Irish Surnames

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Why We Love It

Sometimes the simplest of ideas makes a beautiful map. Here we see a map of 1890 Irish Census data on babies’ surnames. We love that this map uses the surnames as symbols and scales them relative to how many babies shared that name instead of summarizing data using standard mapping techniques. It’s a proportional symbol map but one which immediately shows the theme by using symbols that have meaning. The Celtic-inspired fonts add to the very Irish-themed map.

Why It Works

Proportional symbols are an excellent way to show quantities on maps. Usually mapmakers scale the size of symbols, such as circles or squares, proportionally to the data value. This map works because it scales the size of the text instead. A progressive reveal shows the most popular names first and the complete map of names as you zoom. The search tool lists names in alphabetical order allowing people to easily search the map.

Important Steps

Convert a map of the counties of Ireland to points so each county is represented by a point.

Using the surnames database, which lists surnames by county, join the surnames data to the counties points.

You can label multiple points in each county using the surname.

Since each surname has a count associated with it, they can be scaled by size.

Use generalization tools (such as the Disperse Markers tool) to distribute points (and labels) within the counties. Perform manual editing to give the final position.



Census data provides a rich source for thematic mapping. You’ll need a basemap that contains the relevant administrative boundaries for your area, in this case, Irish counties. Here, we used a proportional symbol technique.


Determine the most popular surname for each county. Use generalization tools (such as Disperse Markers tool) to distribute points (and labels) within the counties. Perform manual editing to give the final position.


Simple datasets will be handled automatically by the Maplex labelling engine.

Largest Symbols


Make sure your largest symbols and number of symbols will fit into your smallest areas and work backward, applying the symbols to the other areas. Create a good balance between density of detail across the map without leaving areas that are either too crowded or too sparse.



Use symbology to fit your map theme. Here, Celtic symbology matched the historical Irish theme perfectly.

Four Color Theorem


The map uses the four color theorem, which is a technical way of saying you only need four colors to make any administrative map without having the same color adjacent to itself. Limiting the colors creates a pleasing patchwork for any administrative map.

More Information


2010 John C Bartholomew award for small scale mapping

2009 Cartography Special Interest Group Best map award at Esri International User Conference

2009 People’s Choice map gallery award at Esri International User Conference

2009 Most Unique map gallery award at Esri International User Conference

Map Author

Keneth Field

Ken Field

@kennethfield | LinkedIn

Professional cartonerd, amateur drummer and snowboarder. Lifetime encourager of cartographic quality not quantity. Map with the times while building on the past.

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