Official Maps and Community Mapping

Community Mapping and Spatial Justice

As part of our M.A. in Spatial Justice, Maynooth geographers have worked with various civil society stakeholders and this has pushed the teaching and research of Maynooth geographers in novel directions, both in terms of topics and methodology. One of our most important contexts for learning has been in partnership with the Pavee Point Roma and Traveller Centre over the past four years. Our first collaboration was to create a digital StoryMap with Pavee Roads Home (PRH), a project that explored Traveller culture and heritage by documenting Traveller places and stories, and ‘the important role Travellers have played in Irish history’. Following their research, PRH collaborated with the MA in Spatial Justice at Maynooth Geography, initially through the collaboration of Michael Collins and Andy O’Hara, of the Pavee Point Men’s Health Team, and Professor Karen Till, Dr Rachel McArdle and Dr Sasha Brown, with support from Dr Cahalane and Professor Gerry Kearns. We worked closely to create two maps, including a map with stories of former stopping sites along a route in Edenderry, with images and audio clips of stories shared by Travellers of different generations. Students were trained in ethical and respectful working relations by community worker, activist and writer Dr Rosaleen McDonaugh and artist Séamus Nolan, and the feminist ethnographic practice of Karen Till directed the attention of the Maynooth geographers to ways we could learn from local experts. Dr Rachel McArdle guided MA students through a class on ‘Public Engagement’, and the technical skill and creativity of Dr Sasha Brown introduced the group to the possibilities of the Story Map software.

As a result of this collaboration, Maynooth Geography partnered with Pavee Point to develop a new Coolock Travellers Community Mapping Project. A large, colourful wooden community map that was created in 2022 as a result of many mapping workshops was a highlight of Culture Night at Pavee Point last month; it will be on exhibit again at Maynooth University Library during international GeoWeek, 14-18 November 2022. The digital StoryMap version of the project will launch in an Athena Swan Geography Seminar on 17 November. The maps depict Travellers’ intergenerational stories about the places where they feel they belong in Coolock and places where they do not, and why.

During pilot mapping workshops, the team found that many of the most significant places and placenames the Traveller researchers identified in Coolock were not located on ‘regular’ political maps or online maps (such as Google Maps). As part of this interrogation, this blog describes three central features of official colonial mapping in Ireland — property, names, and addresses — that have marginalised certain groups. The blog then sets out how community mapping projects develop alternative perspectives for understanding space and society through an anti-colonial geographical lens.

Official Maps in Ireland

Official mapping in Ireland comprehends three colonial administrative projects of control, and of related marginalisation. These are the projects of property, place names, and addresses.


In Map-making, Landscape and Memory: A Geography of Colonial and Early Modern Ireland c. 1530–1750, his brilliant account of plantation in Ireland, Willie Smyth shows how integral was the making of maps to the taking of lands from Irish communities and its conversion into property available for ownership and settlement first by English and later by British colonists. [1] One set of these maps, popularly known as the Down Survey, was produced after the invasion directed by Cromwell in 1649–53. The precise death toll from this campaign is a matter for informed speculation but the burning of crops and the slaughter of resisting communities were key parts of a campaign of state-directed terror which perhaps left one-fifth of the Irish population dead. The invading army was rewarded out of the lands confiscated from those Irish judged to have been in rebellion. The Down Survey (1655–8) was a sort of real-estate prospectus, intended to whet the appetites of potential colonial settlers and investors. For the confiscated lands, it provided maps and accompanying descriptions of local resources; noting soil quality, habitations, mills, minerals, woodlands, and so on. Micheál Ó Siochrú and colleagues have collected and published the surviving maps and texts of the Down Survey. [2] This is a magnificent achievement and we can now follow the way Irish land was made over into English property. For example, here is an extract that shows some of the lands around Coolock in north Dublin.

This is an extract from the Down Survey maps and shows lands around Coolock

An Extract from the Down Survey map of the barony of Coolock, c.1658. Source:

In considering land as property such maps highlight social relations that rest upon privatised exchange value and occlude all social relations that rest upon shared use values. People who made use of resources at various times of the year without excluding others from sharing them at other times are nowhere to be seen on maps of landowning; nor are the people who worked, as labourers or tenants, on farms that they did not own.


The Down Survey expresses the top-down spatial logic of the state. The country is divided into provinces, and these into counties, and these into baronies, and these into parishes. This nested structure is an example of territoriality, which Bob Sack explains as controlling people by exerting control over the spaces in which they live. [3] However, there was also a rather different geography based on local attachments. It remained in the townlands that ended up gathered into sets as parishes. These are, as Paddy Duffy shows, the indestructible molecules of Irish social life stretching back a millennium to a society organised around familial and clan lands. [4] Until the recent past, they were there on official maps as polygons, although shorn of their ancient names, which of course were Irish. These names were the intimate repositories of local history and as place-name poetry (dinnseanchas) served as mnemonics reaching to the legends from time out of mind. This history was rendered inaccessible when people lost their Irish language. The official maps set the seal on this loss when they recorded English-language names for all the places they were mapping. Through their Geohive platform, the Ordnance Survey of Ireland has very helpfully put these historic maps online as layers on top of modern maps and aerial photographs. [5]

An extract from the Ordnance Survey six-inch to the mile map, c. 1838; Source:

