The first maps were not, as you might expect, of a pancake-flat earth or of a long-suffering elephant balancing the cosmos on its back. They were of the heavens.
Dots dating to 15,500 BC that were found on the walls of the Lascaux Caves in France trace a part of the night sky, including the three bright stars Vegas, Deneb, and Altair, otherwise known as the Summer Triangle.
Humankind has always had a deep-rooted urge to give shape and form to the gradually emerging world around them. As explorers brought back fabulous tales of strange lands and wealth, they charted — and jealously guarded — the routes they had taken.
The Babylonian World Map, dating to 500 BC, is the earliest surviving map of the world. But it is a symbolic, rather than a literal representation, which deliberately omits peoples such as the Persians and Egyptians, even though they were well known to the Babylonians.
A vital contribution to mapping came with a scientific estimate of the circumference of the earth.
Despite these advances, though, the world was still largely unknown and a deeply mysterious place where, if you travelled far enough, you might sail off the edge of the known universe.
In areas where the cartographer had no idea of what was there, the legend “here there be dragons” sometimes signified this complete lack of knowledge.
The first maps of Ireland were drawn up based on the charts and diaries created by sailors from Greece, Rome, and other parts of the Mediterranean. And so, not surprisingly, they were not all that accurate.
However, as explorers and traders visited Ireland more often, the maps of the coast improved significantly, and the blank spaces were filled in. But this process was slow, and some areas of Connaught were inaccurately mapped until the late Middle Ages.
Ireland featured in Ptolemy’s description of the world, written in 120AD. Maps featuring Ireland and based on his writings were created in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
One summer a couple of years ago, I visited the Hereford Cathedral, where the famous Mappa Mundi is housed. It is a fact that many of these early maps are strangely lovely to look at and the Mappa Mundi is no exception. It dates back to 1285 and is the largest medieval map known to still exist.
So having to queue up for a good while and finally view this extraordinary document in very low light in order to preserve it was understandable.
But for many years it hung on the wall of the choir aisle of the cathedral and then, as times became troubled, the map was buried beneath the floor of the Bishop’s Chantry, where it remained for years. In 1988, a financial crisis caused the Dean to propose selling the famous Mappa Mundi.Donations from the public and the Heritage Memorial Fund kept it safe.
Maps, with their air of exoticism and redolent as they are of parts and peoples unknown, have always had a strong attraction. And one Castletowne man has recently introduced a unique insight into the world beneath the waves with his hand crafted wooden charts.
Cian Murphy told me how his love of the sea prompted this ingenious new business.
My background is in marine engineering and, of course, I grew up in Castletownbere, so the sea has always been an important part of my life. I was on a working trip to the States a few years ago and I came across a shop that sold maps of the coastline, which used one layer for the ocean and one for the land, and this is what gave me the idea. When I came back to Ireland, I was looking for something different to do and I decided to combine my love of woodwork with my love of the sea.
I had great help from the West Cork Enterprise Board, because I didn’t have a clue about business at the time. I went on a Start Your Own Business course, and bought the equipment last April. Lucky for me, my brother is a cabinet-maker and I was able to persuade him to join me. So now we do everything in- house. The charts are individually crafted from Baltic birch, with the ocean floor hand-coloured blue to create a striking contrast between land and sea.”
Yes, we use bathymetric charts which are the underwater equivalent of a topographic map. They lift back the surface of the water, exposing the often overlooked and awe-inspiring world that lies below. We provide charts of Cork Harbour, Dublin Bay, Roches Point, the Aran Islands. Major roads and landmarks are etched into the land and the maps can be personalised for a special one-of-a- kind gift. They are a real talking point and can feature a special hideaway, a holiday home, or a place of engagement. Recently we made a map for a guy who had just got engaged at Roche’s Point. He and his fiancée were both into the sea big time and he got the exact latitude and longitude of where they were standing when he proposed, then just had us add a tiny heart. He gave it to her as an engagement present.
It’s going really well. We worked right up until Christmas Eve to fulfil our orders and we’re very happy. This week we are off to an international event at the RDS for Irish gift makers. We’re taking some of our maps and a special table my brother made with a chart set into it.
It’s a beautiful piece. I have to say, this doesn’t feel like a job at all. We never watch the clock. And whenever I feel as if my head’s fried, we have a play with the off-cuts, make lamps, chopping boards, and a series of wedding gifts.
Our company, Chart Datum, is the only company in Europe to craft wooden charts that feature Ireland’s major ports and harbours.