- The Ordnance Survey and Modern Irish Literature by Cóilín Parsons
Cóilín Parsons effectively broadens the scope of the British Board of Ordnance’s Survey (1824-1846), which mapped Ireland on the unprecedented scale or representative fraction of six inches to one mile, to yield a novel study of emergent modernism in Irish literature. Mindful of the iconic status of the Ordnance Study maps and declaring his “story” to be “the relationship between a modern mapping project and the emergence of modernist form,” Parsons argues that this
signal modern project—the abstraction of landscape so that it could be made to fit the demands of scientific representation … is a defining point in the cultural history of Ireland, and its imprint was felt for decades after the initial survey was completed. In the sphere of literature, responses and challenges to the Survey and its mode of cartographic representation enliven and invigorate Irish writing as subsequent generations of writers grapple with the challenges of representing the geography of an island undergoing rapid and shocking change.
Apart from an occasional overreliance on a few literary theorists—a move that slows down his “story” and could largely be condensed and moved to foot-notes—Parsons acquits himself admirably in this project.
Parsons’s preamble to handling his four selected literary figures (James Clarence Mangan, John Millington Synge, James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett) demonstrates an ability to present the fruits of exhaustive research into the initiation and progress of the Ordnance Survey. He dissects many of its abundant maps, letters, and memoirs. Together, he avers, these items “present a complex dialectic of change and stasis; loss and preservation; image and text; representation and reality.” Turning to the four authors, Parsons reads the poetry written by Mangan when he was employed by the Survey as a worker on placenames. He points to poetic evidence of Mangan’s growing frustration with Britain as he participates in the imperial scientific venture, particularly noticeable in his reliance on dinnseanchas, the lore of placenames, in his translations. Mangan becomes a commentator, mindful of both the modern venture of the colonizer and the real experience and imagined history of the colonized.
The chapter on Synge and The Aran Islands is superb and will serve as a lasting addition to Synge scholarship, and of great value to university classrooms. Parsons painstakingly contends that despite Synge’s evident romantic gaze at Irish peasant life, at “the primitive other,” his repeat visits to the islands yield a [End Page 152] more multifaceted reporter. He writes: “with each passing year [Synge] recognizes the more complex interaction between the islands, the mainland, London, and the world, and gradually the lamentations over the loss of pristine primitiveness cease.” Meticulous examinations of several passages in The Aran Islands in which Synge employs the modernist technique of parataxis deserve attentive reading. One such passage juxtaposes the primitive and the civilized, age-old fishing methods and factory production. Such juxtapositions are delivered stylistically and syntactically through parataxis: Parsons remarks, “Parataxis, with its absence of markers of primary or subordinate statements, refuses to identify scale, to mark the size and shape of the gap between the local and the global—it refuses to identify the relationship between elements, even at times denies the existence of any relationship.” This chapter serves as a fulcrum for Parsons’s story, and he concludes, “Synge’s text, with its fragmented plots and narratives, its sustained attention to scale and geography, and its peripatetic principal characters not only looks backward to the challenges of the Survey, but it could also almost be a scale model for Ulysses, produced earlier and elsewhere.”
The transition to Ulysses proceeds with a respectful glance at “Aeolus,” a pertinent discussion of “Wandering Rocks,” then a focus on “Ithaca” as Joyce’s experiment with scale that most directly engages with the actions of the Ordnance Survey. “Ithaca,” of course, mentions the Survey, but Parsons probes much more deeply into the encyclopedic nature of the episode, showing how it “presents a cascade of information, ostensibly...