Maps combine art, history and geography but also commercial interests and can take on agendas as well. The Theatrum orbis terrarum [Theatre of the World] by Abraham Ortelius was a sublime combination of these and was the first effort to bind together maps in a universal format with descriptive text, what we now know as an atlas (the name atlas is used for a collection of maps or charts usually bound together and derives from a custom which was initiated by cartographer Gerardus Mercator in the 16th century of using the figure of Atlas, shown holding a globe, as a frontispiece for books of maps). We are fortunate in having a map of Ireland from the 1592 edition of the Theatrum in our collection but we also have some later maps of interest. 

To view the exhibitions click on the thumbnails below:

Ortelius’ Map of Ireland    Map of the Provinces of Connacht  Map of Ireland 'Hiberniae pars australis'  A New Map of Ireland by John Senex

Some features of maps

The information on the reverse of a map is often just as if not more important than that on the front (recto). We refer to the back of a map as en verso from the Latin 'inverso folio’, ('on the turned leaf') -  it is vital to examine this, as it may assist you in establishing the edition of a map along with other information such as the name of the cartographer, the engraver, the publisher and the year of publication.

Hand colouring describes colour that was applied contemporaneously, around the date of the publication of the map. The application could often be surprisingly crude. The term ‘outline hand colouring’ is used to refer to the use of just a basic line that indicates the coasts or borders of a county.

Many maps have cartouches, which is a feature on a map sometimes akin to an ornate frame that surrounds writing or an inscription (most commonly it is the title of the map and may include the name of the mapmaker).

Hatchures and hatchuring is a term used to refer to a form of shading used to represent steepness of slope and terrain on a map.

Copperplate engraving

Several of our maps were produced using a technique known as copperplate engraving.  The image of a map was engraved in reverse into a copper plate by hand using an engraving 'needle'. This engraved plate was then inked and handmade paper (made from mulched linen rags) was pressed onto it - this creates what is then called the forward image.

Copperplate engraved maps should always have a 'plate mark' which indicates a map is authentic - outside the map's border on all sides is a thin line that is rectangle in shape with rounded corners. There is almost always a very discernible indentation where the plate was pressed against the paper (and often a somewhat darker mark is present where the excess ink may not have been completely wiped off the metal).

Sometimes maps show evidence of a broken plate (where a corner of the map border is missing for instance or there is a dark line present, which suggests a crack in the copperplate).

Click here to access the Library online catalogue


Royal Irish Academy, Irish Historic Towns Atlas webpages  

Bunchar Logainmneacha na hÉireann/Placename Database of Ireland

GIS Applications in the Cartographic History of Ireland

British Library, Mapping History web pages

University of Wisconsin, The History of Cartography Project

The International Society for the History of the Map