Tracing our past: mapping south Kerry

“Mapping South Kerry”, book written by Dr Arnold Horner and published by Wordwell Books.
“Mapping South Kerry” written by Dr Arnold Horner and published by Wordwell Books is on sale now!

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The newly published “Mapping South Kerry” by Dr Arnold Horner is a comprehensive exploration of map-making history in southern Co. Kerry. Spanning over 450 years and covering various types of maps, it investigates their role in documenting the evolving landscape and man-made environment of the region.

Released in June 2023, Mapping South Kerry tells the story of the long history of map-making linked to that part of the county south of the River Maine. Showing parts of the south Kerry area over a 450-year period from the early 1570s to the present day, it covers the Iveragh (“Ring of Kerry”) peninsula, the lakes district around Killarney, much of Sliabh Luachra to the east and the southernmost area around Kenmare and Kilgarvan.

Authored by a former University College Dublin (UCD) geography lecturer, Arnold Horner, it boasts over 400 illustrations and many different types of maps. The study range includes maps from the vast array of printed maps produced by the Ordnance Survey (OS) of Ireland to less familiar types such as the manuscript OS “fair plans”, marine charts, maps for new roads and for telecommunications, and the hundreds of maps commissioned for the landlords that once owned most of south Kerry. Some of these maps were never printed and exist only as one or two copies, and some are held in places far away from Kerry, in Dublin, Belfast and England.

The earliest map showing south Kerry in some detail was made by Robert Lythe, an English map-maker, in the early 1570s. He travelled through the area with special safe conduct passes. As well as working on the land, he mapped from the sea, voyaging in a large pinnace along the Cork and Kerry coast from Kinsale to Dingle. He then took what appears to have been a small curragh (“a leather boat”) to further explore the coast from Dingle and to investigate along the Kenmare River.

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Other early maps featuring in this publication include the unusual ones made in the late 1590s to highlight the freeholders’ landholdings as they were distributed across the lands formerly dominated by the MacCarthy Mór (who had died in 1596), along with a review of the maps linked to the Down Survey of the mid-1650s and the much less well-known sketch charts made 20 years earlier by the English sea captain, William Brooke. These charts focus on Valentia, Ballinskelligs Bay and the Kenmare River. Among other features the charts identify the scene of a dramatic ambush of a pirate vessel at Valentia and the location of an early ironworks on the Kenmare River.

The landlord maps under review range across a large number of 18th- and 19th-century examples from the Lansdowne, Kenmare, Trinity College and other estates. The areas around Killarney, Kenmare and Cahersiveen are therefore covered in some detail. The Kenmare estate maps relate to an area that reached across over 100,000 statute acres, while the Lansdowne (formerly Petty) holdings in Kerry took in over 90,000 acres. Around 200 manuscript maps relating to the Kenmare estate are discussed or identified relating to the period 1700–1880. Among the earliest are 33 maps compiled from a survey made during the early 1720s. Later maps focus on individual townlands or on small groups of townlands.

Images showing Killarney town include picture views from the 1720s, maps tracing the subsequent development of the east avenue and maps of parts of the town in the early 19th century. Later maps from the 1840s depict the site used for Killarney Cathedral and also show the projected line of the proposed railway across the east avenue.

Mapping South Kerry focuses not just on the past but also the present, with historical coverage extending right up to today. Considerable attention is given to the various scales of maps and town plans associated with the OS and the Valuation Office. However, the coverage extends also to the wide range of thematic maps that relate to south Kerry, for example, maps dealing with tourism, geology, bog development, the Irish language and the spread of telecommunications.

Historic map of Sneem area of Co. Kerry, showing bogs along the Kenmare River, produced by Alexander Nimmo in 1812.
Sneem area, as shown on part of the printed map of the bogs along the Kenmare River, produced by Alexander Nimmo in 1812 (courtesy of Arnold Horner).

The mid-20th-century maps under review include the marine charts of the Skelligs coastal area that could have been used by German submarines during World War 2 and a map of the Cahersiveen/Valentia Island area that was printed with the Russian Cyrillic script and available to the Soviet Union military during the 1970s. The latter map is so up to date it shows that Valentia Bridge opened in 1971. Yet later maps reaching to the present include the ever-growing numbers produced by the local planning authority – maps which cover and provide background to the local development plans.

Map of part of Co. Kerry that was printed with Russian Cyrillic script and available to the Soviet Union during the 1970s.
The Soviet intelligence took on part of south Kerry in the mid-1970s (courtesy of Arnold Horner). This map records the recently built bridge to Valentia Island (1971).

Although it is structured around the development of mapping, Mapping South Kerry also offers a more general perspective on landscape history as it shows how maps have effectively recorded the changing landscape of south Kerry over more than four centuries. The development of the man-made environment is shown on maps and the publication dives into how placenames, boundaries, enclosure patterns, rural buildings, land use and nucleated settlements have evolved over time.

The author of this book, Dr Arnold Horner, has written extensively on the history of mapping in Ireland and on the history of mapping in Kerry. He has been a frequent visitor to the Cahersiveen/Glen areas of south Kerry for more than three decades. The present book is mainly the outcome of work undertaken since he retired from UCD in 2011.

Mapping South Kerry is available on the Wordwell website, where it is currently retailing at €50, and in all good bookshops.

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