friend Map. However the total content of this map is not reducible to vector graphics. There is a warmth in that Carson drew every line by hand. He visited every person to take every photograph and printed each in a darkroom. Then he cut each to size and pasted them to his map. A digital diagram may enable the viewer to see “tacit knowledge and intangible assets” but Carson’s handcrafted map gives more. It enables us to see landscape as a place where lives unroll, overlap and run side by side. A place where people do not just live, nor just live together, but live with togetherness.

28 October 2009


“Townlands are the ancient and generally accepted divisions of the country,” wrote Thomas Spring Rice in 1824. His report was to propose which categories of boundary ought to be included in the upcoming Ordnance Survey of Ireland. Townlands were, and still are, an important measure of locality and often vital to a rural person’s sense of home. When the Ordnance Survey began no one had any idea that Ireland had over 67,000 townlands. In the years to come each would be charted and each name recorded.

Section of the Discoverer Series, 1/50,000 scale.

On the reverse of the same map, the townland map.

Ordnance Survey maps of Northern Ireland have usually included the names of townlands but not always their boundaries. However, the latest edition of the Discoverer Series has elevated the townland once again. On the reverse of the sheet, which was up to now blank, we are presented with a townland map. It is drained of colours, only using red and a few tones from a greyscale. Quite apart from any practical use it may have the townland map is also a thing of intrigue. Does the web of townlands imply a friendly landscape of interlocking communities? Or does it suggest an oppressive net of ancestral knots?

Where few people live, high boggy ground, the townlands are large. In other places they are small, I see one in south Fermanagh that is only about 150 square metres. In these cases the name it is labelled with cannot be fitted inside its border.

And what names townlands can have. Some of my favourites from Sheet 27 of Northern Ireland’s Discoverer Series are: Ummera, Tattycam, Dooross, Gubdoo, Stumpys Hill, Lusty More, Sheepwalk, Greaghatirrive, Bunnablaneybane and Bun.

7 October 2009

Gardens in the Sky

“A certain quality of loveliness,” this was the phrase the presenter on one of those old house restoration programmes on television kept using. A certain hue of 19th century floor tile, the roughness of a roof support or the angle of a pitched floor could be deemed to possess this quality, this “certain quality of loveliness.” He used the phrase perhaps five or six times on the episode I watched. He ascribed it to certain features it as if it was an accepted measure of architectural worth, as ready-readable as the Richter Scale. It got on my nerves after a while.

Yet, I have to admit that a “certain quality of loveliness” is exactly what Gemma Anderson’s map Wild Photograms has.

It is a map of a small part of Belfast between High Street and North Street. In City Supplements, a publication produced by PS squared, www.pssquared.org, Anderson explains the map's inception:

Rather than concentrating on street level, I gazed up at the brickwork of the buildings looking for plant life. I was surprised by how many plants were living in the nooks and crannies of derelict buildings. These ‘gardens in the sky’ growing on roof tops, edges and window ledges. The area now appeared more curious and rich walking amongst these plant outcrops [ … ] I have used the stems of these plants to construct a map and documented the full plant forms as photograms, their locations identified on the map.

www.gemma-anderson.co.uk is the artist’s website.

4 August 2009

Two ways to map Rathlin

There are as many styles of map as there are political views, vested interests, and even hobbies. This map, below, was for the use of a specific group of visitors to Rathlin Island last year.

The letters and numbers are the codes of the WAB squares that cover this Northern Irish island. WAB means Worked All Britain. We are now in the company of amateur radio operators, a whole culture of callsigns, occupied bandwidths, and black boxes. Quoting the Bangor and District Amateur Radio Society website (where I also found the map): “As can be seen from the map, the Island spans three WAB squares, D05, D15 and D14.”

Little did we know, as we walked the earth, we were passing through things called WAB squares. This is a landscape only visible to amateur radio operators and invisible to everybody else. However, the WAB squares are not a totally alternative mapping system. They work within standard grids. Rathlin Island is found in square D of the Irish Grid.

