16 December 2010

Long Sheelah

The tide must have been low when a Google-sponsored satellite passed over Strangford Lough and took this photo. There is Long Sheelah, a pebbly island that is indeed long, and narrow. Even when viewed from outer space it is easy to intuit that there is not a blade of grass on this island. It looks pale and almost ghostly. Soon it will be under the tide again. Presumably, as Long Sheelah is a delicate piece of geology, it would not take a major shift in Strangford Lough’s rhythms to dissolve the island entirely. Yet on Google Maps Long Sheelah does appear substantial enough with its straightness and its gleam that contrasts the water.

From Google Maps, Long Sheelah is the white dash close to dead centre of this image. Click through for a closer look.

From the Ordnance Survey Northern Ireland. Click through for a closer look.

The Ordnance Survey’s Discoverer map of Strangford portrays Long Sheelah with a tone from halfway along the greyscale. It is indicated as half with us and half not, a part-time member of the landscape. Like King Cross’s platform 9¾, it seems intangible.

Long Sheelah is above water most of the time. In his book The Blue Cabin Michael Faulkner has given it some tangibility. He has walked it, he is probably one of the only people to do so regularly. Long Sheelah is “a thin sliver of shells and polished pebbles the length of a football field and the width, a mean high-water, of a medium-sized boat” (page 136). By describing the island Faulkner has played the avant-garde, opening up a space to the rest of us. A place that was right under our noses all the time. On his blog he mentions that since he wrote about Long Sheelah other locals have taken to sailing there and using it as a picnic spot. Like many explorers Faulkner likes to come home with treasure. He tells us that Long Sheelah is the best place on the lough to find the eroded remains of limpet shells. The crowns of the shells have been worn away leaving rings that his wife, the artist Lynn McGregor, strings up into wind chimes to decorate their veranda.

14 November 2010

Weathered Map

People who have visited Ulster’s outer edge at Glencolumcille may recognise this map. It is in the car park by the beach and has been getting hit by salty wind, sunlight and hard rain for at least fifteen years. Over that time the map has faded. It once charted sites of archaeological significance throughout county Donegal. The words ‘Discover Donegal’s Archaeological Heritage’ can still be discerned in the upper left. Practically every other word on the map has worn away completely. Routes and sites are still visible on the chart but the key has vanished, leaving the sites unexplained and mysterious.

Donegal’s Archaeological Heritage

No one maintains this map but it remains on site, no longer able to do its original job. I do not consider this a problem. Seeing just such relaxed inattentions is one nice thing about visiting these remote spots. This map is far from maintenance teams, far from impact assessments. It does not strive for consistency. But there is nothing wrong with it. The map has merely retired. It has moved into a new phase.

The key


There are about fifty archaeological sites labelled on the map but, as there is no key, we have no way of knowing what they are. We see only that they exist and the map now tells us, in the broadest possible sense, that we are travelling in an antique land. The map has faded and become impressionist. It is no longer just about archaeology, it has itself become archaeology. We peer at it and wonder what exactly it meant to those people, now long gone, who first erected it. We may be able to detect in its foundations the optimism of an early 1990’s tourist infrastructure initiative. And now, stepping back, we can see how such grand plans fell to the endless drive of the elements. The light, the wind and the rain. All of which combined, especially on the Atlantic seaboard, defeat everything in the end.

17 October 2010

Maps on Walls

The Map of Connections 3.0 is an edition of 15. Number one of the edition is currently on show in the Royal Ulster Academy’s annual show. The exhibition is taking place in the Ulster Museum, Belfast, and will run until the 14th of November.

At the RUA show, 2010. My map has a whole wall to itself. It's a rather narrow wall though.

Number two of that edition and two more of my maps, The Map of Encounters 2.0 (1/15) and The Map of Watchful Architecture 1.0 (12/40), were recently purchased by the National University of Ireland at Maynooth. They are on display in the School of English, Media and Theatre Studies.

