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.