Rummaging around in my studio I found a quick map of Rathlin that I drew a few years ago. You will discern that I was more interested in lighthouses than squares of any sort. They are represented by giant light bulbs.

It is indicative of the dangerous seas around this small island that it needs three lighthouses. But despite them there have been over forty shipwrecks on Rathlin's rocks over the years.

27 July 2009

The International

The Antrim Area Plan 1984-2001, published in 1989 by the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland Town & Country Planning Service is, as you can probably imagine, a rather dry report. But the black outline on this map from the report is interesting. Is it a bird? Is it a fish? I think it is a cross between the two, making a dive for the waters of Lough Neagh.

In reality the contour lines demarcate areas of noise pollution around Belfast International Airport. According to the report the “Noise and Number Index (NNI) contours were calculated using a complex formula which takes account of estimated growth in traffic, assumptions about the types of aircraft in use, and aircraft flight paths.”

The outer black line is the zone between 40 and 50 NNI. Structures, even houses, can be built within it but it is recommended that they are sound insulated. The areas of red-line hatching sticking out from each end of the runway are Pubic Safely Zones. There was to be no building of any sort within these areas. Take-offs and landings, as we all know, are the most dangerous parts of flight.

29 June 2009

Owen's Island

Inishowen is the northern part of Co.Donegal.

A few years ago there was some anger and some amusement when a government publication was produced in Dublin featuring a map showing Inishowen as part of the North, not the Irish Republic. Over 100,000 brochures had to be recalled and reprinted. Inishowen’s Fine Geal counsellor was fuming:

"If Donegal is the forgotten county, then Inishowen is the forgotten part of the forgotten county. It is unforgivable that this got printed before it was noticed" (Irish Independent 25 May 2006).

If the map was the work of a professional cartographer they might have lost their job. If it was produced, as is more likely, by a graphic designer then they were probably just laughed at for a year or two. They are probably still being ribbed about it today. It is in fact one of Ireland’s more famous anomalies; that its most northern point is in the South.

The Irish Independent went on to report: “It is not the first time the Donegal peninsula has been cut loose. A similar error was made in 1997 when an Oireachtas PR office released a school video on how the political system worked. It included a map of Ireland depicting Inishowen as part of Co. Derry instead of Donegal”

Looking further back into the history of Ulster mapping it seems Inishowen was constantly getting “cut loose.” And not just ceded to another political body, but forced into insular independence. It was often portrayed as a separate landmass.

Section of Provincia Ultoniae, 1645

Take, for example, Jaonnem Janssonius’ map Provincia Ultoniae, from 1645. Here Inishowen has become an island and, furthermore, Malin head is another island north of it. The watery gap is too wide to be a mere river although it may be that Janssonious was building on a succession of older maps that gradually exaggerated a river flowing here until it became a full channel.

A section of Bartlett's map of Ulster.

Provincia Ultoniae bares strong similarities to Richard Bartlett’s A generalle description of Ulster, 1602/03. Here Inishowen is also breaking away, although not quite so starkly. The divide can be read as a river and this perhaps indicates the source of the “Inishowen as island” falsehood. However, it was a completely inaccurate source in the first place. There was no river here. Cartographical historian, J.H. Andrews has commented on this habit of joining different river systems by imaginary inland waterways. He writes that, “they may represent strips of boggy ground where the direction of drainage was indeterminate” (The Queen’s Last Mapmaker, 2008, p. 63). Sure enough, the land is shallower at those locations. Nowadays these are the routes of the roads linking Londonderry to Burnfoot and back over to Muff. It is quite a jump to go from boggy lowlands to full sea channel but so it went in an era when individuals had to judge, by eye, entire terrains.

Nonetheless, Richard Bartlett’s maps of Ulster stand out as the work of an uncommon talent. To this day they are interesting cartographically, historically, but also as art objects. I am sure nobody ever laughed at him.