27 September 2010

Belfast, Rhythm and Rhyme

I know this labyrinth so well – Balaclava, Raglan, Inkerman, / Odessa Street –
(Belfast Confetti, Ciaran Carson)
The New Belfast Community Arts Initiative are in the process of creating a poetry map of Belfast. They are inviting the public to submit works written about, or perhaps from, any Belfast location. This link will take you to their website. They are also inviting memebers of the public to go along to the Black Box, Hill Street on Wednesday 29th September at 6.30pm and make a recording of their poem.

Plenty of poetry has already come from Belfast’s streets and some of it, notably the work of Ciaran Carson, even has a clear cartographical leaning. Only a few nights ago I heard Frank Ormsby reading from his new collection, Fireflies. It includes a cycle of poems called City Journal, a set of works that might fit very well with this project. I do not know whether or not Community Arts Initiative’s map will include previously published work but it may enrich the project.

In words Ormsby maps, among other places, the Limestone Road, the site of a former shirt factory:

… the frame full of girls / arriving on foot / from the side streets / off Limestone Road / years before the first bomb / and its thousand echoes . . .
(The Shirt Factory, Frank Ormsby)

14 August 2010

Belfast Rivers on the Rise

I do not mean to say Belfast’s rivers are physically rising, although come autumn we may witness that too. They are rising in the culture of the city, seeping up through concrete and reminding us to remember them. We all know the Lagan of course, but what of the Farset, the Clowney and the Blackstaff? They have been buried under the city but now some artists and cartographers are bringing them back up.

This is a section of the map only. Visit PLACE’s website here. I like their blog too.

PLACE, the Architecture and Built Environment Centre for Northern Ireland, ran a project recently called Resounding Rivers. It was by Matt Green. It featured a series of sound installations around the city and a map of “Belfast’s forgotten rivers.” Once, we learn from the map, there was a reservoir where the BBC are now located on Ormeau Avenue. Kelly’s Cellars, when it first opened in 1720, stood on a riverbank.

Clues to Belfast’s watery past can still be found in street names. Bank Street was once by a river. Now the river runs under it. Skipper Street was once much closer to the sea and was lined with boarding houses for sailors. PLACE itself is on fountain street. As the name indicates, this is where fresh water was made available via public taps. The water had to be piped in from the hills despite the fact that the Blackstaff river flowed along the end of the street. This was because the all of Belfast’s rivers were tidal, therefore salty and therefore undrinkable. Belfast was not just placed among a network of rivers, it was entangled with the sea.

“It’s like fucking Venice except nobody’s letting on!” says Dermy in Jimmy McAleavey’s play The Sign of the Whale. It had a run in Belfast’s Baby Grand theatre lately. In this drama both the whale and the water flowing under Belfast operate as contrast to violence on the streets. It is set in 1977. Dermy finds a map of Belfast’s forgotten rivers and sets off to follow their routes. During one monologue he becomes enraptured by the possibilities of free water rolling under the troubled city, unpolluted. “You can feel it rushing along. Overcoming obstacles. Clearing the arteries. Flushing the streets a man could say … All the clots and the shit and the impasses. The sticking points ands the standoffs and the stumbling blocks … and … yes, the bodies.”

The Sign of the Whale was a Tinderbox production. The poster image for the play mingles cartography and a whale. There is a certain sense of discovery in the way the whale is being peeled open to expose a map on its bones. There is also a certain amount of horror.

This is a detail only. Belfast c. 1600 to c. 1900. The Making of the Modern City covers the city extensively.

Raymond Gillespie and Stephen A. Royle have produced a fascinating map of Belfast’s development, Belfast c. 1600 to c. 1900. The Making of the Modern City. It can be mined for all sorts of information but perhaps the most immediately striking thing is just how much more blue there used to be. From the map we learn that the Lagan was much wider (up to 1833) the Markets were muddy water (until about 1700). The map also shows us the Blackstaff flowing straight through Donegal Square.

19 July 2010

Stony Grey Soil of Basra

“Why did the New York Monaghan Association choose not to carry their banner during the New York St. Patrick’s Day parade in 2003?” This was a question asked during a table quiz in Co. Monaghan lately. Nobody knew the answer, not at my table anyway. And no amount of guessing would have brought us close.

It was because there was a map of Monaghan on the banner and people were mistaking it for Iraq.

