I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

A pase around old Dublin


Why is a map of a city so evocative? It is, after all, in many ways a reductive representation, reducing the din, excitement and variety of the urban experience to a dry sketch, an outline plot, an aid to navigation or administration. It offers, maybe, an illusion of control: you gaze down at a city captured in its entirety, enjoying the bird’s eye view, as if you might swoop down into a park or street and bear off an exotic snack or trinket. For all its apparent dryness and strict functionality a map holds a pure appeal to the imagination. To look at a map of a city you don’t know is to inhabit it virtually, dreaming your way from Avenida 25 de Mayo to Avenida Scalabrini Ortiz, from Prinsengracht to Sarphatistraat or from the Riva degli Schiavoni to Piazza San Marco.

Technology has intensified this experience, so that we can test a city before we visit it, using Google’s street view to survey the restaurants near the hotel and scope out our evening stroll, swinging round through three hundred and sixty degrees like a prison governor at the centre of his panopticon to peer at windows, traffic lights and parked cars. It’s as if you could try on a segment of your life before submitting to the experience of it. In this sense technology robs cartography of some of its ancient magic, which for me also is a childhood magic. Maps are part of the unforgettable iconography of childhood, maps of imaginary lands, treasure islands, fabulous cities, maps of ancient Greece or Rome, maps of the underworld. Maps can be daunting or frightening. In a pub today a friend visiting from Japan pulled out a map of the Tokyo underground in Japanese, and we looked with a fascinated horror at the dense network of criss-crossing lines and the script of the station names.

However intriguing it is to look at a map of a place we might conceivably go to or where we are actually standing, to look at an old map of a city is more powerful, more evocative. You look down at the image of a place from which everybody who lived there has disappeared, every dog or prowling cat has crumbled to dust, every meal has been long forgotten, every conversation obliterated, and yet you are confronted everywhere with images of endurance: routes that have survived, streets and street names, churches and public buildings, the remains of old fortifications, the river meeting its estuary.

One of the iconic images of early Dublin is John Speed’s 1610 map. It’s the oldest existing map of the city, and this, certainly, is part of its appeal. It seems, when you look at it, to belong to an even earlier period. Surely the city must have been bigger than this, you think. As it turns out Speed’s map was based on a map completed in the 1570s by another English cartographer, Christopher Caxton, but there were probably few enough changes in the interim. The tiny city described in Speed’s map is still an essentially medieval town. You see the walled old town ‑ the area between St Audeon’s and the Castle, from the river to Patrick Street, with a few outcrops to the north, west and east. You can see the gate houses: Dame Gate, St Nicholas Gate, New Gate, Ormond’s Gate. Thomas Street stretches westward outside and to the south of it lie the lands and buildings of the dissolved monastery of St Thomas the Martyr. A single bridge crosses the Liffey, where the present Father Mathew bridge is, leading to the extensive settlement on the north of the river, although only three buildings are actually named on the map: St Michan’s Church, St Mary’s Abbey and The Inns or law courts. Standing in its distant suburb at the eastern edge of the map is “The Colledge”, the recently founded Trinity College – recently founded, that is, on the site of the confiscated Priory of All Hallows.

The city looks frail and vulnerable, as if it might collapse at any moment, or be swallowed up by a modest invasion party. You can well imagine the Ranelagh massacre in Easter Week 1209 when five hundred recent immigrants from Bristol were killed by “the Irish enemie”, and the annual municipal ritual that developed afterwards, with the citizens trooping out defiantly to the spot to commemorate Black Monday. Or, as your eye rakes over the few thoroughfares where everyone must have known everyone else, you can understand how the mayor was able to give his personal blessings to everyone who married in the city.

You could, if you had time, count the houses. If you attended a service in each of the fourteen Protestant churches named on the legend – Speed doesn’t show any Catholic places of worship – it probably wouldn’t detain you more than a day or two. The population of Dublin in 1610 wasn’t more than about ten thousand, which was about half of the figure for nearly three hundred years earlier. Historians estimate that there were twenty thousand people packed in to the city before the Black Death in 1348. The plague, and the successive plagues that followed it, halved the population and it took several centuries to recover. As recently as 1575, a plague had killed a third of the population:

Grass grew in the streets and in the church doorways, those who could fled the city, and the mayor and sheriffs held their courts in Glassmanogue. The garden of All Saints was set apart for the sick, a great gate was erected and a guard set to prevent escapes. As a deterrent against concealment of the malady it was proclaimed that any inhabitant failing to give notice of the outbreak would, on detection, be liable to imprisonment for eighty days, have his premises closed for the same period, and then be banished from the city forever.

