Review of If Maps Could Speak in Michael Viney’s ‘Another Life’

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This review appeared in The Irish Times on 26 February 2011

…a remarkable book by a man who lived for making maps of Ireland – and almost wrecked himself in the process. Fascinating, lyrical, affecting in its candour, Richard Kirwan’s If Maps Could Speak (Londubh Books, €14.99) is a striking testament to a changing Ireland, right up to the Tiger years.
Kirwan, born in Waterford, qualified as a civil engineer at UCC and ended up as director of the Ordnance Survey from 1996 to 2006. He still advises international mapping agencies, but he also tends the garden and teaches Reiki, such are the salvations of a recovered workaholic.
The book’s first surprise is that to start with the Ordnance Survey in 1970, Kirwan had to join the Army, interviewed by officers in full uniform with medals and shiny Sam Brown belts. In Britain, its birthplace, the OS served military, strategic needs; in Ireland, those of taxing 60,000 townlands. Even so, the macho origins of mapping lived on, and the Phoenix Park community continued as a close-knit, male guild of cartographers and printers.
The Ordnance Survey in Ireland dates from 1824 and the boots-on-mountains pioneering of its first director, the admirable polymath Major Thomas Colby. During his own years in wellies (and so many “cold nights in old hotels”) Kirwan tramped an Ireland already well-studded with sappers’ elevation marks (the “crow’s foot” carved into rocks and gate pillars) and hundreds of buried red tiles dating from the early triangulations.
The story of the changes in map-making is fascinating, but it’s Kirwan’s own story that lingers. As he moved into novel aerial and computer techniques to produce today’s OS Discovery Series, he found himself “too busy to laugh” and also – to a later disillusion – obsessed with a mechanistic “stripping the clothes off nature”.
His intense feeling for the natural world and textures of the countryside is obvious from childhood onwards. The old-style fieldwork of mapping was strenuous but human. Woven into a soda-bread-and-mug-of-tea intimacy with the countryside and its farming people, their leisurely memories rooted in landscape, it suited Kirwan – literally, one could say – down to the ground. But as director of the Ordnance Survey he embraced digital change with enthusiasm: Ireland should, as in Colby’s day, be at the cutting-edge of cartography. Between endless air travelling and a master’s degree in management science, he preached the new gospels, flowchart at the ready: “All hedges and fences will be represented by closed polygons. There will be no exceptions. Every field corner will be classified as a node and identified by a number; narrow streams will be depicted as single lines. . .”
As he says now: “I was in my own insensible, ambitious world and would not be deterred . . . I just needed a little more and the tourist maps would be finished and recognised as a masterpiece of computer cartography.”
How he got himself sorted, and came home to wife and garden, is best left to his final narrative. His maps, crisply accurate if digitally robotic, are in the anorak pockets of a whole new generation of hill-walkers. Like anyone who cares about the Irish countryside, they owe him the pleasure of reading his book.

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