More Maps: John Speed’s Depictions of Ireland

Today we’re taking a look at John Speed’s depictions of Ireland in his Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine, published in 1611/1612.  Speed (1552-1629), the best-known mapmaker of his era, included an overview of Ireland and maps of each province in his atlas.  As I described in a previous post, Speed used previously compiled sources to inform his atlas, but made the maps and other elements himself.

John Speed, Kingdome of Ireland - photo credit: British Library

John Speed, Kingdome of Ireland – photo credit: British Library

R. Dudley Edwards and Mary O’Dowd noted the importance of Speed’s maps in their Sources for Early Modern Irish History, 1534-1641, writing:

Among the most ambitious projects commissioned by a London bookseller in the early seventeenth century was John Speed’s Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain, which appeared in 1611.  Speed devoted special attention to Ireland for which he provided a general map of the country and separate provincial maps.  This gives him, in the opinion of J.H. Andrews, the claim to be, in the eyes of contemporaries, the author of the definitive map as known till the mid seventeenth century in Britain and abroad.  Speed’s work was based on some of the ‘regional surveys, especially in the north, as well as Mercator’s general map of 1595, and, less, happily, Boazio.’  His work included the first printed plans for the towns of Dublin, Cork, Galway and Limerick.  As Dr. Nuala Burke pointed out, Speed’s work was not necessarily up to date.  She considers, however, that Speed can be regarded as giving a ‘reasonably correct general impression of the actual early seventeenth century topography,’ though there can be errors in matters of detail.

While this was considered the definitive map of Ireland and its provinces for its time, there are biases and agendas at work in Speed’s depictions.  For England, Speed included detailed maps of each county, while for Ireland only went so far as the four provinces, showing that Ireland was less important than England or perhaps the importance of the provinces themselves for Ireland.

Jane Ohlmeyer notes in the introduction to her Political Thought in Seventeenth-Century Ireland: Kingdom or Colony that Speed was propagating specific, pro-monarchy and pro-English viewpoints through his maps.  She writes:

With the publication, in 1612, of John Speed’s Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine cartography took an even greater symbolic importance.  First, Speed’s maps, which promoted James VI and I as the imperial sovereign of all three kingdoms, were ‘designed to proclaim an ideological belief about his country, about the course of its history, and about its political system and destiny.’  Second, as J.H. Andrews has noted, the provincial (rather than the English county) format of his Irish maps  ‘deliberately relegated Ireland to second-class geographical status and no doubt reflected his assessment of contemporary interest in the country.’  Finally, Speed’s map – peppered with forts and other symbols of imperial power – highlighted English control over Ireland and helped to pave the way for plantation and other ‘civilising’ policies.  Speed’s image of Ireland as a conquered nation, ripe of civilization, was distributed throughout the known world (the Theatre became an international atlas in 1627).  Yet it was not until the 1650s that Ireland was systematically measured and accurately mapped.

John Speed, Ulster - photo credit: Cambridge University Library

John Speed, Ulster – photo credit: Cambridge University Library

For example, in his map of the Province of Ulster, Speed’s only accompanying image is that of the Fort at Enniskillen, highlighting English control over the north of Ireland in the years just before plantation.

John Speed, close up from the Kingdome of Ireland - photo credit: British Library

John Speed, close up from the Kingdome of Ireland – photo credit: British Library

Most striking are the images of the “wild” Irish on Speed’s larger map of Ireland.  Speed arranged depictions of the people of England, Scotland, and Ireland alongside his larger maps according to social class.  For Wales, he has a series of depictions of towns and cities.  In contrast to the English Countryman and Scottish Highlanders shown on the maps of those countries, the Irish map has a Gentleman and Gentlewoman, a “Civill” Irish Man and Woman, and finally, a “Wilde” Irish Man and Woman.  As Ohlmeyer asserts, “Speed’s illustrations, particularly his portrayal of the native Irish as ‘wild’ barbarians, reinforced ethnocentric attitudes, confirming the racial superiority of the English over the Irish.”

Above all, Speed’s maps reinforced English imperialistic views of Ireland in the seventeenth century, promoting a mission to civilize the “wild” Irish and the idea that only the English could harness the highest possible use of the Irish landscape.

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