Separated at birth? Iraq and Monaghan.

Association member John McKenna explained the problem to a news website: "It came as quite a surprise to us that Monaghan and Iraq had basically the same outline shape. We had been receiving some jeers and comments as we assembled for the parade in New York and we couldn't understand why. Until someone from the Louth Association pointed out the similarity. So for the sake of being able to walk 5th Avenue in peace, we had to carry a simple blue and white banner instead or our ornate traditional banner."

22 June 2010

The Tories in Civilisation

In the 19th century Royal Cartographer James Wyld created a world map grading nations by his option of their level of civilization. He rated them from one to five (I-V). ‘V’ being the civilisation of England and France. ‘I’ being the savage lands of Australia and Africa. I note Wyld marked Ireland with both ‘IV’ and ‘V’. Perhaps this was referencing the contrast between the pale and beyond the pale. Or could it have been his way of saying that Ireland rated a 4.5?

Section of Wyld's map.

Its interesting to see what parts of Ireland Wyld thought worth putting a name on. In Ulster he tags only Tory Island, that three-mile long slab off Donegal. Nowadays this island and its small population seem the very epitome of peripheral, forgotten even. However, up until Wyld’s time Tory Island had often asserted itself in history.

From the mainland Troy is a forbidding looking place, at least on a grey day, and it is easy to believe that it was a last stronghold of pre-history's Fomorians and the site of massive battles. The Fomorian king Balor lived here. His evil eye, which shot flame, is often given as the reason there are no trees on the island.

Taken from a plane, I got this photo from here.

The island was troublesome to Oliver Cromwell during his 1649-50 taming of Ireland. It was used as a base for a Royalist band who harried the mainland. Since then the word Tory has often been applied to groups and factions supportive of Britain’s Royal linage. Hence it is the nickname of the Conservative Party, an organisation to whom Wyld might have given a 5.

Perhaps freshest in the national memory when Wyld was creating this map was the Battle of Tory Island. It was a major naval action fought between France and Britain in 1798, eighteen ships trying to batter one another in to submission off Tory’s west end. Britain won out. This was the last attempt by the French to invade any part of the British Isles. It also brought to an end the United Irishmen’s hopes of obtaining outside support in their push for independence. Theobald Wolfe Tone was aboard the French flagship. He was captured and convicted of treason, committing suicide shortly before he was due to be hanged.

18 May 2010

Brand Northern Ireland

The map of a country or region also functions as a symbol for the place. This is especially the case if all place names and geographical elements are removed from the map, leaving it as a logo. We are well used to seeing the shape of Northern Ireland used for branding.

Northern Ireland, a very familiar shape.

The scholar Benedict Anderson calls this, “map-as-logo.” He reckons such symbolic use of the shape of a state can be a rallying-point for more than just products and services. Such images may have even played an important part in the formation of nationalism, a political force that gained ground with the invention of print and the wide availability of images. “Instantly recognizable, everywhere visible, the logo-map penetrated deep into the popular imagination,” he writes. Nationalism could take shape because nations had been given shape.

Click through for a closer look.

A designer at Wallpaper* magazine brought this one step further lately, creating national brands that do not rely on map shapes at all. Instead these logos use well-known products to create country brands. It is a bit of fun that nonetheless raises questions. Is nationalism a bit like brand-loyalty? Do we live our identities or are we consumers of them?

My branding.

As you can see Northern Ireland did not get its own brand so I have stepped in and made one myself.

27 April 2010

On the Shankill

“The British Connection” and “Change of Address” are two documentaries about Belfast’s Shankill area made in the 1970s. They were shown in the Spectrum Centre, Shankill Road, recently. Both focused on the destruction of the community through development. In a short period the map of Belfast was dramatically redrawn. The bluntest line, causing the shifting or erasure of so much else, was the construction of the Westlink. The Westlink was to be a six-lane chasm bringing traffic to the city centre and to the docks. At the time the documentaries were made the Westlink was still in the future and still being resisted. “As far as were concerned, it’s a monster,” said one interviewee. The monster won.