The linguistic violence of the Ordnance Survey was, as Cóilín Parsons shows, registered in the 1830s in the magical poetry of James Clarence Mangan. [6] More recently the story has been told again in Brian Friel’s Translations. [7] Tim Robinson mounted his own resistance to this linguistic violence with maps that restore a profusion of names for fields, lands, memorial stones, and watercourses. [8] The official map rendered Irish places knowable to English speakers but to do this it had to estrange Irish speakers from their own home and their own history. The Ordnance Survey anticipated a dissolution of the tie between the Irish language and its Irish landscape, and thus for many Irish residents it alienated them from a continuous tradition of legend, poem, and familial history. Academic works of recovery, such as the scholarship of the Locus research group at University College Cork, and of the Irish Placenames Archive developed by scholars at Gaois, Fiontar & Scoil na Gaeilge (Dublin City University), preserve for us at least some of what seemed lost when the Ordnance Survey decided that we should live in a monoglot English world. [9]


Modern Geographic Information Science (GIS) promises new ways of mapping and new interfaces, particularly through the ubiquitous mobile phone. As a central part of law and order surveillance, an address assumes people have a fixed abode. If people have an official residence, be it as Eircode or a street address, then, their movements away from it can be queried as to its purpose. During Covid, people travelling beyond the prescribed distance from their homes carried various documents to explain and justify their movement to the police. People may be asked by officials of the state to produce their papers, and then to account for their absence from home and their presence instead at whatever flashpoint is being monitored.

Many public services are provided to catchments; from schools to healthcare. This depends upon the home address as a basic element of citizenship. Other private services require the same; from the proof of address required to open a bank account to the internet shopping that is delivered to that same address.

John Locke (1632–1704) made sedentary life and property the core of his account of modern civilisation. Indeed, without sedentarism there could not be property and, for Locke, this alone justified colonialism since the colonists were merely taking up land that was not being used. [10] ‘Civilised’ people, he implied, stay put and improve nature. There is a project of colonial modernity that works through property, naming and sedentarism. This is the work of the official map.

The Margins and the Official Map

In sum, then, the top-down mapping exercises of official maps marginalise in at least three ways. By serving property, maps marginalise the propertyless, that is the poor, the dispossessed, and those who survive on the basis of shared collective rights. By having an official language in a world of multiple languages, the official map marginalises those who do not find their naming practices shown on the map. There is, then, a subaltern world of Irish-speakers alienated from the names on the map. Finally, mapping and the geographical basis of citizenship presume that people have a fixed abode. This marginalises the homeless and the non-settled. In the case of Ireland, these exclusions have been reinforced by a colonial mindset and its legacies that justified the official hierarchy as a civilising example in barbarous places.

Community Mapping

Community mapping, then, undoes or ignores some of the directives of official maps and the colonial legacies of marginalisation. It is a bottom-up practice relying upon local experts rather than being directed by experts from the central state. It focuses upon the lived places of experience rather than projecting abstract spaces of property or surveillance. Academics can have a support role in such ventures, lending technical skills or securing access to research funds that can aid the local science and its promotion in publications. Beyond this, the work of serving a community that is exploring its geographical stories through mapping is a valuable learning experience for academics and students, tied to anti-colonial and decolonial geographical practice. [11] Furthermore, the cultures of resistance that sit in places and are expressed in caring for those places, what Karen Till has called a ‘place-based ethics of care’, offer ways of thinking about more just futures that do not rely upon the violence of the official map. [12] Caring for these places might involve collecting and preserving stories about the ways that people have made communities to aid their own flourishing, and this is what the Travellers of Coolock have done with their community mapping project, and Maynooth Geographers are proud of their contribution to this project.

Gerry Kearns, 25 October 2022


[1] William J. Smyth, Map-making, Landscape and Memory: A Geography of Colonial and Early Modern Ireland c. 1530–1750 (Cork: Cork University Press, 2016).

[2] The Down Survey of Ireland,

[3] Robert D. Sack, Human Territoriality: Its Theory and History (Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

[4] Patrick Duffy, ‘Townlands: Territorial Signatures of Landholding and Identity,’ Brian S. Turner (ed.), The Heart’s Townland: Marking Boundaries in Ulster (Downpatrick: Ulster Local History Trust, 2004) 18–38.

[5] Geohive Mapviewer,

[6] Cóilín Parsons, The Ordnance Survey and Modern Irish Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[7] Brian Friel, Translations (London: Faber and Faber, 1981).

[8] Derek Gladwin and Christine Cusick (eds), Unfolding Irish Landscapes: Tim Robinson, Culture and Environment (Manchester UK: Manchester University Press, 2016).

[9] The Locus Project, University College Cork,; Placenames Database of Ireland, Dublin City University,

[10] Barbara Arneil, John Locke and America: The Defence of English Colonialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).

[11] Gerry Kearns and David Nally, ‘An Accumulated Wrong: Roger Casement and the Anticolonial Moments within Imperial Governance,’ Journal of Historical Geography 64 (2019) 1-12,; Michelle Daigle and Margaret Marietta Ramiréz, ‘Decolonial Geographies,’ in Antipode Editorial Collective (ed.), Keywords in Radical Geography: Antipode at 50, Chapter 14 (2019). Wiley Online:

[12] Karen E. Till, ‘Wounded Cities: Memory-work and a Place-based Ethics of Care,’ Political Geography 31:1 (2012) 3–14.


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