A magisterial Connemara odyssey
LANDSCAPE: Connemara: A Little Gaelic Kingdom,By Tim Robinson, Penguin Ireland, 407pp. €25
IN WALLACE STEVENS’S poem The Snow Man, the last line has the protagonist beholding “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is”. This line kept whispering in my head as I read Connemara: A Little Gaelic Kingdom.For, in this, the triumphant conclusion to Tim Robinson’s magisterial Connemara trilogy, the rooted hard facts (of landscape, history, people living and dead) and floating nonfacts (myths, stories, legends, far-fetched anecdotes) of a small geographical space are transformed into the endlessly mobile fixture of a literary masterpiece.
With the abounding knowledge of a shaman and the discursive manners of a simpatico rationalist (part unbridled enthusiasm, part sceptical detachment), this mapmaker extraordinaire explores, excavates, renders visible and audible in three, no, four and more, dimensions the world apart – of townlands, parishes and baronies – that is Irish-speaking south Connemara. It is an area that includes Ros Muc, An Ceathrú Rua, Ros a’ Mhíl, Casla, Carna and the broken, immeasurable jigsaw puzzle of tiny islands that make up Garomna and na h-Oileáin. And more. For wherever Robinson walks, bikes, halts, on his astonishing odyssey, there is always more: more to see, more to hear, more to think about, more to say.
Like its predecessors, this book defies easy definition, simple classification. Part travel account, part sociological analysis, part cultural commentary, part scientific explanation, part lyrical depth-response to landscape, part philosophy, part autobiography and memoir: heterogeneity is its essential nature, variety its wandering bedrock unity, with “no dominating theme but the multiplicity of themes”. On one page, so, you’ll find yourself immersed in the romantic Gaelic nationalism of Patrick Pearse; on another you’ll be treated to a clear explanation of fractal geometry; one moment you’ll be receiving a little history lesson on the origin of the name of a “low glacial hill” near Camas, and on another you’ll be listening to the sweet notes of some sean-nós singer or those of the tragically short-lived Ros Muc poet Caitlín Maude. Or maybe you’ll be hearing the startling story of the great singer Joe Heaney’s contribution to John Cage’s Roaratorio.
Stories flow into topographical descriptions and out again into genially informed social diagnosis, mythic tale, sacred memory. “Here lives a story,” Robinson says of every rock, nook, holy well and sea-washed cranny he pauses at, granting every one its due.
Everywhere, too, there are simple yet eloquent proofs of Robinson’s insistence on the interweaving of place and its successive human inhabitations, always signalling the collisions and collusions of landscape and language. In fact, one of the glories of the book is the way, in his persistent use of Irish, Robinson has reclaimed this landscape for the Irish language. He demonstrates again and again how a placename, even in its anglicised, colonised form (often sensitively managed by the “translators” of the 1839 Ordnance Survey, one of agnostic Robinson’s small bibles), contains a topographical fact, which in turn contains a story, a fragment of history, a glimmer of myth, whatever.
Wherever he lays the affectionate scrutiny of his attention, Robinson makes us feel both the loss and the presence of the Irish language, the “felt sense of life” as it has been and continues to be lived in south Connemara. But he never sentimentalises it, seeing rather the need of both languages, Irish and English, which between them create that interweave and interconnection by which the world itself – as viewed through Robsinson’s holistic lens – exists and sustains itself.
One of the things I’ve always loved about Robinson’s work is how it becomes an enduring homage to the work in prose of Synge, whose palpable spirit, watchful and all ears, sits arms-folded and pipe-smoking in the wings as his beloved Connemara (the “distressed districts” he and Jack Yeats visited and described in 1905) is once again centre stage. For, like Synge, who blends lyric evocations of landscape, portraits of characters, anecdotes and stories, sociological, anthropological and cultural commentary, along with elegiac interludes of great power and universal application, Robinson (who adds etymology as well as contemporary geological, mathematical and cosmological knowledge to the mix, not to mention his own continuous idiosyncratic thread of philosophic pondering) is determined to offer a presence, not a picture, a feel for what has been a hidden life and way of life. Like Synge, he aims at a complicated, beautifully layered fullness of response. Enormous as his undertaking is, I can’t help feeling its small, vigorously fertile seed lies in Synge’s The Aran Islands, a useful edition of which has been edited by Robinson himself.
Robinson’s literary strategy is one of weaving and cross-weaving his ramifying digressions into a coherent journey, its innumerable details made coherent by the clarity, concreteness and often self-mocking humour of his writing. Like a good novelist, he has never met a fact he wouldn’t stop for, an overgrown lane he wouldn’t walk down, a stranger he wouldn’t pause to chat to and leave with the mutual pleasure of a gift exchanged – the gift of information.
Nor has he ever passed a heap of stones he wouldn’t puzzle over and interrogate for its story. A holy well? The remains of a kelp kiln? A broken boulder flung by one mythic bully at another? A bit of a long-gone demesne wall? The remains of a tiny quay for a currach or two?
By bringing such facts and their contained stories to light, he has reanimated a landscape in its past and its often bustling present (for he also considers the remarkable development of contemporary south Connemara). By such tireless means he has illuminated a whole region, a region that for most of us has probably been,apart from its scenery, more or less inert, featureless except for its bare rocks, its sudden flashes of water, its formidable, gorgeous hills, its stony inlets and its “coral” strands. In his work (his own practical poetics of space), this stony, chosen place comes alive in multidimensional ways that dazzle imagination and inform knowledge.
More than 20 years ago Robinson made his indispensable map of the area, and his subsequent prose works have been a sort of layering on top of that enterprise. Repetition, layering, weaving, going over and over again the same material: it all suggests how a poet might work,revisiting themes and subjects and notions and images. Finding at each fresh visitation another layer of meanings, deeper possibilities of understanding, yet wise enough too – as Robinson is wise and sceptical enough – to know there is no end point, no finality. To know, that is, that one lives in any space as a series of discoveries, a spiral of visions and revisions that render reality itself a denser, thicker, more enthrallingly real experience.
Confined to their usual word quota, a reviewer could spend a whole review teasing out and commenting on the style and substance of any couple of pages of Connemara: A Little Gaelic Kingdom.But then there’d be so many other pages to ferret about in and comment on. For this is a book to savour in gulps or in sips, an exhilarating journey with a thought-riddled, miraculously informed and good-humoured guide, whose clear, plainly eloquent voice manages a striking balance between steely self-confidence and diffidence before the “vastitude” of his undertaking, an undertaking that amounts to a mapping of what he himself has called “my time in space”.
It’s a mapping that has been for Robinson himself, I’d say, an undertaking, an enterprise and a journey of love. Willing to enter, as he has, wholeheartedly into Wallace Stevens’s “Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is”, he has managed to do what John Donne said love does, turning a “little room” into “an everywhere”. It seems fitting, so, that Yorkshire-born Robinson concludes his Odyssean exploration and celebration of this little kingdom, his little everywhere, on the word “home”. In this context, this space, no one has earned greater right and title to this little big word.
Eamon Grennan’s most recent collections of poetry are Out of Breath(Gallery Press) and, in the US, Out of Sight: New and Selected Poems (Graywolf Press)