From Sea Monsters to Cromwellian Land Grabbers: What Maps Can Tell Us About Skerries

by David Ryan
(Skerries Historical Society Meeting – April 2014)

Tuesday 8th April saw Keane’s Bus Bar packed to the rafters for David Ryan’s presentation to Skerries Historical Society, ‘Mapping Skerries over the Years’. David’s talk, though it stemmed from a study of some of the many maps which include Skerries, did not stick rigidly to its title but wandered through a broad range of topics including the love interests of the Hamilton family, the correct technique for cutting limestone and the Leinster 200!

The maps themselves are works of art. The earliest example was created by Gerardus Mercator, a sixteenth century Flemish cartographer and mathematician who produced an amazingly beautiful map of Ireland in about 1595. There is a wonderful sea monster ready to devour any foolhardy sailor who sets out from our stretch of the coastline. But which is our stretch of coastline? It seems Mercator didn’t rate Skerries very highly – he’s named ‘Rushe’ and even ‘Byll’ (Rockabill) but Skerries doesn’t get a mention.

Nearly one hundred years later in 1685 and William Petty sets things to rights by putting Skerries squarely ‘on the map’. Of course, he was working for that famous friend to Ireland, Oliver Cromwell, and his purpose was to ‘set down’ (in the Down Survey) all the land that was worth seizing from the defeated Irish Catholic Confederates. So it might have been better for Skerries if we had remained anonymous!

We move on another century to Daniel Beaufort’s map of 1792. This gentleman was a churchman and scholar of Trinity College Dublin who seems to have been moved to create his map with more laudable intentions than those of his predecessor: he simply wanted to correct the errors of past map makers and his contemporaries thought he made a pretty good job of it.

But it’s with William Duncan’s map of 1821 that we really start to get to grips with Skerries as a town, rather than a name on a map. Here we can see the streets laid out in the pattern we recognise today – this was down to the Hamilton family which had taken possession of Skerries in 1721 and they were determined to make their mark on it: Strand Street was designed with market days in mind, being wide enough to turn a horse and cart while all the haggling is happening around you. Later in the nineteenth century it was the turn of the Ordnance Survey to produce maps for every occasion – and they are still at it today.

Report by Oona Roycroft

Page updated – 23 / 04 / 2014