Stills from both documentaries

In this image the Westlink is going from top to bottom, the Shankill Road from left to right.

An interesting phrase was used. It was said that the Westlink would “divide West Belfast.” It seems to me that the geography has shifted since then. Nowadays it would be more generally perceived that you do not enter West Belfast until you have crossed the Westlink. When you are inside it you are still in the city centre. Look down into the Westlink and it is no surprise that it had this power, it is gaping canyon, a self-proclaiming boundary, well capable of shifting citizens’ perception of space.

The Spectrum Centre is on the corner of the Shankill and Tennet Street

As soon as you cross the Westlink into the Shankill you are greeted by this mural-map. It welcomes you in ten languages and is a plain and practical telling of the neighbourhood. It was nice to see. I used it to keep me right as I walked towards the Spectrum Centre to see the documentaries.

No one would deny that the redevelopment of the Shankill in the 1970s was crudely mishandled. Blame is often pinned on the Troubles. In an earlier entry on this blog I myself suggested that the Westlink is a Trouble’s legacy. However one interesting assertion made in both documentaries was that the redevelopment of the Shankill was not just mishandled because of the pressure of the Troubles. The Westlink had been long planned and the withdrawal of support for streets in its way had begun in the 1960s. Some contributors went so far as to suggest that the Troubles operated as a kind of opportunity, used by developers to break up communities.

Baroness May Blood spoke to the audience afterwards. She is one of the notable locals featured on the mural-map’s frame, second down on the left. Her work for integrated education has been hugely important. She asked us to remember that although the redevelopment of the Shankill was a product of its times and not just the Troubles, the trauma of the Troubles should not be underestimated. Her family was burnt-out of their home during the 1970s. Thousands of other families had similar experiences.

The Shankill Road still has a way to go before it is a pleasant thoroughfare but the overall favour of the discussion was a positive one. Certainly nobody wanted to return to the grey times recorded in the documentaries. As one speaker said, given what the Shankill had gone through, the fact that it has survived at all is something remarkable and hopeful. People want to in be the city even when the city seems to be rejecting them. That kind of perseverance is exactly what could bring life back to those streets in the future.

12 April 2010

Election Maps

As we rumble and grumble towards the election next month, it is a good time to look at Northern Irish electoral maps. These two charts tell a dramatic story. In 1997, out of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies, Unionists won 13 seats while Nationalists took 5. Of the 13 Unionist seats, 10 were claimed by the moderate Ulster Unionist Party. They are represented by light blue on this map and can be clearly seen to dominate.

Results of the 1997 general election. Ulster Unionist Party (blue), Social Democratic and Labour Party (light green), Democratic Unionist Party (orange), Sinn Féin (dark green) and the UK Unionist Party (purple). I got both maps from a website called Tallyroom.

2005 general election results in Northern Ireland using redistributed boundaries. Democratic Unionist Party (orange), Sinn Fein (dark green), Social Democratic and Labour Party (light green) and the Ulster Unionist Party (blue).

In 2001 that domination took a knock but they still remained the largest party. But in the next election they were almost wiped out. It appears that, despite the peace process, the voters used that election to retreat to intransigent corners. Hard-liners, Sinn Féin and the DUP, divided Northern Ireland between them. As we came to see in the following years, this was a dysfunctional arrangement. Stormont barely held together and at key moments required steering from London and Dublin. Sinn Féin refuse to take their Westminster seats, leaving a big chunk of Northern Ireland unrepresented in that forum. One may not think this is a problem, pointing out that Sinn Féin were elected and have the mandate to do so. However, as we can see from the 1997 map, there is a sizeable Unionist vote west of the Bann. MLAs have a responsibility to represent the people who don’t vote for them as well as those that do. More recently, media investigations have exposed corruption in the Robinson household. Peter Robinson has complained that the BBC is out to get him. Does he not realise that speaking like that makes him sound like Robert Mugabe? This lack of political acumen would be almost endearing were not so painfully embarrassing that he is First Minster.

