Drawing lines on pages: remaking a very public geography

A short article I have written for the GSI’s GeoNews:

Building on work done by Prof. William Smyth and Michael Murphy and later publications by Prof. Paddy Duffy, the Catholic parish boundaries are finally digitised. It has taken four years, a summer internship and five different organisations to get to this stage but 1,360 parishes are about to be digitised for the first time. More than the exercise of vectorising rasters, the digitisation process is the creation of a very public geography.

Ask someone in Ireland where they are from and they’ll able to tell you which town or county they’re from. Ask them where in that county and chances are they’ll name a townland or a parish. But where is that parish? Maybe it is the GAA’s parish or perhaps it is the Catholic parish. In short, parish is often used as a loosely defined marker of place. This place is made and remade across time of course. The significance is that this parish has changed over time. My sense is though that parishes are less well known in city areas of Ireland than in less urbanised settings. For example, Na Fianna, my local GAA club does not identify itself with the Catholic parish of Our Lady of Dolours Glasnevin. Go to Killeigh County Offaly (which also has a Na Fianna team) however and the GAA fixtures are published in the Catholic parish newsletter.

The recent history of the digitisation of the Catholic parishes goes back to the summer of 2008 when (in my capacity as IBC’s social researcher) I was able to offer a short summer studentship to Omar Sarhan, as part of his MSc in GIS & Remote Sensing at NUIM. Omar spent six weeks or so trying to source or devise a method by which we could digitally represent Diocesan and parish data. The Bishops’ Conference had a need for it and here was the opportunity to ally my own underdeveloped geographical imagination and his technical skill. Omar’s enthusiasm in June 2008 was hard to keep up with. The digitisation of the 26 Catholic Diocesan boundaries was attained in a few weeks; a short time later, he had attached 2006 Census data to the new shape files and we were away and running. In my role as social researcher with the Conference, I tried to convey this enthusiasm to the secretaries of each Diocese asking each of them to cooperate in any way they could with the next task: digitising parish boundaries. In Ireland, we might like to talk about The Church but this project points to almost 26 Catholic Churches in Ireland.

The physical and financial constraints of the job became apparent when we realised we would have to visit Diocesan offices across Ireland. This was not going to happen and so we dedicated Omar’s time to a handful who had responded to the initial request for assistance. Kildare & Leighlin, Waterford & Lismore and Killala were our hastily-adopted models of good practice. Aside from this, Omar had a map of Cashel & Emly’s parishes drawn by a team of nuns in 1972 and Paddy Duffy’s Landscapes of South Ulster to go on. Progress at this stage was fairly slow but satisfying. Omar confronted three main challenges in the digitisation of parish boundaries:

1. the unavailability of paper boundary maps with significant georeferenced features
2. the relative unimportance of systematic mapping to Diocesean work
3. the relative importance of mental maps in defining the parish.

This was no longer just a question of remotely drawing a line from here to there but the building of a new epistemological framework. Rather than see our task as one of McKinderian division, the boundaries became the subject of local negotiation combining history, geomorphology and politics. It was not as if we made the mistake of thinking we could land in from Maynooth, spread out our maps on a large table over tea and ask the local cleric where the parish begins and ends. The very definition of the parish itself came into question: “well now, that depends” was not an untypical reply to our original question. Many of the dioceses had tourist-style maps of their parishes, while a small number had more detailed paper-based maps. Scanning, georeferencing and then tidying up such maps was a time consuming business in itself but over all of this was a single problem. No matter where we put the lines, the local parishes were less defined lines and more mental constructs.

Four years later, the project now involves UCC’s cartographer, Ordnance Survey Ireland and the Department of Geography NUIM. The work conducted by Mike Murphy in UCC has involved using townlands to create what we believe are the Catholic parishes across the island. This time consuming work involves dissolving the relevant townland boundaries using standard GIS applications. We need to take what has been done and verify them with each diocese using 1:50,000 scale OSi maps. We’ve agreed that this represents a kind of ‘tidal mark’ of our knowledge because the parish boundaries are changing faster now than they have in the last century. For example, Waterford city’s parishes have been changed by the construction of the N25 bridge. The Catholic Church in Ireland is grouping parishes in response to changing needs but none of that can be achieved if mapping is only about drawing lines. It is about people’s understanding of their own area, again more oral than cartographic.