16 May 2009

Shared Horizons

The warlike range of symbols on the Map of Watchful Architecture leads to it getting some brisk readings. I have printed and distributed many copies of the map by now, and exhibited it, enough exposure to have noticed this theme. Sometimes viewers aim merely to place the map, as quickly as possible, in their pre-set political views. For this reason The Map of Connections is in some ways more successful. It not only maps a new topic, it does it with a new language. This results in it receiving closer reading. It cannot be handled any other way.

The knee-jerk reactions are too bad because my map of defensive architecture does actually tell a shared story. I work hard to make it even-handed.

Sinn Féin's map. Section only. Monaghan and Armagh.

A truly warlike and now outdated map on a Sinn Féin website marks the locations of Northern Irish security structures. It is a limited view. The map has no interest in the historical. Furthermore it completely blacks out the south of Ireland, ignoring, for example, the Irish Army barracks in Monaghan (decommissioned recently as well).

Elsewhere on the Internet is FAIR, Families Acting for Innocent Relatives. They aim “to ensure that the great sacrifice of the Unionist Community in South Armagh will never be forgotten.” This website has a grim reactionary tone, it is a surprise to read anyone still arguing for the securing of the Border. Alternative voices are dismissed thoughtlessly as “glossy chat.” But that seems harmless when compared to headlines like: “Orange Halls Attacked By Catholics In Co Tyrone.” (November 2008) The vandals were not caught, their religion is assumed, probably quite reasonably, but does FAIR consider vandalism to be a religious rite? Surely “Orange Hall Attacked by Vandals in Co. Tyrone” would be a more correct description. Or, if it is facts we are concerned with, then simply: “Orange Hall Attacked in Co. Tyrone.”

FAIR's map of security, south Armagh.

The FAIR website has a map of security structures too. They would prefer the watchtowers and checkpoints were still in place. They say it “is madness to reduce the level of security.” But, and this brings me back to defensive architecture being a shared past, where did they get their map? They lifted it from the Sinn Féin website. They just changed Sinn Féin’s oppressive term “spy post” to a friendly “surveillance tower.” On my map I call them watchtowers but whatever they are called, they are a common story.

27 April 2009

Gravitational Attraction

A little while ago the European Space Agency launched GOCE, its gravity mapping satellite. GOCE stands for Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer. It is already in orbit but in a couple of weeks its batteries will be fully charged-up, its systems calibrated and its work will begin. Unlike a typical satellite, with spindly aerials, disks, and protruding panels, this satellite is streamlined and sleek. GOCE needs aerodynamic features because it will fly at only 250km above the surface of the Earth, lower than most Earth orbiting satellites, and will encounter wisps of atmosphere. It will plot the earth’s gravitational field to a higher level of accuracy than we are currently able.

GOCE's mission will require a high level of stability, hence the fins and its ion-propulsion engine. See an animation here: www.esa.int/SPECIALS/GOCE_animation/

Things have different weights when in different places. The gravitational attraction an object experiences, its desire to rush to the centre of the earth, is effected by the presence of irregularities in the shape of the earth, the uneven distribution of mass beneath the crust, and the presence of mountains or even large buildings. The intensity of the desire varies and the GOCE will map this variable terrain. It will draw a surface of equal gravitational force, sometimes called the geoid, as it dips above and below the Earth's physical surface. A science blogger gives this illustration:

Say you take a one-pound weight, and you walk along the surface of the Earth. If the density of the ground underneath you begins to increase, the gravitational force will increase and the weight will get heavier. To counteract this, you raise the weight up higher - therefore reducing gravity's influence. If, as you walk along, you continue to adjust the height of the weight so that it always weighs one pound, you will be following the surface of the geoid. www.scientificblogging.com/welcome_my_moon_base/goce_aerodynamic_satellite_will_map_geoid

So, those African women carrying supplies on their heads have actually found a way to make the load a fraction lighter. A very small fraction.

One of the most useful outcomes of GOCE’s work will be an increased understanding of the movement of the oceans. But, personally, I am looking forward to the maps. Gravitational forces at play have been mapped before. The difference between standard gravity and the actual gravity found in a certain place is sometimes called the Bouguer anomaly. I examined a Bouguer Anomaly Map of Northern Ireland recently.