It is fair to assume most of 2005’s voters were behind the peace process. Then why vote in that manner? Why not, in the spirit of the times, move towards a middle ground? It may have seemed that Northern Ireland was about to embark on a long period of wrangling and political horse-trading. So the voters took the opportunity to shore up their positions. The more you have, the more you have to trade and the less valuable stuff you have to give away in order to make gains. Such a cynical use of our votes would suggest that we have been paying attention, all these years, to our leader’s manoeuvrings and have been learning from them. Unfortunately, we were short of positive role-models. No one showed us it was possible to vote with bravery and imagination.

Next month we get another chance.

25 March 2010

Mental Map of Lurgan

If you’re out and about you might come across a free once-off publication called The Floorsucker. It has been produced by young people living in different parts of Northern Ireland. The Floorsucker is a disparate collection of words and images but has an overall theme of promoting mental health awareness amongst the youth. It features maps of Lurgan and Bangor drawn by young residents. They say; “Maps often present an image of a place that doesn’t fit with our experience. For an alternative to Google Earth, Ordnance Survey and the rest, try these …”

Map of Lurgan, detail.

In artistic or academic circles these maps might be called mental maps. It is a fashionable term used to discuss the charting of inner experience as opposed to the outer topography. At least I hope these are mental maps, could there really be so many skulls littering Lurgan?

Map of Lurgan, detail.

I think applying “mental” to “maps” is fine activity. I do it myself. However in a brilliant short essay in The Floorsucker Fionola Merideth suggests that we should take care when applying “mental,” and words like it, to people casually. “… every time we call someone a ‘looper’ or ‘nutter’ – however lightly and jokingly – we’re buying into a discourse which ghettoises and ridicules the people who struggle with the horrible reality of mental illness on a daily basis.”

The Floorsucker is colourful and thoughtful. I was glad to see the young people involved were introduced to the idea of using maps for creative expression. The democratisation of cartography is important. We need alternatives to Google Earth, the Ordnance Survey and the rest.

2 March 2010

Mourne Not

When the managers of the Mourne Scenic Heritage Trail wanted a new map of the area they put out a call for submissions. I jumped to it, it was an opportunity to make a pretty map and get paid. All the graphic designers who expressed an interest were sent a copy of the rather drab map they were using at the time. The new map was to cover the entire Mourne region but as part of our submission we only had to remap the area marked out by the black square.

The test area to redesign as part of a tender for the job.

I do not know if the winner was the best submission but it is probably better than mine. My proposal was perhaps avant garde in painting sites of historical interest in a narrow range of reds and browns. I like the look of all the fields but it would be a big job to make them true to the landscape.

My effort.

My design is illustrative without losing its utility as a navigational roadmap. This is in contrast to the winning design, which is very attractive but has to bear the note: “This map is for illustrative purposes only. To get the best from this route we recommend you use a good road map.”

The map that went into print. This is only a section.

But the winning design is a very appealing map and appeal is, presumably, what the commissioners were after. I’m sure copies of this map are pinned on walls and on the backs of doors all over the Mournes. Copies have probably made their way to far off parts of the world. I can imagine members of the Mourne diaspora getting misty-eyed over them. The map might not tell you exactly how to get to sites like Maghera Round Tower but it does make you want to go there and this might be the major part of the battle. It is at once a map and an advertisement poster calling you to walk the land.

14 February 2010

Lost Years

This map is the product of the Farset Health Inequalities Conference in Belfast last year. It charts the north and east wards of Belfast. This is just a screenshot, see the original here. It is not static map but interactive. The user mouses over the wards to discover the average age of death in those areas.

Some disparities are especially striking. It seems a resident of Fortwilliam can expect to live a full fifteen years longer than a resident of Ardoyne. Michael McGimpsey, Northern Ireland’s minister for health, remarks; "It cannot be tolerated that your life expectancy and health status is determined by where you are born." Journalist Malachi O'Doherty goes further, suggesting that this divide should be regarded as a justice issue. In terms of all the years looped of Belfast lives the issue is as profound as sectarian violence ever was. Regarding the disparity between Fortwilliam and Ardoyne O'Doherty remarks; “You can imagine the sense of emergency that sort of statistic would warrant if it was the other way around. We’d be discussing whether to build high-rise flats in Ardoyne and shift the people of Fortwilliam into them so that they can enjoy that fresh mountain air.”