Speed’s map shows Dublin poised between the middle ages and early modernity. By 1700 there would be sixty thousand in a much expanded city and by the end of the following century the population would have reached almost a quarter of a million, making it the largest city in the British empire after London.

But that’s all in the future as we contemplate the toytown map of 1610. Part of its power is that the city it shows us is still so recognisable, that the old city persists inside the skin of the new. It’s not a particularly accurate map – some of the streets are too wide, simply to get the names in, some of the names are wrong, and it seriously underestimates the actual number of buildings in the city. But the street names have almost all survived; the streets and the roads in and out of the city are still there. The cathedrals are there, the Castle is there, some segments of the wall are still visible. The medieval core of Dublin is very much present in the current layout of the city; it is simply that the city has grown and expanded in all directions around it. The names, though, have a particular magic, and probably the more so since they are such a dominant feature of the map as we know it. This is because the legend is printed on the map, covering a good deal of its right hand side, so that your eyes are drawn as much to the names as to the buildings and the ships sailing right into the heart of the city. S Mihans church; S Maryes Abbey; The Bridge; Wood Key; Marchants Key; The Castel; White friers; Schoolhouse Lane; Christchurch; S Warbers Street; The Come; S Francis Street; St Patrick’s church. . . And of course DUBLINE itself, suspended with a decorative flourish over Oxmantown.

This effect, it turns out, was not intended by Speed. The map I’m squinting at in the City Archive, though not identified as such, is a poor photocopy of a nineteenth century reprint of a much later edition, the version produced in 1780 by Robert Pool and John Marsh, who published it alongside a plan of the city in 1780. This, in turn, was copied from a version published in the Dublin Magazine in 1762. Many hands have busied themselves with this view of the city. Even if he may not himself have tested it, the map bears the characteristic box in the bottom left corner showing “A scale of pases”. A scale of paces seems a particularly attractive measurement for a city map. A pace was five feet, which is a serious stretch, and the scale of his Dublin map is 3.5cm to 200 paces.

Of the sixty-nine numbered features on the map seventeen are churches, the rest are public or municipal buildings, defences and individual streets. This is the nature of maps, to pluck out the worthy urban symbols which collectively form a notion of the city. “Maps, once made, / leave the impression of a place gone dead”, as the Scottish poet Alastair Reid has it. You want to know where and how everyone lived, you want to see the timber and wattle of ordinary houses, the racks of wine outside the vintner’s, the loaves of bread stamped as the law required with the baker’s own mark, the food sellers of Cook Street, but the citizens have removed themselves and their doings from the cartographer’s eye. The city hides in its own image. I move my eyes from the legend to the numbers sprinkled on the map, eager for the comfort of recognisable streets. There’s Skinners Row, where I lived for several years, though today it’s called Christchurch Place. Christ Church itself is barely standing, and down the road the Tholsel, the city hall, just about holds itself up. The south wall and roof of Christ Church had collapsed in 1562, and the nave vaulting of St Patrick’s had gone in 1554. The city is a set, a performance, lying quiet in its moment, its throng and bustle whitened out. Dublin, in fact, was still dusting itself down after the Great Explosion of 1597, when a huge cargo of gunpowder shipped in from the Tower of London to quell the rebellious Irish under Hugh O’Neill ignited as it was being winched onto the quays. Colm Lennon has given a vivid account of it:

The clock over the Bridge Gate had just chimed the hour of one o’clock as the sling of the crane swung four barrels towards the quay.
Suddenly, a blinding flash and a thunderous roar occurred and the scene was one of devastation. A smoking crater beside the crane denoted the place where the 140 barrels of gunpowder had been stacked. The crane and cranehouse had been obliterated. Everywhere there were strewn shattered bodies and parts thereof. Many of the stout cage-work houses of the merchant patricians which had proudly fronted the river were flattened or almost totally ruinous. Back from the Liffey in the maze of streets and lanes of the town venerable buildings and churches as well as private houses were displaying signs of the blast. An eerie stillness lay over the zone where the explosion had centred, broken then by the shouts and alarms of those who came to rescue and inspect.

