The Irish Times carried a story this morning about a 500 year old map of Ireland which has come to light. Drawn by the Venetian cartographer Grazioso Benincasa in 1468 it the first known map to depict Ireland without Britain. It also gives a unique insight into Ireland in the 15th century. While I have only seen poor quality images online these are some thoughts.
The map expert at the Christie’s auction house Julian Wilson contextualised the map by stating travel to Ireland in this period was “the equivalent of space exploration”. This is grossly incorrect and would appear to based on lazy stereotyping rather than historical fact.
To understand the map we need to understand Ireland’s position in Europe at the time. Long before the Norman conquest of the 1170s there was regular contact between Ireland and the continent. The Roman Ptolemy famously drew a map of the island over a thousand years before this map was drawn. After the Norman conquest contact through trade and politics increased dramatically. New Ross was among the busiest ports in north western Europe by the late 13th century. Genoese and Venetian merchants frequently traded in Ireland, while the famous banking house – the Riccardi of Lucca had operations in Ireland as well.
Bearing this in mind the map gives a good insight into how Europeans, already in regular contact with Ireland, viewed the island. It appears from the map they had limited contact or perhaps interest in the Gaelic Irish Lordships in the west of the island. Presumably designed to aid traders the map focuses on territories in the east with infrastructure such as ports and a high density of walled towns.
This can be seen in the only two rivers marked – the Barrow and the Nore in the south east- the largest river in Ireland – the Shannon is not marked. These two rivers reflect the military, economic and political power of the Earls of Ormond. Their lordship centred around modern counties of Kilkenny and Tipperary was serviced by these rivers. In general knowledge it can be said the cartographer’s knowledge or interest was limited to areas under greater English influence – there are dozens of coastal settlements marked along the east coast facing England and south, facing the continent.
In comparison appears the cartographer Grazioso Benincasa had little knowledge (or again maybe its just a lack of interest) in territory west of a line between Belfast and Limerick. There are only a few settlements marked in these regions. Connacht once ruled by the Norman Burke family was almost completely Gaelicised by the 1460s. This process which gained pace after the assassination of the 3rd Earl of 1Ulster in 1333 saw the influence of the English crown disintegrate in the region.
The one-time Norman colonisers quickly became ‘as Irish as the Irish themselves’ orientating themselves towards Gaelic Ireland rather than the weakening English presence. This change in orientation is reflected in the map. North of Connacht, it appears the cartographer took little interest in or had knowledge of Western Ulster. This region was the heartland of the powerful Gaelic O’Neill family and had never been conquered by the Normans.
The limited interest in or knowledge of Gaelic controlled areas may reflect the lack of trading infrastructure but also perhaps the prevailing views in England and the continent that depicted the Gaelic Irish as barbaric.
While knowledge of Gaelic Ireland appears to have been limited there is an interesting exception. Clue Bay in Connacht is incorrectly marked as the largest bay in Ireland with its islands shaded in blue and red. The bay is known for its dozens of Islands and this knowledge may point to it being trading point where continental merchants traded with the region.
Finally according to the Irish Times Dublin is not clearly identified. This is not that surprising. It would be a fair assumption that the town was not viewed as terribly important by Grazioso Benincasa. This should not come as a surprise. As early as the 14th century the city’s port had silted up and mariners were using the surrounding ports to offload goods.
EDIT: There is a hi-res version of the map here. It is not clear where the ambiguity about Dublin in the Irish Times came from. The city is clearly the settlement marked in the geographic. Thanks to Randolph Jones for sending in the link to the hi res version and pointing this out.
Sadly this map along with the others in this Atlas, will be sold at a Christies auction and may well pass into private hands. If you have €3 million lying around you could buy the National Library a nice Christmas gift!