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Maps as propaganda

Updated: Sep 17, 2020


By Noel McLaughlin


Interestingly, few of us openly think about maps.

We have yet to come across a pub quiz, or have a conversation among friends, where a favourite map, or indeed a maps ‘top ten’ might become the focal point of a good evening out. 

Yet maps are as profound as favourite songs, but in a different - if related - way.

Maps are the ultimate visualisation of the ways we place ourselves in time and space.

This is most openly the case when we are young; especially when it comes to learning who we are, and where we ‘come from’.


Years later we might learn to reject much of this, with the progressives among us preferring ‘where we’re at’ above ‘where we’re from’, but nonetheless the local map as a ‘placing device‘ of sorts exerts a strong gravitational pull. 


In this spirit, when it became apparent that maps were a recurring propaganda feature of O’Neill’s ‘New Ulster’, as well as the fact that we had grown up with the legacy of his regime’s policy displayed as official graffiti on our classroom walls, we had to go further into thinking about maps, and how they generate metaphors as well as their relationship to popular music (ergo, ‘putting on “the map”’).


If you have time, go and check how many times you hear ‘on the map’ on television and radio in relation to NI music (in a way that is alien to Scotland, Newcastle, Bristol or Hull). 


It’s odd how one comes to hate a phrase. ‘Putting Belfast on the map’ was an equivalent to ‘at the end of the day’ for both of us, and long before writing this book.

It was a phrase you bristled against, party because it was repeated as a reflex and not thought through.

It was a relief to ‘track and trace’ the phrase and locate when it may have been coined.

This, in itself, may justify the writing of a book.

In jokey conversation, we know many English authors who would, similarly, love to locate ‘at the end of the day’, so as to free their linguistic souls. 


More seriously, the British empire depended on maps, and on many levels.

Most pressingly, to make Britain the centre of the world - but also the centre of time.

Significantly, our research reveals that O’Neill not only knew the trope, he modernised and refashioned it to fit local circumstances. 


In that spirit, but recast in ‘meta’ fashion, we hope that this book puts Belfast on a popular music studies map. We did resist putting large fold out maps of the city in every copy, and we hope you’ll thank us for the fact that we didn’t.


However, we are glad that physical geography and ring road design left Belfast with a butterfly shape: it allowed us to bend the idea to relate to other political ideas that shaped the times. 


Photo caption: A 1960s OS map of Belfast where we have highlighted the distinctive butterfly shape of the city at that time

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