Photo by Sebastian Herrmann
The maps arrive just in time, two days before the government announces a lockdown. Not that they’ll be of any use in our current predicament. Still, I’m glad of their arrival. Glad of the early-morning knock on my door, the sturdy brown package on my doorstep.
I wave an embarrassed thanks to the postman, trying to convey the seriousness of my purchase through my writerly eyes. He lifts a hand in acknowledgment but is already scuttling away. The maps are an indulgence. I already have digital access to most of them
I’ve been researching and writing about the Great Famine in Ireland and want to examine the 1847 Ordnance Survey of Dublin. It’s a particularly helpful map because it shows the city at the height of the distress–‒ Black ’47 is infamous in Irish history— and because its large scale allows for incredible detail. House numbers, pumps, wells, and statues are recorded, lime kilns and water tanks, alleys and rat runs, even the downstairs layout of public buildings.
It’s also a particularly beautiful map, which is why I want to own a physical copy. Neatly drawn trees and shrubs fill gardens, symmetrical pathways or looping walks dissect parks, and porticos and stairways adorn grand houses. It’s easy to look at a map like this and forget the prevalence of illness and death.
As it happens, I have to wait a few days before I can open the oversized package. I need a large surface to spread the maps on, and my husband has commandeered the dining room table while he works from home. At 5pm on Friday, he packs his laptop and papers away, and I force myself to wait until after dinner before claiming the table for myself.
I slice the parcel’s seam with a kitchen knife and draw out the A3-sized folder. A print of O’Connell Street in 1818 is reproduced on the cover: the post office stern and self-important, Nelson atop his pillar. The street is full of carriages and carts and a pair of soldiers on horseback. Their feathered headdresses are jaunty and impractical.
I’d forgotten the 1847 map would be supplemented by a whole host of other maps with names half-remembered from college days: Rocque, Wilson, Scalé, Cooke. I lift them out of the folder like offertory gifts, inhale their glossy smell. There’s a contemporary aerial view of Dublin and its suburbs, too, a bonus print that extends over half the dining room table when opened. The folder is rounded out with reproduction prints of streets and buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries: in the foreground, men in white stockings, women with parasols. Suddenly the prospect of a few weeks of isolation seems like a luxury, an unexpected gift.
My husband brings me a cup of tea, and I shoo him away, not wanting anything to spill on the maps or prints. Instead, I find my mother’s old magnifying glass and begin to search the 1847 map for my favorite streets: Cutthroat Lane, Murdering Lane, and Misery Hill. Then Beef Row, Skinner’s Lane, Charcoal Lane, Copper Alley; the names themselves a reminder of lives lived and livelihoods lost.
I find some of the institutions I’m interested in researching: workhouses and asylums, medical dispensaries, fever hospitals, all the organs of state and charity that proved unequal to their times.
My husband and son wander over when I open the aerial image for comparison. We stand at the table, pointing out familiar landmarks: the tree-lined canals and circular roads, the railways, the Phoenix Park and Zoological Gardens. We look for our own house, relieved to find it at the very edge of the map, a tiny roof surrounded by other tiny roofs, our neighbor’s red car just visible on the street.
“We exist,” I joke, but our precarious position is hard to ignore.
I return to the 1847 map. City Hall, Trinity College, the Custom House: the buildings still recognizable today, their beauty intact, their context transformed. I trace the main approaches to the city, once teeming with people fleeing hunger and disease, now empty under my transfixed gaze.
Aileen Hunt is an Irish writer with a particular interest in lyric essays and flash forms. Her work has been published in various online and print journals, including Sweet, Cleaver Magazine, Hippocampus, Entropy and Slag Glass City. She's at aileen-hunt.com and @HuntAileen.