Saving Tim Robinson’s Roundstone home, his last gift to the Irish nation
The house and its setting and garden are inextricably bound into the writer's work
Tim Robinson in his home in Roundstone on the sea shore Co Galway. Photograph: David Sleator
The only time I saw badgers when I lived in the west of Ireland was on the wintry road to Roundstone in the early dark of a winter’s night. Two of them scattered from our headlights as we drove to an unlikely event, a literary salon by the curving pier, occasioned by the visit of an artist who had washed up there in the cold and wet.
The salon was the work of Tim and Máiréad Robinson, who both died earlier this year within weeks of each other, two people who were that curious paradox, both self-sufficient and generous to strangers. I have never met any others who so organised their lives with rigorous accord to what they considered to be important, a frugality balanced with delight, in words as in people.
Samuel Beckett called Galway “a grand little magic grey town”. I found it mostly grey. Leaving it, the thin ribbon of road that spools out from Barna to Furbo, Spiddal, round and through to Inver and Kilkieran, bright as sun with knotted wrack on the falling tide, led by wandering way to Roundstone, a Connemara village with the sea airs of west Cork.
The living room was home to years of conversations, which spanned all manner of subjects, from the geology of the west to the campaign to stop the construction of an airport on Roundstone Bog
The foot of the village stands by the pier, a hook of stone dressed with lobster creels, which the Robinsons’ home overlooks. A converted, because once dilapidated, small knitting factory, the house sits at the end of a row of town homes, raised up and hidden from the road. Its damp lower floor was home to Tim’s archive, which included paintings from his migrant life in the 1960s, maps, notes, and the extensive card files that are the underpinning to his explorations of the west coast and its islands.
Near this was a desk and a window, which looked back to the landward bay and the Twelve Bens beyond. Upstairs was a living room with the dimensions of a longboat, and behind that a kitchen, cramped hall and bedrooms. The living room was home to years of conversations, which spanned all manner of subjects, from the geology of the west to the campaign to stop the construction of an airport on Roundstone Bog.
For my own part I found it a place in which it was impossible to listen to anyone for long, outside the sea and the mountains, the light and the dark, a blaze of broken cloud reflected on the water. Over to the side, a roof terrace was home to the annual gathering of friends who watched the town regatta, Tim and Máiréad delighted at the bustle of hookers on their windy circuits.
The house and its setting and garden are inextricably bound into Tim’s work. He drew his maps there and in a number of essays explored the special characteristics of this place
Thanks to the Robinsons’ generosity their archive and the Roundstone house was offered as a gift to the National University of Ireland, Galway. The university took the archive and refused the house. Now, friends and supporters are working to secure the future of this place as climate breakdown invites sea rise and ocean change, and the west coast becomes the front line in Ireland’s Atlantic reckoning with a new world that will challenge our ideas, our economy, and our society, as never before.
As a member of this voluntary collective, Sheila O’Donnell writes that “the priority is to save the Robinsons’ house from commercial development and hold it for cultural use in accordance with their wishes.
“The house and its setting and garden are inextricably bound into Tim’s work. He drew his maps there and in a number of essays explored the special characteristics of this place. In the garden he constructed his own cultural landscape: the ‘numerological garden’. This is a reflection on the limestone landscape of Árainn; a site-specific art work in parallel to his writings, his cartography and his paintings. And now, together with the house, it’s at risk.”
The old sureties of rock and water are no longer our security, as Tim knew, demanding of his readers a deep thoughtfulness about our physical presence in this material world. If we are uncertain of our future, Robinson’s Roundstone home is there as a listening post, a transmitter, a site of attentive observation, the qualities that drew all kinds of people to his door, artists, scientists, writers, talkers, sailors, farmers, neighbours. This is a place through which to see the Wild Atlantic Way as a living and intricate web of languages, environments and cultures that is the gathering of millennia of threads, human, animal, bird, fish and flower, stone, sea and sky.
Robert Macfarlane agrees. “From this house in Roundstone, over decades, Tim Robinson carried out one of the most remarkable place-writing projects ever conceived in any language or culture -- a deep-mapping of the west of Ireland that will endure as a masterpiece for centuries to come. The house was the site of so much of this work’s making and thinking; its cognitive centre of gravity. As such it is indivisible from Tim’s achievement.”
In recognition of that achievement, Robinson was invited in 2011 to be the Parnell fellow at Cambridge, at which university he had studied physics and mathematics as an undergraduate. I was in Roundstone one day when Máiréad produced the letter of invitation from a cupboard and began to read, with a drama only she could summon, the list of procedures that fellows of various standing were to follow in respect of the serving of dinner, drinks, or their seniors, all of which seemed another universe from the windy skyscapes of Connemara.
The whole gave them dry amusement, and great pleasure, for Cambridge offered generous, appreciative company, and the opportunity to deliver what stands, for Robinson, as a manifesto, his lecture A Land Without Shortcuts. Published in his last book, Experiments on Reality, this is the synthesis of a lifetime’s work, the miniature majestic, the local drawn at universal scale.
That same year a group of us interested in islands and oceans invited friends of Tim to Galway to celebrate the publication of the last volume of his Connemara trilogy, A Little Gaelic Kingdom. The first evening we met in the Roundstone Community Hall, where I spent the longest hour of my life trying to get the projector to work as a packed room waited to watch Pat Collins’s excellent film. Thankfully it did, and I was never more grateful after for the kind ministrations of the good people of O’Dowd’s.
Everything else took place in the Druid Theatre, which was the stage for Norman Ackroyd to spread his engravings of the Irish coast before us. Ackroyd, a Yorkshireman like Robinson, all rollie smoke and wind-worn, is one of the greatest artists of the weather since Turner. Arms open, he invited us towards him, to look closely at his miniature tints of cliff and spume, the vertical lines of the western shores from Clare to Donegal merged in flitters of watery light.
This is the literary province of Moya Cannon, who later read from her Burren poems before Tim declared to us all his farewell, as he claimed it, from Connemara. That last journey took the best, or worst, of another decade to fully happen, the Robinsons moving in increasing ill-health to their London flat and an isolation that was tempered by the care of their friend Anna Bowman and Tim’s grand-nephew, John Drever.
“I think of Tim Robinson,” Cannon writes, “in his maps and in his luminous writing, as one of the great restorers, and one of the quiet unravellers of imperium.”
I found in Tim a kind of refuge. He heard speech where others imagined silence. He saw time as a procession of miniature steps, life a momentary gathering of marvels. A rational visionary, he had the gifts to gather his perceptions in looping arcs of prose, each word a step towards the next, and all in synchrony with the life of sea and stone, the dolphin in the wave, the rock-strewn beach. He had determination too, and an attitude to life that remained curious about the world around him, even to the end.
Ireland has lost a great writer, map-maker and artist with his passing. It has also lost a way-marker and a harbour, which I hope will be remembered in our collective care for the Robinsons’ Roundstone home, which is their last gift to all of us.
Nicholas Allen’s new book, Ireland, Literature and the Coast: Seatangled, will be published shortly by Oxford University Press
Unfolding Maps: A Celebration of Tim Robinson take splace as part of ILFDublin on Wednesday, October 28th, at 8pm. Fintan O’Toole is joined by some of Tim Robinson’s friends and collaborators – poet Moya Cannon, photographer Nicolas Fève and Robert Macfarlane – to discuss his influence on their own work, whether written or visual, and their meetings and collaborations with him across the Irish landscape.