From the Bouguer Anomaly map

This is a detail from southern Armagh. It can be seen that Slieve Gullion is a highly positive area. This would probably make a kind of sense to anyone familiar with this mountain. It is a proud and distinguished peak and seems to deserve any form of special attention. Slieve Gullion is an extinct volcano standing apart from other mountains but the highest in the county nonetheless. I wonder if this apartness, free from softening influences, contributes to the large positive Bouguer anomaly wrapped around the mountain. Geologists reckon the strength of this anomaly indicates a high-density mass of rock concealed under the mountain. I can report that, when climbing Slieve Gullion lately, my backpack sure seemed heavier as I approached the peak. But seriously, I wonder could a mountain with a large positive Bouguer anomaly, such as Slieve Gullion, be noticeably more tiring to climb?

Gullion at sunset, image taken from here.

Slieve Gullion’s powerful presence also means it has made frequent appearances in myths, legends, and more recent writings from Northern Ireland. It seems the mountain carries an unusually high cultural weight too. In the meantime we can watch for the GOCE, a fast-moving dot passing 250km above our heads.

18 April 2009

Dungannon Exhibition

As part of its arts festival Dungannon borough will host an art exhibition in the old Territorial Army garages on Castlehill. The organisers remark that this exhibition space is a contested site. It has been the high vantage point of local powers for centuries, an O'Neill site, a plantation era townhouse, and most recently a base for the British Army. To reflect this history artists were invited to submit work concerned with the transformation or the claiming of space, either personal or public.

I thought they might like The Map of Watchful Architecture, and sure enough, it has been accepted and will feature in the Art on the Hill exhibition. It runs from 1 May until the 10 May 2009. I will print the map on paper for this show, large.

3 March 2009

A 2000 Year Tradition

I want The Map of Watchful Architecture to help us see old structures afresh and new structures in a historical light, bringing new illumination. The map represents certain structures, perhaps built centuries apart, as fundamentally the same. For example, the Border was predicted by the 2nd century structure of the Dorsy, an official entrance into Ulster. Nowadays, just south of the Border the Garda Síochána perform spot checks on buses, looking for illegal migrants. Instead of two categories, 1st Century Gate and 21st Century Immigration Control, my map uses just one: checkpoint. Immigration control is revealed as inheritor of a long tradition while at the same time an ancient site is drawn into the contemporary dynamic.

Detail from The Map of Watchful Architecture 1.0

Adding to the diversity of checkpoints in Ireland is a timber castle discussed in Archaeology Ireland lately (Volume 21, No. 2. Issue No. 80). We are well used to seeing old stone towers in the landscape and it is interesting to realise that once wooden towers dotted the landscape too. None have survived but there is documentary evidence for them. One particular wooden tower is referred to in reports, letters, and we even have an image. In 1575, under the earl of Essex, the English constructed a fort on a strategic crossing-point of the River Blackwater, near modern day Blackwatertown. This construction was to control access in and out of western Ulster. It was the gateway to a contested territory, Hugh O’Neill’s lands in South-East Tyrone.

Apologies for the low quality of this reproduction

On the one side of the Blackwater the tower was of stone. On the other side is an impressive wooden tower, four stories high. It is the darker tower in the above image. Huge uprights at each corner are obviously the major structural features. Note the bridge; it seems to link both towers. Anyone using it certainly had to pass through the right-side structure and possibility the timber tower too. This makes the structure a filtering installation. A sixteen century checkpoint. Part of a long tradition going back, and forward.

16 February 2009

Stones of Ulster

The Ulster Historical Foundation’s graveyard database is an interesting find. It is called History from Headstones. Whatever urge has us wandering into old graveyards and reading headstones can now be indulged online. The website is for researchers and the generally interested. You can browse via theme. For example, I selected ‘Geographical’ then narrowed the enquiry to ‘Honduras’ (a former home of mine). Two gravestones in Northern Ireland mention the Central American country. The texts are presented in a graveside manner:

Tombstone in Clifton Street graveyard, in Belfast’s Shankhill, from History from Headstones. This is a highly notable graveyard, a stone-written history of Belfast. Read a BBC article about this graveyard here.

