“… after a handful of restarts at charting the suburbs, and a few reels fed the wrong way, our progress picked up enormous steam.”

This week’s blog is written by Daniel O’Dwyer and is the first of two blogs from the team of SPUR students that worked on the Irish Historic Towns Atlas (IHTA) project in the Royal Irish Academy (RIA) with Dr. Jacinta Prunty and the staff in the RIA.  The students experienced new (old!) technologies and got to grips with trying to understand changes in Dublin suburbs over time. Daniel is currently studying single honors history at Maynooth, and hopes that his time in the SPUR project will help him work towards a Master’s degree in archaeology. In his free time Daniel enjoys reading, drumming, and exercising, and is currently learning Japanese. 

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Our time at the National Library was the first real encounter with research for the Atlas. At first we were guided by Frank Cullen from the IHTA team, who showed us the ins-and-outs of Thom’s Dublin Directories. These directories were a part of a large almanac containing information on many facets of Ireland from the year of publication, with statistics ranging from economic to social to transport. The Dublin directories themselves were a break down of the Dublin suburbs, streets, and boroughs that would provide listings for addresses, especially places of business, and anything noteworthy. Our task was to search the directories for anything relating to our suburbs and input specific information into an Excel document. Initially this seemed very straight forward, but it quickly became daunting as we moved between five year intervals; occupied houses turned to ruins or were simply remodelled into new business, large manufactories rose and fell, leaving significant areas abandoned. Even a resident moving down a few houses could cause chaos as one tried to figure out if the listings had changed the order of addresses, which would require a side by side comparison of years. On top of this, most of us had little-to-no experience with Microfilm, and the first few days were plagued with difficulties and a steep learning curve.

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The Microfilm reading room in the NLI, a source of difficulty and pride. Photo courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

However, after a handful of restarts at charting the suburbs, and a few reels fed the wrong way, our progress picked up enormous steam. The practise moved from frustrating to very rewarding as the history of our suburbs began to unfold – the development of mills, infrastructure, and social services. Finally discovering the location of a hospital or tannery that seemed to move between the years was met with beaming smiles and pats on the back by our group.

During our time in the National Library, we also took a short trip out to Sandymount and had both the pleasure and fortune to meet Anngret Simms, former associate professor and head of Geography at UCD. Through the Royal Irish Academy, she initiated the Irish Historic Town Atlas project in Ireland. Anngret told us she was surprised on finding out there was no similar project already in place, as historic mapping projects have been appearing all over Europe, and decided to spearhead it herself. We were invited into her beautiful home and given a crash course in the background of the project and its uses, using both local maps, such as Kells, and maps from Europe, such as Buda (but not Pest!). Under Anngret, our understanding of the Irish Historical Town Atlas was fully realised, and we are all grateful for her time and experience.

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