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Making a map of the past

ENNIS has firmly been put on the map with this week’s launch of the Ennis Atlas, part of the Royal Irish Academy’s Irish Historic Towns Atlas project.
The Ennis Atlas is the 25th in the Irish series, part of a Europe-wide project with similar publications for over 480 European urban centres.
The publication traces, for the first time ever, the development of the county town throughout the centuries.
The newly-published Ennis Atlas examines the growth of the town from its early O’Brien foundation at Clonroad to the medieval town that developed around the Franciscan Friary, to its function as an early modern market and county town through to the 20th century.
Over 15 early maps and old views of Ennis are presented in the book, with additional thematic maps and illustrations along with an extensive essay by local man, Brian Ó Dálaigh.
“I grew up around the lanes and streets of Ennis and I never thought I’d get to know them so well,” Brian told The Clare Champion as he recalled the extensive research that went into compiling the Ennis Atlas.
“We spent about five years on this in all. A whole lot of new material has come to light and this is the most comprehensive view of the history of the town,” he said.
“What we were looking at was essentially the physical development of the town, such as the development of the road network, the street patterns, the lanes, all of that. Also we had to locate the maps and pre-ordinance survey maps of Ennis are not just scarce, they’re absolute rarities. Locating those maps turned out to be very, very difficult.”
He describes the maps in the atlas as an “eclectic collection” that reveal much about the town’s past and expansion over the years.
“We had to use various means to track down the pre-ordinance survey maps. Essentially, we had to track down the owners of the properties in the town pre-1800s. The principal estate controlling Ennis was the Thomond Estate and the archive is in Edward House, West Sussex. After the Thomonds, there was the Westby family and we have two maps belonging to that collection. Essentially, these would have been absentee landlords in the town that needed maps to know where their property was and, of course, the income that could be derived from them.
“The Gore estate was also very large but with that particular estate, we failed to trace a single map. They were Cromwellian people that were granted large tracts of land of confiscated property, a lot of it by the Earl of Thomond. It just so happened that the Gore estate didn’t produce any maps, at least none that we could trace. Maybe they are out there somewhere. It is a bit of a disappointment because we were able to trace other maps. Overall, I am happy with what we were able to achieve with this Atlas.”
When asked if there was anything particularly surprising that he saw in researching the maps, he replied, “What I came across mainly was how little the street pattern has actually changed. We came across a map of Ennis from 1634 that was in the Petworth House archive belonging to the Thomond Estate. There is a drawing of the centre of the town and really, it’s the same as it is today, it hasn’t really changed. It has the Square, Abbey Street, O’Connell Street, Parnell Street, Bank Place and Arthur’s Row. It just shows us that the street pattern is older than we had expected or thought.”
According to Brian, the Ennis Atlas is an important research tool that can be used alongside the other 24 Irish towns publications and European atlas.
“These provide a sort of baseline for future historic research. The most revealing documents on towns are maps, they are the most valuable documents as regards the topography of urban areas. Urban history was a very neglected area, there was no urban history research up until about 20 years ago.
“There was a conscious decision taken that the history of urban settlement in Ireland needed to be studied and that is what has happened. Essentially, we look at how do urban centres function? What are their origins? Why particular sites were chosen? How does the road network affect the growth of an urban centre? Why some grow and others decline?
“This document provides a platform for the future, you can see the development of previous centuries, where Ennis came from and how it grew. Of course there were periods when it didn’t grow and you want to know why that was.
“In the last 10 or 20 years, there has been an extraordinary expansion in Ennis. A hundred years prior to that, the place didn’t. You just want to know why this is happening. And also, this is a form of cultural history, helping people to identify more with the places they are living.”
Sarah Gearty of the Royal Irish Academy based in Dublin, further explained the Irish Historic Towns Atlas project.
“We are an institution that deals with history, humanities and science within Ireland and this is one of a range of projects run by the academy. The project has been going since 1980 and Ennis is number 25 in the series. When the project was set up the editors chose 40 Irish towns and the idea is to look at them from a kind of topographical perspective. We are very much looking at the shape and form of towns and how they evolved. It’s not really an architectural survey or an archaeological survey, it’s very much looking at the townscape. It’s interdisciplinary so you are using history, geography, archaeology and architecture and bringing it all together.
“The project is part of a wider European scheme that was set up in the 1950s. It was really in the post-war period because there had been so much destruction of towns and it was a way to encourage an interest in urban form and what towns looked like before they were destroyed. And also to try and understand what way towns grew in the way that they did before the Industrial Revolution.
“The way Ennis looked in the mid-19th century is quite different to the way it looks today and this is about trying to understand its evolution and to learn about the growth and changes of towns. It’s also about having a sense of place and identity. The atlas is really there to provide a very accurate source, or as accurate as we can possibly make it, for further study. This is not just for students, it’s for citizens of the town, tourists, schoolchildren.”
“We’ve been doing this since the 1980s so we do know that it sparks an interest at a local level. A lot of people simply just don’t know that there is this rich history. Hopefully, this will be a good resource for the people of Ennis. There are 480 of these all over Europe, so Ennis is definitely on the European map in terms of historic towns’ atlases,” she concluded.

Also included with the Ennis Atlas is a CD-Rom of the publication where the text is word searchable and the maps and images are in high resolution allowing for detailed examination.


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