There are maps on the site too. The charted graveyards can be filtered in various ways. With a brief look it seems Catholic, Church of Ireland, and Presbyterian graveyards are fairly evenly spread throughout Northern Ireland, with the exception of Fermanagh’s shortage of Presbyterians.

Coloured dots give the locations of all graveyards in Fermanagh charted by History from Headstones

The four Presbyterian graveyards in Fermanagh

Lately I have been working in the Built Environment Library in the Cathedral Quarter, Belfast. I go there to gather data for The Map of Watchful Architecture. This library is another excellent resource. It has been especially useful for plotting World War II structures. Thank you to all the staff who have helped me. I notice the digital maps I examine there mark famine graves and sites where unbaptised children were buried. In the landscape these sites are usually unmarked, they certainly do not have headstones. So, it is no surprise that History from Headstones does not include these kinds of sites. After death, we may need a stone stood in our stead so not to be forgotten.

But History from Headstones does have the category ‘other.’ This includes Reformed Presbyterian, Non-Subscribing, Moravians, and Quaker. Looking at the maps I wondered if there is any such thing as mixed-denomination graveyards in Northern Ireland. Dr William Roulston, Research Director of the Ulster Historical Foundation, tells me that ‘other’ also includes graveyards of antiquity not associated with any particular denomination now. “For example, graveyards on the site of a former monastery or medieval parish church. Such graveyards can be considered mixed-denomination in the sense that persons of all religious backgrounds lie buried together. There would be around three hundred such graveyards in Northern Ireland.”

It is too bad the database does not extend beyond Northern Ireland into the rest of Ulster. Of course the limitation is understandable, the creators of the database had to stop somewhere. Also, assuming they used some pre-existing information, surveys from both sides of the Border are not always compatible. This is something I am discovering as I continue compiling The Map of Watchful Architecture. Alas, the Built Heritage Library does not have a direct southern equivalent. I bet there were World War II pillboxes built in the southern Border counties too, but this information is not easily accessible.

I will have to keep digging.

Links: The Northern Ireland Environment Agency: Built Environment and the Ulster Historical Foundation's History from Headstones.

9 February 2009

Points of control and observation

Here are the military Border structures built and manned during Operation Banner. I have divided them into watchtowers and checkpoints although, as discussed below (20 January), it is not a clear distinction to me. In addition, I use the term ‘checkpoint’ for a fort built by a roadside whereas, as a Newryman told me lately, 'checkpoint' commonly meant any stretch of road the army chose to occupy for a few hours. To many ‘checkpoints’ were movable points where one was pulled-over and questioned.

Border structures, Operation Banner.

I consider this map part of a work in progress rather than a finished piece. I will not be publishing it beyond this blog. Note that it only marks structures reasonably close to the Border, nor does it include RUC stations that may have also housed soldiers.

20 January 2009

Watchtower or Checkpoint

A section of the work in progress, The Map of Watchful Architecture.

I am busy plotting the locations of defensive architecture. There are many hundreds of raths (ringforts) along the Border and I do not wish to display them all. One way of cutting back is to only display raths in a narrow Border corridor, one hundred metres for example. But then what to do with uncommon features I do not wish to cut, that fall beyond that confine? For example, there are only about thirty military installations from the recent deployment to display. I would like to display all of them. Is it justifiable to have one rule for raths and another rule for checkpoints and watchtowers? Should I mechanically chart everything evenly, thereby creating a map awash with raths? Or think more aesthetically?

In the design of the Map of Watchful Architecture I seek a middle ground between cartographical accuracy, visual appeal, meaning, and integrity.

