This essay was written for an English comp class back around 2005.To me, the subject of the Famine Roads was fascinating. Though my teacher warned me that writing about a living poet might prove difficult, I found enough references and wowed the professor -- a notoriously tough grader. I wound up with an A+ on the paper, though I would have enjoyed the analysis ad writing regardless. The poem, "That the Science of Cartography is Limited" follows the essay.
“To be Irish is to know that in the end, the world will break your heart.”
Daniel Patrick Moynihan
Eavan Boland’s poem, “That the Science of Cartography is Limited,” presents us with a woman who, at one time blissfully ignorant of her country’s past, has become obsessed with it. We can easily imagine this woman continually taking a map of her beloved Ireland down from the wall and laying it on the table. Her husband comes in, as he has done dozens, perhaps hundreds of times before, to encounter his wife searching the map. Perhaps she has a magnifying glass, looking for something that is not there, though secretly hoping that this time it will be and that she will see it. The husband was the one who told her the story of the famine road in the first place and maybe now he is sorry. He admonishes her. Are ye lookin’ at thet feckin’ map again? Jaysus, woman! Give it a rest! However, she cannot and she defends herself. All I’m trying to do, she says, is to prove it. To prove, as the title declares, “that the science of cartography is limited.” Using the natural landscape as a symbol of the Irish people, and the science of cartography as a symbol of the British government and its policies, Boland show that the map of Ireland is an artificial representation that serves as a shameful denial of the truth.
Boland introduces the idea of the land as it really is, not as it is drawn on a map. She states that “this shading of / forest cannot show the fragrance of balsam, / the gloom of cypress” (2-3). This statement is presented as a fact that is obviously already agreed upon by the woman and her husband. She wants to clear that argument out of the way from the beginning. Doubtless her husband brings it up each time. Nonetheless, she is compelled to mention it again. It seems that interest in Irish history goes beyond obsession. It is a horror that she has somehow made her own. R. T. Smith, in an article in Southern Humanities Review, says the narrator “must quietly absorb the shock of discovery when her lover takes her to a forest where a famine road was built in 1847, a construction project whose workers died in harness and which maps do not yet record. Perhaps remembering Elizabeth Bishop's suggestion that ‘More delicate than the historians’ are the map-makers’ colors,’ Boland sets out to revise the maps of her country” (1-2).
Using cartography as an actual discipline as well as a metaphor, Boland shows the reader things that do not appear on the map. In the same way that the forest symbol on the map fails to reflect the smell and feel of the real woods, so official histories and documents fail to reflect the true sense of what happened in the famine.
The Irish have always had a strong connection to the land, so beginning with ideas and images of the land and its plants is particularly apt. But there is an almost hidden symbolism here, and it is here that she introduces for the first time, the idea of maps representing the official story, the government‘s view, the denial. She says that “this shading of / forest” (1-2) on the map, the cartographer’s symbol which represents the wooded areas, cannot show “the gloom of the cypresses” (3). In this instance, she is not just speaking of a physical species of tree that is misrepresented by lines or green shading. The cypress, since Roman times, has been a symbol of mourning. What Boland tells us here is that this map, this official representation, cannot and will not show us the mourning, the tragedy, the gloom of those who suffered and died on the famine roads. In the last few lines of the poem, as she brings us back to the land, she pairs pine and cypress. Pine, a symbol of fecundity and purification, is mentioned almost in counterpoint to the mourning gloom of the cypress. It is as though the forest, the plants, the land itself mourn the deaths and yet are somehow nourished by the corpses of the famine victims.
Her treatment of the land continues as the woman recalls a trip taken when she and her husband were first in love. “We drove,” she says, “to the borders of Connacht” (5-6). This west-central province was the setting for much of what became known as The Great Famine. Again, there is subtle symbolism within the physical reality. In this instance, it is Boland’s choice of Connacht as the setting. In addition to being the location of Famine Road projects, it is representative of two aspects of Irish history that are not shown on a map. In his book, How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill informs us that “in the centuries of Ireland’s prehistory – before the written word – [there was a place called] Cruachan Ai, and [there] stood the royal palace from which the province of Connacht was ruled” (71). This was the Kingdom of King Ailil and Queen, Medb, the setting of the ancient Irish epic Tain Bo Cuailnge or The Cattle Raid of Cooley. It is here that the story of Cuchalain, the greatest of Irish heroes, is told. Later, says Cahill, during the evangelization of Ireland, St. Patrick “created a bishopric as far west as Cruachan, Medb's ancient capital of Connacht” (110). Thus, we see Connacht as representing the past glories of Ireland. Her glory as a land of the tyrant-slaying, pagan hero and of the righteous, snake-slaying, Christian hero. An ironic setting for the end of the Irish road as, without any new heroes, the new Ireland toils at a make-work project to receive enough bread to fill the bellies of its children.
To the borders of Connacht, the woman drove with her husband and there they entered a wood. “Look down;” he tells her, “This was once a famine road” (8). Every nation and every generation have had their famine roads. Be they the treatment of weakened Catholic farmers by the wealthy Protestant gentry, or the extermination of millions of Jews at the hands of the Nazi‘s, the famine road is representative of all such atrocities that are hidden. The famine road, like the history, like the knowledge, like the accountability, disappears into the land.
