Losing your head in Tir Connell

Sudden death in Donegal, or anywhere else in Ulster, has not been unusual down the years. And the sudden execution/assassination/murder of Englishmen continues to happen.

Richard Bartlett’s beheading in Donegal c.1603 may be one of the earliest examples of violent resistance to British colonial intrusions into Ulster. It was reported by a contemporary as follows: ‘Our geographers do not forget what entertainment the Irish of Tyrconnell gave to a mapmaker about the end of the late rebellion for one Barkeley [Bartlett] being appointed … to draw a true and perfect map of the north part of Ulster (the old maps of Tyrconnell being false and defective) when he came to Tyrconnell the inhabitants took off his head, because they would not have their country discovered’.

Surveyors and cartographers were the pioneers in colonial settlement in Ireland, as they were in America in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – their object being to ‘discover’ the country, to ‘capture’ its topographical secrets, its dimensions, names, physical features, to scale it and record them on paper. British colonial expansion was more often a product of the pen, measuring chain and theodolite, than ships, cannons and military might.

Bartlett produced iconic images of Ulster during the late sixteenth-century uprising in that province and his story and the context of his work has been told by John Andrews in his recently-published book, The Queen’s last map-maker: Richard Bartlett in Ireland, 1600-3, Geography Publications, 2009.

Andrews is the author of A Paper Landscape: the Ordnance Survey in nineteenth-century Ireland (1975 and 2001), which Brian Friel claimed was the inspiration for his brilliant play Translations – about another ‘colonial’ cartographic enterprise in Donegal and Ireland. No one lost his head on that occasion, we think.

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