I am pretty sure two categories on the map will be ‘Towers’ and ‘Checkpoints.’ Today I went through the coordinates of the 30 recent military installations to define each as either one or the other. I did this by simply looking at its location on a detailed map. If the feature was on a hilltop with no roads nearby then it was clearly a watchtower. If it was right next to a road then it was a checkpoint. However, I found two that seemed to fall between both possibilities. I include the maps here as you never know, one of this blog’s readers might be able to tell me. They are both in Fermanagh, close to roads but not quite on them, and only slightly elevated. Watchtowers or checkpoints?

One and ...


This has me wondering; what was the difference between a tower and a checkpoint anyway? They were both built tall and both bristled with surveillance technology. But did the almost sculptural presence of high watchtowers, over-lording, uncontactable, mean they deserve their own distinct place on the map? By contrast the checkpoints always seemed more ordinary. You saw the men inside. They came out and spoke to you sometimes.

South Armagh had eleven installations. Looking at their locations the danger of deployment in that area is stark. Only one out of the eleven was a roadside checkpoint. The rest were on the peaks of mountains. In South Armagh the army had to stay off low ground, or at least not be on it for long, preferably by using a helicopter. The army’s mission there was containment. The towers seem to have made a net, strung between high points.

14 January 2009

On Drumlins

In an earlier entry I promised words about drumlins. The name may come from the Irish droimnín: a little hill ridge. These hills are a lot more common in the north than the south of Ireland and give parts of the North a very distinct look. They are made of layers of loose rock worked by the massive and patient attentions of glaciers or shifting waters, rather like the hard ripples left on a beach at low-tide. They tend to be oval in shape and come in batches, their long axis running parallel and their blunter ends facing into the glacial movement. I have read it described as a “basket of eggs topography.” On a Border walk near Aughnacloy I encountered one perfect example, a smooth green egg lying sideways in the land, fifty metres tall.

Strangford Lough

There are plenty of drumlins in County Down. Those islands in Strangford Lough, they’re drumlins. I read drumlins are common in New York State and Wisconsin, Poland, Estonia, Finland, and Patagonia. The formation of brand new drumlins was observed for the first time in Antarctica not too long ago. (See BBC news: news.bbc.co.uk/go/rss/-/1/hi/sci/tech/6295395.stm)

Recently Kevin Myers alighted on drumlins in his book Watching the Door, a memoir of his time as a journalist in Belfast during the Troubles. Rather than the above explanation he reckons the word comes from droim, Irish for ridge and lin from the English ling meaning; being like. This sets him thinking of the drumlin landscape as being a place where Irish and English meet, or rather clash. Myers associates the drumlin landscape with an unconquerability, a unsmoothable division between Anglo and Irish. The basket of eggs topography is a landscape for harrying, hiding, smuggling, and struggling. A landscape for guerrilla wars that can never be won but never quite lost and a good base for the myth-writing that support them: “this miserable hallucination of the drumlin, whose myths conjured poison from the soil …”

Myers uses the drumlins as a stand in for the Border. When his time as a journalist in Belfast is over he goes south to Dublin and gets “clear of the drumlins and their malignity.”

Estyn Evans, Geographer and founder of Queen's school of Geography, used to wax lyrical about the drumlins. He used them to highlight the diversity of Ireland’s land and people. He suggested the landscape of valleys and shadows the drumlins created is bonded to a local culture. A place of “limited vision and imagination. I always like to contrast that kind of hidden landscape [ ... ] with the open naked bogs and hills which are naturally areas of vision and imagination.”

I do not agree with Evans’ categorisations although I cannot help but think there is much potency in a landscape to shape culture. Evan’s falls in with the old Western/Instinctual/Catholic and the Eastern/Acquired/Protestant duality. It is hard to tell who is more hard-done by these stereotypes. But nonetheless Evans’ view of the drumlins is more useful. And after decades of conflict we need useful now. Myers uses the drumlins as a simple symbol for oppressive times and as backdrop to his tall tales. Evans, as a geographer, uses the drumlins as markers of a regionally diverse Ireland. A land of as many peoples are there are terrains. This is a point worth making and showing us the northern drumlins is his way of doing it.