There are times when I wonder if Irish people have a distorted sense of how big Ireland is. I was reminded of this today by a text from a listener read out on a radio program.

I was listening to a discussion between an Irish presenter, Sean Moncrief, and an American guest when the American confused Ireland as part of the UK.

This sort of thing happens every so often. I don't get fazed by it because I know know a lot of Americans are pretty hazy about the whole Irish-British-English-Scottish-UK thing. Moncrief corrected him and I actually thought the American realized the mistake he'd made. It wasn't a big issue.

A few minutes later Moncrief read out the text, the gist of which was Americans know nothing of world history, only American history, which is ingrained in their minds through the education system. Basically we're a bunch of ignoramuses. {I started getting all huffy about this when Moncrief smoothly indicated the error of the texter's ways.}

As I said, this comes up pretty regularly, but today I just couldn't stop wondering why do people here think Americans should know something about Ireland?

Obviously, Americans with ties to Ireland will know some, maybe even a lot about Ireland, but why would the average American know anything about Ireland? It's a small island with a small population off the coast of Europe. If Ireland was one of the 50 states, it would be about in the middle population wise and in the bottom 20% in terms of land area. Small.

The truth is I think Americans know far more about Ireland than they do about Austria, Honduras, Togo or Azerbaijan, which are all similar in terms of land area and population. Yet people here think Americans should know more.

So I was thinking about why this should be so and came up with two possibilities: (a) Irish people know so much about America that they expect the same in return and (b) it's because of the maps. The first point is true and I'm sure goes some way to explain Irish people's incredulity that Americans know so little about Ireland. But I like my maps theory.

The maps used in Irish classrooms to teach children geography are massive; they make Ireland look huge. Day after day, year after year day-dreaming kids are staring up at the map absorbing the lesson that this is a big place.

I know it sounds silly, but I've met people here who have a good grasp of the distance from Belfast to Cork (215 miles) who somehow think that driving from New York to Orlando would be about the same (1,100 miles).

I remember once having to explain to graduate students that to anyone in America or China or just about anywhere else on Earth the distance between Belfast and Dublin would appear to be practically nothing. It actually took these people - all of them smart - a few minutes to accept what I was saying. If I'd been aware of the giant classroom maps then I'd have told them to banish those memories.

That's a mystery solved. Irish people have a distorted view of Ireland's size and influence - and thus expect others to be knowledgeable about the country - due to the maps used in their schools.

{Map from Ars Magica.}