Hilltops

Hilltops

A Panoramic Mapping Project

Helene mostly shoots film, I mostly shoot digital. Hilltops.ie is an ongoing project in which we are plotting our photographs against panoramas taken from the tops of hills and mountains we have climbed in Ireland (and soon beyond, I hope). The project began in 2012 as a way to give geographical context to the many photographs we have taken in West Kerry. The original Cloghar Head panorama has since been given its own domain and carefully expanded upon. We are now collecting mountaintops, adding variations on existing panoramas, and expanding the project outside West Kerry. Please visit the site for further information about what to see and how to navigate.

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The original idea to take panoramas came from recollections of my mother’s photographs. When my family first moved to Ireland we travelled around the country in a small Austrian car, driving on the wrong side of roads that were too narrow for two anyway. It was all one long trip and I don’t remember this headland or that beach, just a vague winding around cliffs with nothing separating us from the sea, my brother and I in the boot of the car waving at the drivers behind us. My mother took panoramas during these trips and sellotaped them together on the walls of our house. The photographs would rise up and follow the clouds and then follow a stone wall and go over the wall and include sheep, hedges and us. I showed her some photographs from trips down with Pierce and she said that we had travelled around Slea Head, staying on the peninsula for some time. There are photographs of us all over places I thought I’d never been. They are in a box somewhere. It’s strange, the possibility of finding my younger family and myself somewhere in places that I know now.

Maps are everywhere, now. Really everywhere. Before they became so digitally pervasive it was usual to have a few printed ones in the door of the car. To consult them on holidays and drives into the unknown. What was a map? The county, the country. Whatever fits on the sheet. We use maps a lot more often now, but their nature has changed. The map is tailored for the individual but presented through the global framework, and something is lost in the median view. The locality is simplified towards both these ends. A map that only tells you where you want to go will never show you what you might be missing.

What strikes me when I look at the Google map of the Dingle Peninsula is how little the map conveys of the place. What’s even stranger is its attempt to commercialise something that is, in my head and heart, almost immune to it. Search for “Dingle Peninsula” in Google Maps and the pin lands on a bed and breakfast that uses its name. The B&B is incorrectly placed, a proud little dot in a featureless expanse of grey, a mile from the nearest road. Zoom out and the roads appear, the blue lake shapes, the sea’s edge, a brush-daub hint at mountains. Still you’re not looking at anything like a view of the place. There is no topography. The names are often wrong or wrongly placed. The satellite view button offers a faultless aerial collage that is undeniable and also strangely uncommunicative. The colours look off, the beaches and the rocks lie just beyond reach—the world through reversed binoculars. Street view is, of course, the most immersive, the most rich of these button options. But it is trapped on the road. It is trapped on the road on a sunny day in September, and there is no crueller place on earth to be confined to what you can see from a car.

I don’t mean to dismiss these things. They are huge, beautiful, fascinating resources. My appreciation for Internet maps will never diminish. But when I long for West Kerry (it is the only place that I ever truly long for), they do little to satisfy that yearning. They seem distant, fuzzy, contextless, like a foreigner explaining my country to me from an article he once read. All data, no salt on the tongue.

In many ways my father’s OSI maps improve on digital roadmaps without ever showing a photograph of anything. Everything on the map is representational, but the contour lines show clearly the curves and humps of the hills, each peak is marked by a black ponc with a height in metres. Rivers, streams, walking paths, roads, backroads. Everything is somehow there, accounted for. A clarity that goes beyond my understanding.

Hilltops is not a map. Or maybe it is. I'm not sure what to call it. What I know is that from the top of a hill you see a view, and it is magnificent. But once you reach the top of the next hill and you look back, something else happens. Once you begin to see each distant peak as a place that you have once stood, and you can locate yourself through days and through years on those peaks and on a hundred paths in between. In every weather, in every state of mind. There is a richness in it that is inarticulable. A map can’t convey it, and a contextless photograph can’t. And Hilltops can’t, of course. But it’s some kind of a clumsy attempt all the same.

Hilltops is a project that we hope will continue to grow as we discover new places and look down on them from the top of the next hill. It might be somewhere where our grandchildren can find themselves by clicking on a small yellow dot, or by plugging themselves into the dot, or however they do it. My old house is so full of things that finding a specific photograph is becoming difficult, impossible, but we find other things along the way. Maybe Hilltops will likewise become a place full of long unopened boxes, so convoluted, that it might be just as difficult to find their young selves. They will arrive at the top of each hill, travel through the next triangular wormhole, and might eventually find their way to the beginning.

Visit Hilltops.ie