10 June 2011

Visible Divisions

Lately I found this map in a Belfast second-hand shop. Unfolding it gave me the trill of discovery, although I know its secrets are open ones. Around its rim the map is marked “restricted” and “UK officials are not to release this map outside UK government service.” Yet there it was, a curiosity on sale for four pounds. It is of south Co. Down.

Overview. The map has a thin plastic coating which gives it the shine.

Detail 2.

The map was published in 1978. It shows, apart from the usual roads, mountains, rivers and towns, the Royal Ulster Constabulary’s own divisions and their two-letter handlers. So for example, the town of Castlewellan in the RUC’s division ‘Castlewellan,’ with the call sign FT. The map shows and labels all these areas in south Co. Down.

Detail 3.

Detail 4.

The marks in red are the sensitive information. This was over-printed onto an Ordnance Survey map. This is neatly symbolic of the way the Ordnance Survey is closely bonded not with only land-management and ownership but with starker means of state control, the police and the military.

Of course the clue is in the name, ordnance means weaponry. It is no secret that defensive concerns were behind the drive to map the British Isles from the very beginning. In her book Map of a Nation Rachel Hewitt tells us that a department known as the Office of Ordnance had existed in Britain since the 14th Century and began as an adjunct to the Royal Arsenal. It was from here that today’s Ordnance Survey would slowly evolve, mainly under the direction of military engineers. I note that the map I bought in the second-hand shop had its policing demarcations added by the army’s 42 Survey Engineer Regiment.

Detail 5.

A major project in the Survey’s early history was the mapping of Scotland, part of the attempt to bring the highlands under control after several Jacobite risings. It was completed in 1752, having mapped 15,000 square miles of mountains, lochs, forests and glens. It was a formative, youthful, experience in map-making and the resulting maps were not highly accurate. One of its creators conceded that this map of Scotland might be better considered a “magnificent military sketch.”

Scotland got special attention as it was a source of trouble. This is another abiding theme in the history of the Ordnance Survey. Its closest attentions were not bestowed on calm, peaceable areas. No, mapping was a means of control as such and it was the untamed places that were attended to. This often meant Ireland, causing Lord Salisbury, in 1883, to quip, “The most disagreeable part of the three kingdoms is Ireland, and therefore Ireland has a splendid map.”

In his book Maps and their Makers G.R. Crone, informs us that the scale used in the 19th century’s Ordnance Survey of Ireland was chosen as it was the most suitable for the movement of infantry. From J.H. Andrews we learn that during the Second World War the British authorities produced Irish maps to scales never made available in locally, in Ireland itself. In 1987, while walking in Northern Ireland, Colm Tóibín met a solider on patrol …

He showed me his map, making sure that none of his comrades could see what he was doing. The map was incredibly detailed, every house, every field, every road carefully denoted and described. It would be impossible to go wrong with such a map.

I doubt the map I found in the second-hand shop would have been used in the field like that. I imagine it was pinned up on the wall of an RUC station or an army barracks, perhaps as an aid to radio communications where those two-letter bigrams would be most useful. Some people living in Co. Down might be surprised to discover that they have had, all the time, an alternative address, superimposed on the map they know. They did not just live in Dundrum, Annalong or the like, but FM, FJ, GB, JZ, JX …