The explosion left 126 dead, of whom seventy-six were citizens and fifty “strangers”. The dead included the craner, Stephen Sedgrave, his wife and three of their children, who lived at the Cranehouse. Between twenty and forty houses were destroyed by the blast. In the investigation which followed it transpired that industrial unrest was one of the causes of the explosion – there had been a strike of carters and porters resentful of their treatment and poor wages. A sorry tale emerged of intimidation and exploitation of labourers by John Allen, a royal official, who for his part had gone off “to drink a pot of ale” when the explosion happened. Allen was tried and imprisoned for his role. There’s a very contemporary feel to the account – it’s like opening up the paper and reading about Polish or Latvian workers being badly treated on the Dublin building sites of today. These labourers were necessary to the economy of the city but kept at arm’s length and, except in exceptional circumstances, kept off the record.

The explosion placed a heavy burden on an already cash-strapped city and the Corporation had to mortgage civic lands to finance rebuilding and to import Dutch engineers to rebuild the cranehouse. The city had at this time hardly recovered from the effects of the Nine Years’ War, during which thousands of British soldiers were billeted with the citizens, who were obliged to feed them and put up with all the attendant inconvenience and disease. Speed’s map shows gaps in the houses of Wood Quay and Winetavern Street, which Colm Lennon surmises might well be explosion damage. If maps would talk, this one would surely unleash a torrent of oaths.

There’s something familiar too about the glumness of the city. Looking at the map, and reading the account of the explosion and its effects, is very like revisiting the Dublin of the 1980s, with its derelict quays and grand streets interrupted with wastelands or desolate car parks. Cities repeat the same kind of histories again and again – if we were to transplant an alderman from Speed’s Dublin into the current council chamber he might not find himself entirely bewildered.

Those gaps in the 1610 map might be an argument for Speed’s actual presence in the city. No one can say whether the most famous mapmaker of his day actually came to Dublin or not. It doesn’t seem likely. His involvement in many, if not most, of his maps, was as cartographic editor, enhancer. The Dublin map was part of his greatest work, the Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain, published in 1612. The Theatre was the atlas that accompanied his History of Great Britain but it’s as a mapmaker rather than a historian that he is remembered. His maps were quite consciously based on the work of others – he claimed himself in the introduction to the Theatre (a facsimile of which is in the Map Library in Trinity College) that he only personally mapped two towns: “it may be obiected that I have put my sickle into other mens corne, and have laid my building upon other mens foundations”.

Mapmakers don’t suffer from anxiety of influence, but happily walk, or edit, the spaces where others have gone before. Speed was an organiser and synthesiser whose work served very useful administrative and political purposes. One of the maps included in the atlas is “The Kingdome Of Great Britain And Ireland”, showing the unity of the two islands under one crown as if inevitably ordained. The left of the map carries drawings of Irish gentlemen and gentlewomen, but there’s also a wild Irish man with his mantle and spear as if to suggest the idyll might be interrupted.

It was precisely the political uses of cartography that ensured the patronage that made the work possible. Speed’s map wasn’t part of a Rough Guide to Dublin for seventeenth century tourists but part of an assertion of political control. Every empire needs it maps, and its mapmakers. In a country as yet incompletely mapped, it was all too easy for the natives to conceal themselves, as Edmund Spenser noted: “a flying enemye hiding him self in woodes and bogges from whence he will not draw forth but into some streighte passage or perilous forde wheare he knowes the Armie must nedes passe”. Speed wasn’t a wealthy man, and his path to mapmaking was actually quite unlikely. This, for me, is one of the interesting things about him. He began as a tailor, in Cheshire, and continued in that profession when, at the age of thirty, he came to London in 1552. Maybe the intensity and spectacle of the city sparked his interest in history, or maybe it was the turbulence of recent English history. This was, after all, one of the most dramatic periods of English history. The Wars of the Roses were a recent memory, and the effects of the Reformation and Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries were still felt.

