THE WORLD AT MY FINGERTIPS; as the Irish Daily Mail Gives Away a Free Map Tomorrow, PHILIP NOLAN Recalls the Treasured Ones That Fired Up His Imagination

Article excerpt

Byline: by Philip Nolan

FOR a boy of ten or 11, it was the greatest treasure trove that could be discovered. Rummaging through my great-aunt's study, I came across hundreds of National Geographic magazines from the Fifties and Sixties, filled with stories of Americans in Airstream caravans travelling in post-war Europe, secretive tribes foraging for a living in the Amazon basin and great cities that I could only dream of visiting.

Best of all, many of the issues had been delivered with free maps, most of which had never been opened. I had an immediate reverence for them, especially the first time I located Ireland on a map of the world and realised just how inconsequentially tiny my country was, like the plughole in a vast global bathtub.

I still have the maps, tucked away safely in a small suitcase, and look at them often. It is astonishing, even in the half century since most were drawn, just how much has changed - the Soviet Union and the Balkans, for starters (does anyone under 20 even know of a country once called Yugoslavia?) but also the likes of the U.S., which consisted of only 48 states until 1959, when Alaska and Hawaii joined the Union.

Maps show us our place in the world. In Mercator's projection - devised by the Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator in 1569 and now our standard view of a spherical planet as a flat surface delineated by latitude and longitude - geographical north became the top of our world and the east was shown to the right. A happy situation that, to my young mind, somehow left Ireland looking like the very centre of the Earth.

These maps fired my imagination. They made me want to travel, to see places with exotic names like Penang and Pretoria, Rio de Janeiro and Jaipur. Many still had colours depicting the territorial claims of empires - in the Fifties, much of Africa was still British, Belgian and French until the tide of independence rinsed them totally.

THE Caribbean was even more colonial, with Britain in charge in the likes of Barbados and Grenada, the French in St Martin and Martinique, the Netherlands running the Antilles and the U.S. in the Virgin Islands. But in this fascination, I simply was reflecting an obsession of mankind that had been around for thousands of years, the very simple desire to know where we are and how to get to somewhere else.

For our ancestors, that usually meant mapping the skies rather than land. The cave paintings at Lascaux in France, drawn more than 17,000 years ago, are believed to contain complex charts of stars such as Taurus and the Pleiades.

Modern cartography, the drawing of maps representing political boundaries and geographical and geological features on land, seems to have originated in ancient Babylon about 300 years before the birth of Christ, and in Greece, where Ptolemy's world map (or, at least, as much of the Earth as had been explored) was produced in the second century.

In medieval times, the orientation of maps was very different to what we see now, with Jerusalem usually at the centre and geographical east at the top, effectively sideways to the system we currently use.

But it was only in the 14th and 15th centuries that map-making experienced a golden age. Thanks to Henry the Navigator, Vasco da Gama, Marco Polo, Ferdinand Magellan and Christopher Columbus, vast new territories were discovered and mapped, and the first roughly accurate depiction of the continents - the Universalis Cosmographia - was drawn by the German, Martin Waldseemuller, in 1507.

Exploration brought an end to maps that once had depicted the fears and superstitions of areas that had been unmapped. The Romans used pictograms of lions to denote so-called terra incognita, while medieval maps often carried pictures of sea serpents and the terrifying explanation 'here be dragons'. …