An infinity of looking


Connemara: The west's renaissance landscape man focuses his attention on Roundstone and its environs.

In his splendid two-volume account of Aran (published in the 1990s) Tim Robinson says his intention was to compose "a guidebook to the adequate step". It was an ambition magnificently achieved in those two books, the contents of which, step by detailed step, lend multiple dimensions to the remarkable maps he had already made of the islands' topography and physical contents. Now, in Connemara: Listening to the Wind, he has done something of the same for that portion of Connemara that surrounds Roundstone - the barony of Ballynahinch, the region of the original Conmaicne Mara, a zone that is already part of the indispensable, scrupulously detailed map he has made of the whole of what we call Connemara.

Robinson is our renaissance landscape man. Cartographer, mythographer, cultural historian, mathematician, natural scientist, local explorer, controversialist and sceptic, mild-mannered eco-warrior, retailer of gossip, storyteller, sociologist, social critic, and sentence-shaper of rangy intelligence and unassuming refinement - being all these and more, it may be best in the end to call him simply a philosopher-prose-poet, sage and student of his environment, the recording angel of all he can, step by step, gather about the place he knows in such detail and so obviously loves. It's a place through which he moves, with an exhilarating mixture of youthful enthusiasm and elegiac awareness, seeking out "the structures of everyday life . . . the sound of the past, the language we breathe, and our frontage onto the natural world," always alert, as he says, "to the little asperities and particularities of the way". His explorations (what he calls an "infinity of looking") are first of all horizontal - registering the stunning qualities of the landscape back-dropped by the Twelve Pins, the lakes and valleys of this central portion of greater Connemara, its various woodlands and craggy shores, its astonishing array of (often rare) flora, its sparser fauna, its unique spread of blanket bogland. Then they are vertical - probing every stepped metre for its historical remains, turning over the bones of old cottages, old castles, old demesnes for their hidden stories, legends, myths, granting to what for most of us is just scenery a richly existential thickness of being. Once you've read these essays (the book is divided into 23 separate takes on one or other aspect of the area, each a meandering meditation along as many of the human, natural, and often supernatural paths down which this inimitable guide chooses to lead us) you will never be able to look innocently again up at the horseshoe hillside of Derryclare or out over the waters of Roundstone Bay at the green ridge of Inis Ní, or see the shadowy bulk of the Ballynahinch woods, or the glitter of its broad lake, or the devastated hillsides leaning into Lough Inagh.

The book is a liberal education, and one of the things it teaches is the meaning of the various place names scattered through every inhabited and deserted village, parish, and townland, names Robinson invariably gives in Irish with the English meaning attached. In this way, the volume participates in that earliest of Irish literary modes, the dinnseanneachas, by which the nameless and fearful sprawl of the natural world is rendered humanly intelligible, its horror vacui diminished. By restoring the Irish names along with their meanings, Robinson is also performing an act of decolonisation, reversing the direction of those (often, it must be said, quite sensitive) Ordnance Survey transliterations and translations of the 1830s (the subject of Brian Friel's play Translations). For him, the landscape is an elaborate, inviting, challenging text, and (for us) he is its closest reader, bringing us to an understanding that has a texture, a richness, and a human truthfulness that would otherwise be lost.

ROBINSON'S METHOD IS one of collage, sewing seamlessly together precise topographical descriptions, fragments of official history, a snatch of oral tradition in the voice of a Carna seanachaí, a bite of daily gossip from a neighbour, a pen picture of the Roundstone street beside the house he shares with his partner, M (an important, audible, if flitting, presence throughout), where, as publishers, they run their own cottage industry called Folding Landscapes. Sharing something with the flux of tidal water and the hard core of jagged coastline, the style of narration is also bog-like: as Robinson proceeds deeper and deeper into his subject matter, whether it's geological (the glacial formation of the Inagh Valley), historical (the long, multi-storied genesis of what is now Ballynahinch Castle Hotel; the origins and recent revival of the Mám Éan "pattern" or pilgrimage), or emotional (the lonesomeness of the peaks, the splendour and pre-Christain solitude of the mountain passes), he keeps tossing up, like preserved and time-polished remnants, items that reveal how various, dense, complex and of enduring interest is what at first seemed simple, hardly worth a glance. And though mostly he strikes a sort of celebratory note, tempered and rendered unsentimental by wit and irony, his dark, unsparing accounts of crucifying hunger and callous injustice in 19th-century Connemara are sad (not to say retroactively infuriating) beyond words, composing the bass-note of melancholy (what he calls at one point "the sound of the past") that, even in his brightest evocations, can shadow all other music.

As with his Aran volumes, Connemara (I wonder if "In Connemara" wouldn't be a more accurate title), should stand on the shelf beside Synge's Aran Islands and Thoreau's Walden. Like these classic accounts of special corners of the world, Tim Robinson's essays combine revelation and preservation, are documents of immeasurable restorative worth in their treatment of the objective world (we feel its breathing presence, come to know and appreciate its living contents, and to recognise how truly layered - in time, in implication, in the intersections it establishes between nature and human nature - is any square inch of the real world). In addition, like those of his distinguished predecessors, Robinson's is a subjective treatment, being a portrait - willed or unwilled - of its author, whose rapt, unflinching, endlessly thoughtful gaze is happily matched by a style of expression that is, often in the face of its own scepticism, adequate in feeling and intellectual force to the complex demands of its subject matter. When the great Czeslaw Milosz was asked what his purpose as a poet was, he replied that it was an attempt "to catch at reality." This is both the attempt and the resounding success of Connemara: Listening to the Wind, a volume that should whet one's appetite (at least it does mine) for a sequel that will explore with similar documentary finesse and revelatory grace the "reality" of the rest of Connemara, especially its Gaeltacht southern areas, and its rugged northwest peninsulas looking westward to Inishbofin and northwards across Killary Harbour towards Mayo, Croagh Patrick, and Mweelrea. For locals, blow-ins, and visitors alike, another such "guidebook to the adequate step" would truly be, as this one is, a gift.

Eamon Grennan is a poet who teaches at Vassar College and lives when he can in Connemara

Connemara: Listening to the Wind By Tim Robinson Penguin Ireland, 439pp. €25.99