Speed, though, overlooked the troublesome recent past in favour of ancient history. His first work of mapmaking was a four-sheet map of Biblical Canaan, which was published in 1585, and it was shortly after this that he came to the attention of the nobleman Fulke Greville ‑ later treasurer of the navy and chancellor of the exchequer, and created Baron Brooke by James I. Greville got Speed a sinecure in the customs service which let him get on with his real passion and he also put him up for membership of the Society of Antiquaries, whose members included the greatest scholars of the day, the likes of William Camden, Robert Cotton and William Smith, all of whom made a contribution to Speed’s work.

It seems entirely appropriate that Speed should have been liberated into his true work by a man who also harboured a private passion. Fulke Greville is one of the most interesting English poets of his time, but pretty much everything he wrote was published posthumously. He’s best known today for his poem-cycle Caelica, a complex meditation on love that is a triumph of a hard-edged plain style and one of the greatest poetic works of the sixteenth century. Here’s one poem from it, where poetry and cartography might be said to intersect:

Whoever sails near to Bermuda coast,
Goes hard aboard the monarchy of fear,
Where all desires but life’s desire are lost,
For wealth and fame put off their glories there.

….Yet this isle poison-like, by mischief known,
Weans not desire from her sweet nurse, the sea;
But unseen shows us where our hopes be sown,
With woeful signs declaring joyful way.
For who will seek the wealth of western sun,
Oft by Bermuda’s mistress must run.

Who seeks the god of love, in beauty’s sky,
Must pass the empire of confused passion,
Where our desires to all but horrors die,
Before that joy and peace can take their fashion.

Yet this fair heaven, that yields this soul-despair,
Weans not the heart from his sweet god, Affection,
But rather shows us what sweet joys are there,
Where constancy is servant to perfection.
Who Caelica’s chaste heart then seeks to move,
Must joy to suffer all the woes of love.

Caelica, LIX

Greville’s public career was an unending arc of success: knighthood, peerage, the grant by James I of Warwick Castle and Knowle Court. Yet he came to a bizarre end, stabbed in his seventies by an aggrieved servant and dying in agony four weeks later. After stabbing Greville, the servant, a man called Ralph Heywood, killed himself with the same knife. Greville was buried in St Mary’s Church in Warwick ‑ the grave is still there ‑ with the epitaph he composed himself: “Folk Grevill Servant to Queene Elizabeth Conceller to King James Frend to Sir Philip Sidney. Trophaeum Peccati.” He had known the poet and courtier Sidney, “the flower of chivalry”, since his schooldays in Shrewsbury and the two were close friends. He encouraged Greville as a poet, and also the young Edmund Spenser, whose knowledge of Ireland would soon be more intimate than Speed’s. I briefly indulge myself in plotting a novel in which Greville and John Speed visit Spenser in his estate in Co Cork, maybe working in his neighbour Walter Raleigh. Speed maps the estate while Spenser puts the final touches to his genocidal A View of the Present State of Ireland …

Greville was badly shaken by Sidney’s death at the hands of the Spanish at the Battle of Zutphen, and he wrote both an elegy and an account of his life. His own epitaph doesn’t mention himself as a poet, which gives some idea of his cast of mind. It’s as if he’s an accomplice in his own oblivion. Or maybe he knew that poetry, like murder, will eventually out, and didn’t require a monumental push. Not the least attractive aspect of the poetry is that he starts off unremarkably enough, sounding pretty much like his Elizabethan contemporaries poet, but goes on plugging away at it in what leisure his courtly activities afforded him, getting better all the time, and finally becoming a real and unforgettable poet in his plain style laced with a grave wit.

As for John Speed, he lived one year longer than Greville, dying in 1629. The two were almost exactly contemporaneous and lived almost the same generous span of life. He is buried with his wife in St Giles-without-Cripplegate in the City of London. His bust is in the church, lucky to have survived the bombing in 1940 when the building was showered with so many incendiary bombs that even the cement caught fire. The connection with tailoring was never entirely lost, for the cast for the niche in which the bust is placed was provided by the Merchant Taylors’ Company, of which John Speed remained a member. The Speeds had eighteen children, and I learn from the St Giles-without-Cripplegate website that a few years ago two of his descendants from America, William and James, visited the church. I wonder if any of them are cartographers, or if they’ve been to Dublin.