For a high resolution image and PDF of this map click: Ortelius Map

Ortelius’ Map of Ireland


by Abraham Ortelius, (1527-1598), DCA00102

From the Dublin Castle Archival Material Collection, DCA


This is from the 1592 Latin edition of the Theatrum orbis terrarum [Theatre of the World] by the hugely influential and famous Flemish cartographer, geographer and publisher, Abraham Ortelius, (1527-1598). The Theatrum orbis terrarum was the first true atlas and despite being the most expensive book ever produced at the time, was hugely successful. From the original seventy maps in the first Latin edition of 1570, it went through many revised and expanded editions [in several languages] before Ortelius’ death in 1598; of the 7,300 copies produced over 31 editions, 900 full editions now survive.

Only 525 copies of the edition from which this map is from were printed in 1592 in Antwerp by Christophe Plantin (c. 1520 – 1 July 1589). The key to ascertaining the publication date of an Ortelius map and the particular edition it is from lies in consulting the Latin letterpress cursive text on the verso of each map. Each edition ends with slightly different variant [of text] on the last line [ours has “gerum. & accuratissimè soluta oratione Guilielmus Camdenus, in sua Britannia” - a reference from Ortelius encouraging the reader to seek out William Camden’s publication Britannia, a topographical and historical survey of the regions in England and Ireland]. The pagination is also slightly different in each case in the Theatrum [ours has printed bottom right on the letterpress page “14”]. The letterpress text on the verso of each Ortelius map gives a description of the history and geography of each country.

The title of our map is in a decorative cartouche - it roughly translates as “A new depiction of Eryn [or] Ireland, a British island. Ireland”. Oriented to the west, this was the first printed map of Ireland with a reasonable approximation of its true shape. Ortelius based this map on fellow Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator’s 1564 map of the British Isles (which was in turn improved upon by Christopher Saxton’s 1579 map). This 1592 edition map by Ortelius is a vast improvement on Ortelius’ first edition of the Theatrum orbis terrarum in 1570, where England, Scotland and Ireland were grouped together.

In late 1576, Ortelius spent some time in Ireland (thus avoiding the devastating Sack of Antwerp by the Spanish in November 1576). Despite this he was still hugely influenced by the writings of ancient classical writers and later chroniclers – you can see he includes several references to comments made by Gerald of Wales, (abbreviated to Gyrald. Camb. on the map). Better known to us as Giraldus Cambrensis, this was the Welsh clergyman and chronicler who wrote [c. 1183], a famous account of the island of Ireland, the people and its’ geography called the Topographia Hibernica [Topography of Ireland], transcripts of which are now held in the National Library of Ireland at MS 700. Much of what Giraldus wrote was quite disparaging to the native Irish and written mainly to support the conquest of Ireland by the Normans (by the late 16th century his writings were also being used in some quarters as propaganda to support the Elizabethan plantations in Ireland). So it is surprising to see Ortelius has, under Occidens [East] printed in cursive script on the map, almost direct quotations from Giraldus Cambrensis “Ex Gyraldo Camb. / In Arran insulis, hominum corpora non putrescunt, / eoque non humantur, sed diuo exposita permanent in: /corrupta.Sic homines auos, atauos, tritauos longamque / stirpis suæ seriem magna admiratione cognoscunt In ea / non sunt mures; et si aliunde illati fuerint, in mare | confestim se præcipitant; sin impediantur, emoriuntur”.

[which roughly translates as] – We find in Giraldus Cambrensis that on the islands of Arran [Aran], human bodies do not decay nor do they remain human, but when exposed to the open air, remain uncorrupted. Thus the people here see their own stock [their lineage or forebears], in admiration. There are no mice here. And if they [the mice] come from elsewhere, they immediately hurl themselves into the sea. If prevented from doing so, they die.

The following text is printed under Farm anag [Fermanagh] on the map and reads: “De hoc Erno lacu scribit / Gyrald. Camb. quod olim fons / fuerit, sed ob incolarum nefandam / cum bestijs venerem, Deo irato, in / tantam aquarum diluuiem erupu:|iße, vt totum eum tractum cum hõi:/nibus inundatione submerserit. Atq. in / rei gestæ Veritatem, hodieq. sereno tempo:/re, etiamnum Templorû turres sub / undis hinc inde conspici”.

[which roughly translates as] About this Lough Erne Giraldus Cambrensis writes, that it was once a source [of water, in others words a spring], but because the inhabitants shamefully venerated beasts, an angry God caused a gargantuan flood to burst out, so that the whole region, including its people, were submerged. And if this be true, when it is a calm time, [i.e. when the surface of the lake is calm] from under the waves towers can be seen.

The prominence given to some locations and places in this map betray its’ ecclesiastical sources – for instance, though produced thirty years after the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII, the friary in Multyfarnham in County Westmeath is given the same prominence on the map as Dublin city. Ortelius also quotes an author called Sylvius Gyraldus on the map next to where Lacus Dere [Lough Derg] is located “Purgatorium S. Patritij, huius / Diui precibus hoc loco à Deo / constitutum. Syl. Gyraldus”. [The Purgatory of Saint Patrick, whose prayers in this place prompted its’ establishment by God, according to Sylvius Gyraldus.]

On the map near present day north-east Ulster, Ortelius prints that “Part of this island was given to the English to live here by Queen Elizabeth of England. The settlement was ruled by Mr. Smith, a horseman clothed with gold, in 1572” ["Hanc insulæ partem / Anglis incolendam de: /dit Elisabetha Angliæ / regina; Coloniaque du:/ cta est Dño Smetho / equite aurato 1572"]. This is a reference to lands around east Ulster (formerly Clandeboye-O’Neill territory, mainly in County Down) given by Elizabeth I to her Secretary of State Sir Thomas Smith (1513-1577).

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