MAPPING IT OUT Barry Dalby in his office.
Over the years, independent cartographers have produced several unique maps of areas in the west particularly renowned for their natural beauty.
Tim Robinson, most notably, has created three original maps of the Aran Islands, Connemara and the Burren in Co Clare, largely by wearing down his shoe leather traipsing from townland to hilltop and from bog to cliff, observing things and speaking to people.
In that same independent tradition, Wexford-based mapmaker Barry Dalby has produced a fascinating, eye-catching, extra-large map of Achill and its southerly neighbour, Clare Island, as well as the seas around them.
The Corraun peninsula, Inishbiggle and parts of the mainland are also included on this comprehensive map, which is twice the scale of the Ordnance Survey map of the same region.
Although the allure of Achill and Clare Island can defy description, Barry Dalby has managed to record on a single, multi-coloured, two-sided sheet of paper so much of the islands’ rich heritage, particularly their placelore and social geography.
The cartographer Allen Carroll suggests we are intrigued by maps because we have no choice but to think and see spatially. We like to distinguish things one from the other, draw lines around them and see with our own two eyes the connections between them. Maps also stimulate the intuitive and aesthetic side of our brains, he says.
In tandem with major social change, the geography of Ireland is also being transformed rapidly. Farming practices are changing, new roads are cutting across old communities and new, denser residential areas are being established.
Consequently, areas with historical ties to each other are being separated and minor placenames – such as fields and streams – are being lost. In light of this, Barry Dalby believes in the importance of recording as much placelore as possible before it fades from memory.
Having chosen an area, Barry consults the aerial images taken by companies like Bluesky Ireland, a commercial survey company providing high quality geographic data.
He also studies other existing published sources before setting out himself in search of locals who know most about their native place.
On his field trips, Barry relies on a chain of social connections. One person introduces him to another and gradually he builds up his knowledge of the particular area. His informants are often farmers or fishermen, some of whom use local features – a rock, a hill or a cove – as landmarks.
Barry then examines as much of the landscape as he can himself with this own eyes and with his GPS device, in order to clarify the nature of certain features not easily interpreted from the aerial images alone.
While working on the map of Achill and Clare Island, Barry had to contend with the different versions of local placenames. This can be particularly challenging in parts of the west, as both Irish and anglicised versions of some placenames are used interchangeably.
Having brought all the data together, Barry has created a remarkable and substantial map of Achill and Clare Island – a scale of 1:25,000 and 1:7,500 respectively. That is, in the case of Achill, one centimetre on the map equates to 250 metres of real distance. In the case of Clare Island, the scale is even greater – one centimetre equating to 75 metres.
As well as describing the heritage of the region, Barry’s map is also a contemporary tool. It contains lots of useful detail on the hills, the glens, the coastal pathways and the beaches for the visitor – walkers, cyclists and hardcore athletes alike.
Indeed, the map and extra digital tools can be downloaded on the company’s app, EastWest Maps.
Barry Dalby’s map contains a wealth of information on the unique heritage of the region through its very many placenames. The list is inexhaustible but the examples discussed here give some insight into life in Achill and Clare Island in former times. In our examples, some placenames are called after local people, others concern animals and agriculture, and some are named for imagined likenesses to other things.
Achill: Ailt Mháire Bhreathnaí; Sruthán Bhiddy Anna; Teach Dhiarmaid an Reatha; Uaimh P[h]at Shéamuis Phádraig (Máire Bhreathnach’s Cliff; Biddy Anna’s Stream; Diarmaid of the Ram’s House; Pat Séamus Pádraig’s Cove).
Clare Island: Carraig Antoine Seoige; Currach Mháire Ní Mháille, Tanaí Niocláis; Uaich Chaitríona (Antoine Seoige’s Rock; Máire Ní Mháille’s Bog; Nioclás’ Shallows; Caitríona’s Cove).
Achill: Carraig na bPortán; Fothair na gCon; Inis Gealbhan; Pollach na nGabhar (Rock of the Crabs; Pasture of the Dogs; Isle of the Sparrows; Hollow of the Goats).
