Sunday 6 November 2016

Sat Nav -- 1908-style by Sheena Wilkinson

My iPhone map app updated today and now contains singularly useless – to me – information about transport in Japan.  I find no charm in this unasked for, space-hogging data.  

But I find a great deal of charm in this little book.

I found it, appropriately enough, in a National Trust bookshop – Contour Road Book of Ireland 1908. The Edwardian equivalent of a sat-nav, I suppose. Pocket-sized, designed primarily for the cyclist though inevitably of interest to the early motorist, its 250 pages contain lists of routes with details of each road’s gradients, surface and notes on anything of interest along the way.

It’s cute, with its gilt-edged tissue-thin India paper and cross-sections of 2,000 hills, but it’s also fascinating and revelatory, about much more than the state of the roads.   The Preface explains why this volume took ‘eight years to prepare’: ‘Great difficulties have been encountered … as the Maps of Ireland, when the work was started, were hopelessly misleading.’ (Interested readers might seek out Brian Friel’s play Translations for more on that subject.)

Some of the entries read like found poems:

Description: Class II.
The road has excellent surface,
though with a tendency to be bumpy
for the first 3m;
after that it is better.
The road commands some fine views
of the Donegal mountains.
Irish milestones.

Irish milestones? Ah yes, ‘Some of these are Irish Miles and some English, but these are nearly all noted in the book. The tourist will find that Counties Dublin, Waterford, Cork, Antrim and Armagh use English; the other counties either have both, or only one or two roads have Irish M.S.’ One Irish mile was one-and-a-half English miles. It’s not that different from today, I suppose, when I drive across the border and exchange the Northern Irish signs in miles for the Republic’s signs in kilometres.

And let’s not forget that in 1908, ‘Irish time is 25 minutes later than Greenwich time, but in cross-channel telegrams the latter is used.’

What about the people? ‘No Englishman or Scotsman can ever understand the feelings that sway an Irishman.’ Ireland in 1908, after all, with Home Rule gathering momentum, was a no less complex than Northern Ireland today: ‘a nation fighting out its own destiny in its own way, handicapped by the very powers that make it loveable.’

The characters in my work-in progress, set in1918, will be travelling some of these roads, climbing some of these hills and wrestling with some of these issues of national destiny. I’m often asked how I do research – I’m sure all History Girls are; and the answer is, in many different ways. But this, the stumbling across little gems which tell us so much more than they meant to, is one of my favourites. There are Contour Road Books of England and Scotland too – I may have to start collecting them.


Joan Lennon said...

What a gorgeous resource!

Ann Turnbull said...

This is fascinating - especially about the times and miles.

There was an Irish girl at my school (many decades ago) and she once told me how she and her brother were walking in the countryside in Ireland and stopped to ask an elderly couple how far it was to their destination. The man said it was three miles. But the woman exclaimed, "Oh - make it two! They ARE walking..."