A Geo-Theology of Catholic Parish Maps


by Eoin O’Mahony


While people in Catholic parishes in Ireland appear keenly aware of parish boundaries, these understandings are more often oral than cartographic. And while there is no digital map of all Catholic parishes in Ireland, the institutional Catholic Church insists that no square kilometer can exist outside of a parish. In this post, I want to outline some of the technical challenges of digitizing such boundaries. But making these maps is not only a question of drawing lines but about people’s understanding of their locality. I want to talk about how verifying maps with local agents often complicates something which may have at first sight seemed simple.

The map is not the territory: no direct access to reality

Maps are not images of the world but representations of apparent naturalness; they are arbitrary mechanisms of control. In Brian Harley’s (1992)* terms:

…all maps, like all other historically constructed images, do not provide a transparent window on the world. Rather they are signs that present “a deceptive appearance of naturalness and transparence concealing an opaque, distorting, arbitrary mechanism of representation, a process of ideological mystification (Mitchell 1986, 8).

Maps are central to a reading of a landscape that needs to be made knowable. Historically this has linked map-making with military conquest. Maps have also played a central role in violent conflict over land and resources, a relationship still evident in the mapping organizations of both Britain and Ireland. I think of maps as part of a larger circulation and production of specific forms of knowledge; a form of stadial thinking which creates a unified territory and which bounds politics to place making. Stadial thinking is where the entire world can be classified into groups, as if all that we see is all that there is. For Charles Withers (2007) maps and their development have been about stadial thinking.

In his work on domopolitics, William Walters (2004) traces the development of diagrams as something at work across different institutions although not necessarily the results of specific plans by any one of these institutions. These diagrams provide a way to define who we are, who governs us and in what ways are we governed. Competing diagrams can co-exist in the one territory although they compete for resources, both political and financial, and for definitions of how public space is defined. Parishes then are the diagrams for the Catholic Church’s establishment of practices and identities. Parishes are the places that create and recreate a politics of belonging within a faith community. It is the place, not always thought of territorially, where the Church is crystallized. The parish is the territorialization of these politics of belonging, which Daniel Trudeau (2010) defines as:

The discourses and practices that establish and maintain discursive and material boundaries that correspond to the imagined geographies of a polity and to the spaces that normatively embody the polity. (422)

For Trudeau and many others, belonging is inherently spatial and defines an exclusion about what is acceptable and unacceptable. Catholic parishes have not always been theorized as political units or even as public space. I am drawing attention to the concealments, the distortions and the ideological mystification that is needed to digitise Catholic parishes. Far from being a technical exercise, making parish and diocesan maps for the institutional Catholic Church means asking more fundamental questions about particular forms of practice, discourses of power and relationships between places.

The project to digitize Catholic parishes and boundaries

Based on work conducted by professor William Smyth in the 1980s and professor Paddy Duffy in the diocese of Clogher in the 1990s, I have been coordinating a project to digital maps of the parishes and dioceses of Ireland. The process of making digital parish maps consists of tracing points and lines using existing maps and then these are rectified to commonly used coordinates of the geographic features of Ireland. Maps of Ireland’s 26 Catholic dioceses had of course been drawn before as had maps of the 1,360 Catholic parishes covering the entire territory of the island. I sponsored a studentship which began in the summer of 2008. The project depended on the availability and accuracy of source maps and in 2008, there were not that many sources. The technical and logistical challenges were apparent from the start but beyond this, the idea that these shapes being derived were containers of experience came to the forefront for me. The gap between representation and an unknowable reality became larger and not smaller (Harley, 1989: 2). That each part of the island was territorialized by a diocese and into each of these was nested a parish was something that provided me with a source of research questions, just as the project went into abeyance. Between late 2008 and 2010 I struggled to get traction at work for the boundaries that had been created.

An opportunity to reactivate the parish mapping project arose again in 2011 when the cartographer from University College Cork’s geography department was put in touch with me. He had been able to source a paper parish boundary map derived from the project coordinated by Willie Smyth in the 1980s. We met with several other parties and set about planning a project to digitize the boundaries of the scanned paper map using the townland boundaries as the guide. Basically, the boundaries of the 61,104 townlands can be dissolved and incorporated into the larger and scanned units then defined as the Catholic parishes. If maps are territorial units of control and attempts to capture the landscape within them, why did the dioceses not place more emphasis on knowing where the boundaries began and ended? The painstaking and time consuming process of the dissolution of the townland boundaries into Catholic parishes was undertaken during 2011 and 2012. I now spend some of my work-week looking for opportunities to make the parish maps relevant to the work of the dioceses.

The boundaries are sometimes old roads, rivers, and mountain ranges. Like many spatial units, the fewer people that have historically inhabited an area, the larger and less defined it tends to be. So in sparsely populated areas, parish boundaries are straighter; in densely populated areas they tend toward complexity. They do not conform to lines on maps created by housing estates or by recent roads because the boundaries date from about the middle of the nineteenth century. Underlying this work is a limited historical memory why these units are shaped in the way that they are. Why, for example, do some parishes exist as islands in the middle of other dioceses? Why does a parish line turn sharply here and accommodate this field and not the one adjacent to it?

The spatial politics of mapping parishes

Boundaries of parishes are ways to concretize the spatial politics of place making and of belonging. They are the outcomes of discourses as much as they are ways to run a ruler over a landscape. These boundaries are principally the concern of biopolitical control. The project has involved a re-territorialization of the Catholic parish, a spatial unit largely unknown and certainly not popularly defined. Catholics in parishes continue to work without knowledge of where precisely their boundary lies. In some sense, the drawing of a parish boundary and it becoming better known is unnecessary for a parish to exist as the parish is the people within that faith community. It is made up of their practices and their actions in particular spaces, not always bound by a knowledge that implies ‘this far and no further’. Rhetorically, the parish is used to describe a community of interest rather than a defined territory.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the parish of the Travelling People, which is self-described as a parish that “stretches across the length and breath of the Dublin diocese, from Balbriggan to Arklow and over to Athy.” It is effectively an agency of pastoral care across the territory of the diocese and is a parish consisting of a community across that diocese. Its interests are not confined to the diocese however with a broad concern for the lives of a nomadic people who routinely travel between Britain and Ireland. Experiences of racism and relationships with the settled community are central to its work in a way that parishes in other parts of Ireland are not. The spatial politics of this parish of the Travelling People is connected with the experiences of the community of which it is composed.

One final question remains for me: if each part of the island is covered by a parish, where is there left to evangelize, a central part of being a Christian according to Church teaching? Bringing the word of God to those who have yet to hear it seems redundant in a spatial politics within which every kilometer is within a parish. I am proposing here that the 19th century development of an imperial Church, one in which all of the island of Ireland is colonized by a stadial understanding of territory, has meant that the Catholic Church in Ireland lost an important part of its mission. The parish as a spatial unit provided the basis for a diagram of biopolitical control that gave a basis to practice that was detached from its mission. With each parish abutting another, there was nowhere for the Catholic parish to go but to turn in on its own maintenance as a source of its own power.

* A celebration of the life and work of J.B. Harley, 1932-1991: contributions from his friends at a meeting held on 17th March 1992 at the Royal Geographical Society. London: Royal Geographical Society.

Eoin O’Mahony is about to defend his PhD. in the Department of Geography, NUI Maynooth, Ireland. His thesis focuses on the spatialisation of the secular and the religious in Ireland with particular emphasis on the politics of the secular. He maintains a blog at 53degrees.wordpress.com and tweets too much at @ownohmanny.

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