Clare Island: Aill na mBairneach; Port Tairbh; Sceilp na gCaorach; Strapa na nUan (Cliff of the Limpets; Landing-place of the Bull; Steep Shelf of the Sheep; Stile of the Lambs).
Achill: Biorán Géar; Fiacail; Inneoin; Scornach na Scainimhín (Sharp Needle; Tooth; Anvil; Throat of the Shingly Strand).
Clare Island: Ceann an tSeimhdile; Gabhal na hAscaille; Gualainn; Ladhaire Mhuire (Beetle Head; Fork of the Armpit; Shoulder; Our Lady’s Toe(s).
Places where ships sank and the year they went down are also marked on the map. Examples include:
Achill: Clyde of Glasgow 1847; Flying Cloud 1896; Pride of Cratlagh 1951; Lios Cearra 1979.
Clare Island: El Gran Grin 1588; Ross End 1985.
Apart from geographical information, placenames on the map can tell us much about the dialects of Irish formerly spoken in Achill and Clare Island.
Irish was spoken as a community language in Achill until the first couple of decades of the last century but had died out on Clare Island several years earlier.
One of the most distinctive traits of the Irish of Achill is its adoption of additional features from Ulster Irish.
During the Cromwellian clearances in the 17th century, the native Irish were expelled from the rich and fertile land in Ulster and were forced to flee south. Many settled in Achill, especially in the eastern part of the island and in Corraun.
As a result, two distinct dialects of Irish were being spoken in Achill at that time – the native vernacular and an Ulster dialect brought south by the displaced.
Many of the Ulster refugees came from Donegal and the surnames they brought with them are still very common in Achill, especially in the eastern part, and in the surrounding region – McGinty, Gallagher and Cafferkey, for example.
Interestingly, in Corraun, we find the townland Béal Feirste, anglicised in this case as Belfarsad rather than Belfast.
Farming and fishing
An important part of the traditional farming life of Achill was the agricultural practice of booleying, transhumance or summer grazing. This can be seen in the placenames An Seanbhaile (Oldtown) and Buaile an Ghleanna (Booley of the Glen).
Fishing was also a major part of the economy in Achill, and accurate information about marine features could save lives. For example, Maidhm Aon Fheá, south of Corraun, indicates that there is a depth of one fathom (six feet) in the sea at that particular point.
Of course, many tragedies occurred in Achill, as indicated by Gob na nDaoine Báite (Point of the Drowned People).
Clare Island dialect
Although we know a lot about the Irish dialect of Achill, we know very little about the Irish of Clare Island, as we have no sound recordings of it. It is believed the dialectologist Tomás de Bhaldraithe recorded the last speaker in the 1950s – an elderly woman – but the tape has apparently been lost.
Nevertheless, some dialect‚forms can be ascertained from other sources. As part of the comprehensive survey of Clare Island undertaken by the Royal Irish Academy at the beginning of the last century, Eoin Mac Néill collected hundreds of placenames. Nollaig Ó Muraíle has since added significantly to Mac Néill’s corpus.
Mac Néill also said that the Irish of Clare Island was similar to the Irish of Partry and Joyce Country on the mainland and that there was some phonetic influence from Ulster.
‘Uaich’, meaning ‘cove’ in English, is a very common element of placenames on Clare Island – Uaich na Drise (Cove of the Briar), Uaich Dhubh (Black Cove) agus Uaich na Madadh (Cove of the Dogs), for example.
Barry Dalby understands the value of the proverb ‘ní tuíodóir go cúinne is ní fíodóir go súsa’ (you’re not a thatcher until you’ve covered every corner and you’re not a weaver until you’ve finished the rug). He’s still collecting and correcting placenames for his map and constantly updating the digital edition. He hopes to publish an updated paper version in the future.
In the meantime, Barry has just published two new maps of the Galtee and Knockmealdown Mountains, and he’ll be getting his boots on and heading west again soon to start on a new map of the Connemara uplands. Go n-éirí an bóthar leis!
This is an abridged version of an article that first appeared on RTE.ie, which gave permission for it to be republished here.