Hear more from O'Doherty on the subject, with visuals, here. If you have 13 minutes you can listen to him reading a fuller essay on the same topic here. This reading, which was given at the Farset Health Inequalities Conference itself, includes a brilliant reminiscence on growing up in a house full of cigarette smoke.

1 February 2010

On the Street with Lapsed Protestant

Many of the essays and articles collected in Glenn Patterson’s Lapsed Protestant have a bit of urban cartography about them. They are personal stories backgrounded by Belfast’s last two decades and played out in its divided neighbourhoods. In House he recalls seeking a place to live in 1994. Anyone who ever looked for somewhere to live in Belfast will understand Patterson’s topographical hyper-sensitivity. How’s North Belfast? The Ravenhill Road? Or the Cregagh? Too Catholic? Too Protestant? Streets, right next to each other, can differ widely. Metres can matter. Patterson talks us through his negotiation of this terrain and in Lapsed Protestant a kind of impressionist map begins to build up.

A map in words will be perhaps inevitably hazy-edged and blurred but that suits this writer. Patterson is interested in change and seeing the city in flux opened up a creative theme he was able to put in his fiction.

[ … ] Belfast was not - as it so often appeared – static, stalemated but was, like all cities, perpetually in process. It’s hard to overstate the librating effect of this thought on an imagination shaped in large part by the polarities of the Seventies. [From Accommodation and apartmentality]

A story of youthful romance, Love poetry, the RUC and me, brings us an interesting contrast to the usual polemic. The girl came from a wealthy family. The story was not love across the barricades but love across the class divide. However it was still bluntly reflected by the style of streets that were its setting. The girl lived on a street so exclusive it was closed to traffic. If a house went on sale the residents got together to vet prospective buyers. “They were not concerned about religion, but tone.”

Many of the writings collected in Lapsed Protestant bring us right up into the newly configured heart of Belfast. Today we are been given more and more toneless apartment blocks and those secular cathedrals, shopping centres. The polarities of the seventies may be eroding but care must now be taken they are not simply replaced by new divisions, between the mobile and the poor for example, that may be getting built around us in new brick.

7 January 2010

Mapping a Town with Purpose

This map of Londonderry is to be found in Soho Square, a collection of writing and images published in 1993. The chart is by the illustrator Benoît Jacques. In it Derry is a wild collection of, seemingly, haphazard figures, lines and curves all tossed together in a rectangle. If a map is, at least partly, an attempt to make sense of the world then this it not really a map at all. It appears without purpose. It is a picture of confusion, designed to exclude, designed to make things impossible.

Click through for a closer look.

However the image maybe an accurate portrayal of how we feel about a city when it is new to us. Sure enough, Mr Jacques is not local. Understanding the layout of new streets and lanes can be hard enough. Then there is all that history to negotiate, the interfaces where various groupings mingle or clash. Derry could confuse a foreigner visitor on many levels. So, perhaps this is a good map after all.

Detail from the map.

Soho Square is a strong collection. It features John McGahern, Tom Paulin, Edna O'Brien and Roy Foster among many others. Their writings were put together by Colm Tóibín and in Tóibín's introduction he tells us the true story of a man who lived in his home town, Enniscorthy, when he was a boy. It seems he was a troubled man, one night he ran through the town smashing the windows of businesses.

He did not break the windows at random; he broke the windows of the big stores, and the more unpleasant, uppity shops. He spared the smaller shops, or the shops owned by pleasant, nice shopkeepers. He knew the town like a sociologist [he had] developed a sharp sense of which shopkeepers deserved to have their windows broken and which did not.

Now there’s a map. The man, even as he rampaged, had a precise image of Enniscorthy in his mind. One of the elements his map charted was conviviality. This is the kind of town map, although not necessarily of conviviality, most of us can identify with. Jacques’ map is only the image of a first glance. Most mental maps are intricate but not at all haphazard. They will be networked with lines and intersections as fine as Jacques’ but each will be as purposeful, studied and, to us, necessary as the lines on a circuit board.