5 August 2011

West Country Horror

Here’s a map produced by Francis Jobson in the late 16th century. It recalls a transitional time between Ulster's condition as volatile and dangerous to outsiders and an Ulster that was claimed and well-mapped. It is quite obvious which parts of Ulster were coming under Crown control and which were not. The east is detailed and reasonably accurate. The west is wild and barren of detail. While making this map Jobson observed that Ulster was populated by “a most savage and rebellious people from whose cruelty God only by his divine power delivered me being every hour in danger to lose my head”. This was probably no exaggeration. Richard Barlett, another Elizabethan cartographer (who’s work I have written about here and here), did indeed have his head chopped off by some locals when attempting to map Donegal.

Click through for a closer look.

In movies and books we have the genre of horror, stories and images that use our deepest fears to evoke strong emotional reactions. This map looks like horror cartography. The unknown west seems freakishly bloated and mutated, like some kind of monstrous boil. And just as monsters get bigger in the telling this vision of the west looms large, overwhelming the rest of the province. Donegal is given lots of huge and nameless mountains that, in reality, were no bigger than the Mountains of Mourne in the east. I find it almost upsetting to see the west so swollen and strange alongside a reasonably measured east. I think this map would have chilled the blood of those viewing it at the time it was drawn as well. Invoke a horror of what lay west of the Bann.

The original audience did not know what western Ulster really looked like. They had no idea this representation was falsely expanded and contorted. Nonetheless, his map could have promoted nightmares because of those high mountains, imagine the fog and the isolation! Because of those empty plains. Few roads, few rivers, few place names. This lack of information would have signified worrying things; no knowledge, no control, no civilization. Anything could be happening there among the savage and the uncharted. The only limits to the possible horror were the limits of your own imagination.