by jdurney on February 12, 2011

The enduring fascination of maps and map-making

New book: If Maps Could Speak by Richard Kirwan.

Brian Friel’s groundbreaking play Translations, on the theme of the Ordnance Survery in Ireland, was premièred thirty years ago last month, Friel commented on of If Maps Could Speak:
‘Richard Kirwan’s splendid book and Mark Patrick Hederman’s lucid foreword deal with this business of the ordnance survey so engagingly and so efficiently and so comprehensively that they make fictions like Translations altogether superfluous…if maps could speak is a wonderful contribution to this entire study and I’ve no doubt Lancey, Colby and O’Donovan in their unmapped and unnamed abode all approve wholeheartedly.’
In If Maps Could Speak, Richard Kirwan, a former director of Ordnance Survey Ireland, takes the reader behind the scenes into the minds and work of the early map-makers with accounts of their inventions, adventures, endurance and heroism in pre-famine Ireland. Their struggles and achievements are counterpointed by the successful efforts of these to bring the mapping of Ireland up to date with the help of photographic and computer technology in the final decades of the twentieth century.
This is also the story of a boy, brought up in Waterford, who loved the lines and boundaries on maps and got to know his city and its surrounds, its physical characteristics and its people in the company of a loving father and grandfather.
Although Richard Kirwan lost his father when still a young teenager he never lost his affection for the old maps and the people who created them – both map-makers like the first director of Ordnance Survey, the great Thomas Colby, whose achievements are felt throughout the book as a kind of inspiration, and the people of Ireland who gave the maps their placenames, their boundaries and their memories. Throughout If Maps Could Speak, the author writes honestly about his professional and personal struggles and in the final section, ‘The Two cartographers’, provides a fascinating reflection on the differences between the old kind of map-making and the new, both of which served Ireland well. If Maps Could Speak is an engaging combination of memoir, history and stories about people and places.
Richard Kirwan was born in Waterford and qualified as a civil engineer at University College, Cork. he was director of the OS from 1996 until he retired in 2006 and since then has worked as a consultant to international mapping agencies. He lives in West Dublin and Waterford.

If Maps Could Speak is published by Londubh Books at €14.99/£12.99.
Richard Kirwan is available for interview.

If you would like to arrange an interview, please email Jo O’Donoghue ( or telephone: 01-4903495/ 086-8568917.
Londubh Books, 18 Casimir Avenue, Harold’s Cross, Dublin 6W; Tel: 01-4903495/086-8568917; email;


The enduring fascination of maps and map-making in a new book: If Maps Could Speak by Richard Kirwan.

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