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Muiris De Buitleir, A Portrait of Dublin in Maps: History, Geography, People, Society.

Muiris De Buitleir, A Portrait of Dublin in Maps: History, Geography, People, Society (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 2013, 224 pp., 29.99[euro] hardback)

In this digital era of information overload, it might be imagined that the need for a printed atlas has been superceded. Surely, one could argue, the information is all available online. However, anyone who has trawled the internet in search of high quality, reliable information on Dublin will attest to the fact that this can be an extremely frustrating, time-consuming and often ultimately fruitless task. The beauty of this new atlas, A Portrait of Dublin in Maps, is that it carefully and coherently gathers together data on a wide range of topics in a format which allows for clear and direct comparison. There is much to be commended in this volume, which is clearly a labour of love on the part of its author.

The atlas is organised around seven themes: foundations, historical Dublin, physical structure and function, utilities and services, administrative areas, people and politics. Each theme is introduced with a commentary on the maps in that section, followed by the maps themselves. The number of maps in each section varies, ranging from just four, in the case of the 'foundations' section, to twenty-one, in the 'people' section. The particular aesthetic of this book and the maps which it contains may not be to everyone's taste. The maps follow the same general format, all covering a two-page spread, and have certain common characteristics, reflecting the fact that all were compiled and designed using the same proprietary GIS (geographic information systems) software. The nature of the layout, with the city area spread over two pages and with a clear white margin around each of the pages, can be a little disconcerting to the reader. The city doesn't appear as a whole, but as two halves. Nevertheless, general interest readers will enjoy dipping into this volume, seeing familiar locations in a new light, whether it be in relation to bedrock geology, residential building type, Irish language speakers, or third level education.

Urban dwellers often remain blithely unaware of the hidden workings of the city, and will be fascinated by the arterial drainage map showing the main sewers, and other images depicting the electricity and gas transmission networks. The various administrative boundaries used by major services are also gathered together here, so that one can examine successive maps documenting the location of Garda divisions, fire-brigade operational areas and catchment areas for the major accident and emergency hospitals, both Roman Catholic and Church of Ireland parishes, and postal districts. The discussion on this last map highlights the complexity of both the geography and nomenclature of city districts, as opposed to administrative areas, and the way in which names of city districts have grown organically over centuries. It points to the legal and political battles which have been fought in an attempt to influence postal district boundaries, leading to a situation whereby the postal authorities are now reticent about publishing a map of the postal districts or providing definite information regarding their boundaries.

Readers with a particular interest in economic and social history will find much to engage them. One of the attractions is the inclusion, in one place, of a range of different types of maps - from the historic maps of the city, including reproductions of Speed (1610), Brooking (1728), Rocque (1756) and the 1st edition Ordnance Survey six inch map (1837), to a depiction of the routes followed on Bloomsday, the major locations of the Easter Rising in 1916, the early twentieth-century tram and rail system, a map of urban growth from the medieval period to the year 2000 and another which indicates the location of all protected archaeological sites listed in the Record of Monuments and Places. The superimposition of a 500 metre grid on each map facilitates comparison of detail between the different historical maps, while the two eighteenth-century maps are also rectified to allow for distortion and overlaid with the outlines of the canals and the Phoenix Park in order to provide spatial context.

While many of the maps draw on existing information, some ingenuity has been displayed in the creation of maps of land use in the Central Business District and suburban land use nodes. The map which classifies Dublin's residential buildings according to house period, architectural style and type (i.e. whether detached, semi-detached etc.) is innovative in its approach, relying largely on virtual inspection using Google Street View, with an element of 'inspired guesswork'. It is a little disappointing that the atlas generally draws on the 2006 census for its census-derived maps, rather than the most recent 2011 data, although the latter is used to indicate population growth. However, this section is possibly most valuable for its explanation of the issues arising from choropleth mapping, rather than for the maps themselves. It explains how, 'unless great care is taken, the visual image can give a false impression of the reality', and explains the challenges in a detailed yet accessible way.

Disappointingly, some obvious errors mar the finished product. For example, the very first map, showing bedrock geology, requires the reader to look to the text for the key. When this is done, the reader discovers that the colour coding used on the map is not the same as that used in the key. The quality of reproduction of some images is poor. For example, the 'Dublin from space' NASA radar image is highly pixelated and might have been better omitted, while the reproduction of the 1837 OS map is not sharp enough to identify individual street names. These are issues that could be rectified in future editions, and should not be allowed to detract from the many positives of this volume.

In the current era of 'democratisation of mapping', there is much to be learned from someone who has dedicated their life to the production of high quality cartography. The author has worked as a surveyor, cartographer and geographical information systems manager in a range of contexts, and this knowledge and experience is to the fore in the explanations which accompany the maps in this volume. The general reader is taken 'behind the scenes' as it were, for a concise account of the necessity of geo-rectifying historic maps, an explanation of the dangers of the 'ecological fallacy' and a discussion of the decisions which must be made in order to produce a thematic (choropleth) map. In explaining this generally hidden world, the author has done a great service and, it is to be hoped, may help to educate others who do not always demonstrate the same level of care in their cartographic undertakings.

Ruth McManus

St Patrick's College, Drumcondra
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Author:McManus, Ruth
Publication:Irish Economic and Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2014
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