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.