This review of Tim Robinson’s Connemara: A Little Gaelic Kingdom appeared recently in the New Statesman.
Connemara: a Little Gaelic Kingdom
Penguin Ireland, 432pp, £20
Tim Robinson is the Proust of the western seaboard, a Ruskin of the isles. Since the 1980s, this Yorkshire-born polymath has essayed an extraordinarily ambitious and eloquent description of the portions of the west of Ireland where he has lived. Robinson had been a mathematician, teacher and artist when, in 1972, he fled London for the Aran Islands. Eking a living as a cartographer, he began work on Stones of Aran, a two-volume treatment of his new home that is both exact and lyrical, modestly indebted to local guides and often testy in the face of sentimental tourists and unthinking efforts to modernise which ruin the location. By the time the first volume appeared in 1986, Robinson had relocated to mainland Connemara, now the subject of a monumental trilogy, of which A Little Gaelic Kingdom is the final part.
The region of Robinson’s title stretches 40 miles or so to the north-west of the city of Galway: a variegated territory of rock, bog, farmland (frequently composed of rock and bog), precipitous and raw glacial remnants and ill-advised plantings of conifers from the pre-boom decades, the whole bounded by a coastline of such complexity that Robinson invokes Benoît Mandelbrot in an effort to make it make sense. As he notes in the second volume of the trilogy, Ludwig Wittgenstein (who took up residence at Rosroe in 1948) considered Connemara “the last pool of darkness” in Europe. In Robinson’s books it is perhaps not so obscure, but certainly no less depthless, a place of “random beguilements and sidesteps”.
The immediate subject of this third volume is the Irish-speaking districts of Connemara. As a non-native, Robinson seems to have got as close to the long-dying language as one can, recounting stories told him only in Irish and tracing the residues of the language in contemporary place names. But in approaching Connemara’s Gaeltachts (Irish-speaking areas), he enters territory even more vexed, culturally and politically, than he did in Stones of Aran, where the work of his precursor J M Synge was a constant presence.
Here, the eager historical guide is Patrick Pearse, doomed leader of the 1916 Easter Rising and lover of both the language and land of Connemara. Robinson is generous about Pearse’s life and his writing, preferring to mine his short stories for their intimacy with the landscape than to linger over his prim but messianic character. Still, the politics of the Irish language are never far away: later, Robinson recounts efforts to have the Gaeltachts protected in a country that was officially obsessed by its vanishing tongue but in practice oddly oblivious to its speakers.
None of this should suggest that Robinson has written anything so conventional as a history of the Irish language in Connemara; his is too roving a mind for that – it is the topography and its narrative store that dominate. Robinson moves easily from considerations of the fractal geology of the coastline, through tales of tyrannical landlords done to death in the land wars, to austerely hymning thesean-nós (old-style) singing of such notables as Joe Heaney, once an unlikely collaborator with John Cage. Another story lurks unfinished here: Connemara is now pocked with the ruins of boom-time hubris, a landscape of unwanted housing developments and abandoned factories.
As ever with Robinson, the pleasures of his vagrant, exacting style are many. The seductive accumulation of stories or topographical details frequently culminates in reflections at once abstract and lovely, as in his concluding remarks about the intricacy of the coast: “The natural world is largely composed of such recalcitrant entities, over which the geometry of Euclid, the fairy tale of lines, circles, areas and volumes we are told at school, has no authority.” Long, digressive tramps through natural or cultural history terminate in aphoristic clarity: “There are places where place proliferates . . . There is no overarching story other than the dominance of story itself.” Except that, for Robinson, such sudden vistas and insights are preludes to the renewed work of immersion in place. As he wrote in his diary 30 years ago: “I could wander onwards up here for ever.”