Boland tells us that “the Relief Committees gave / the starving Irish such roads to build. / Where they died, there the road ended” (14-16). The road here is symbolizes the journey the starving Irish were on. No mere gentle forest path, the road was made of “rough-cast stone” (10). The road was a literal dead-end. The Relief Committees, inspired no doubt by the great Protestant Work Ethic, insisted that the already starving and weakened Irish perform some sort of labor to earn their bread. Boland in her commentary “A Question,” published in Literary Review, says that “in the simple and most understated testament of heartlessness, [the British] required strength of those who had none” (2). The famine itself becomes symbolic of the long-standing struggle between benefactor-overlords and their subservient tenants. Protestant and Catholic, the empire and its colonies, the rich and poor.
In the phrase “there the road ended” (16), we get the idea of “the end of the line,” or the end of the story. As the physical road disappears into the ground, so the story of the famine victims disappears into nothingness. The road has ended and, Boland says, “ends still” (17). The roads are forgotten in the official records. To assure herself of this incredible fact, the woman brings the map down from her wall. Not, she says, so that she can admire the cartographer’s skills, “but to tell [herself] again that / the line […] will not be there” (24-28). She is expressing disbelief and perhaps even outrage that this could be so. Her reaction is typical of someone who has observed man’s inhumanity to man, albeit from a distance of time or space. She seems to smell a cover-up. Again, the map is representative of the government, of the “official,” of the accepted truth. If the official cartographer has not drawn the famine road, it must not exist.
In “A Question,” Boland discusses her own early memories and impressions of a map in her school. The map was in a classroom where she received instruction in history, science, English and religion. She felt that the map spoke of empire. As she says, she “always [saw] a teacher in front of the map, speaking with certainty and precision. Often entering the strange illusion and that the teacher was mute and the map was speaking through her. Look what I own it said. See what you have lost” (2). Boland uses terms both geometric and cartographic to describe the map. She refers to it as “the masterful, the apt rendering of / the spherical as flat” (20-21). Although the language is pleasant, there is an underlying current, a vague sense of the land, its people, and history, being hammered flat by the cartographer. Line 20 uses the term “rendering” to describe the process. However, in lines 22 and 23 we read “an ingenious design” is used which “persuades a curve into a plane.” This is a polite way of saying that what was rising up was put down. It is interesting to note that, in regards to this section, the woman says that she does not take down the map to admire the cartographer’s skill. She disagrees with the policies of a government that would have allowed such things. Again, in “A Question,” she says that “mapmaking is an act of power,” and that “the official version – and a map is rarely anything else – might not be suspect as it discovered territories and marked out destinations. But the fact that these roads, so powerful in their meaning and so powerless at their origin, never showed up on any map of Ireland seemed to me then, as it does now, both emblematic and ironic” (3).
Boland returns to the land, to the woods in the final lines of her poem. The woman discloses her purpose in taking the map down. It is to convince herself that the line, which should represent the woods and the hunger of the famine victims, is not there. This line should end among the sweetness of the pine trees and the mourning gloom of the cypress. This line “find no horizon” (27). For a line to reach the horizon, it must have continuity, and this one falls short of that goal. In this realization, there is a slight anger. In his essay, “Paroling Sweet Euphony,” John Foy observes that in the poems last lines, “Boland voices a genuine indignation” (4). He adds that “the poem laments those things of deep human importance that never make it onto the official map -- like the famine roads” (4).
The horizon, which this road never reaches, is something to which we look up, and in doing so we may find hope. It helps us get our bearings in order to continue on our journey. In the face of official denial of the roads, the woman, and indeed the rest of us, will find a little less hope.
Boland, Eavan. “A Question.” Literary Review (44:1) Fall 2000. (23-27)
---. “That the Science of Cartography is Limited.” Literary Review (44:1) Fall 2000. (27-28)
Cahill, Thomas. How The Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe. Anchor-Doubleday, 1995
Foy, John. “Paroling Sweet Euphony.” Parnassus (22:1 and 2) 1997. (223-246)
Smith, R. T. “A review of In a Time of Violence.” Southern Humanities Review (30:3) Summer 1996. (304-307)
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~"That the Science of Cartography Is Limited" (1994)
-and not simply by the fact that this shading of forest cannot show the fragrance of balsam, the gloom of cypresses is what I wish to prove.5 When you and I were first in love we drove to the borders of Connacht and entered a wood there.Look down you said: this was once a famine road. I looked down at ivy and the scutch grass 10 rough-cast stone had disappeared into as you told me in the second winter of their ordeal, in1847, when the crop had failed twice, Relief Committees gave 15 the starving Irish such roads to build.Where they died, there the road endedand ends still and when I take down the map of this island, it is never so I can say here is 20 the masterful, the apt rendering ofthe spherical as flat, nor an ingenious design which persuades a curve into a plane, but to tell myself again that25 the line which says woodland and cries hunger and gives out among sweet pine and cypress, and finds no horizonwill not be there.