Tim Robinson is Parnell Fellow at Magdalene College, Cambridge University and will be presented a seminar on “The Connemara Trilogy” for the Cambridge Group for Irish Studies on Tuesdays 15th February 2011 at 8.45 p.m. in the Parlour, Magdalene College.
The Connemara Trilogy
In 1972 my partner M and I left London, where I had been working as a visual artist, for one of the Aran Islands, which we mistakenly assumed to be a quiet place suitable for the writing of the novel I had in mind. But Aran proved so distractingly fascinating that my writing narrowed down to a diary of intoxication with the island.
The novel never came to be; instead I made a map of the three Aran Islands, and wrote a two-volume paean of praise to the one we lived in. Then it seemed a natural progression to map the Burren, the limestone uplands visible to the east from Aran. Soon the mapping project had outgrown the little cottage we rented, and we moved to Roundstone, a fishing and summer-tourism village in Connemara, the landmass visible to the north from Aran, which I also set out to map.
The maps took many years; they aimed at accuracy, of course, but they owed more to my background in art than to the profession of cartography; they were attempts to entangle the user in these three extraordinary landscapes, to make it difficult to leave – as opposed to the usual aim of a map which is to help you get out of wherever you are as fast as possible.
But now, looking back on them, I see them as preliminary storings and sortings of material for use, ultimately, in the construction of literary works. And it is the structure of the three volumes I have written on Connemara that I will explain in my seminar, rather than any particular content. The first volume is subtitled Listening to the Wind, and below is part of the preface, which is called ‘The Sound of the Past’:
A small concrete cross stands by the road that follows the river from Ballynahinch to the sea. The proprietor of The Angler’s Return, two bends of the road and the river farther on, tells me it marks where one of the gillies was found dead of a heart attack. “Wasn’t it good that he died looking out at the river he’d worked on all his life?” she added. But from the time of the tyrannical Tadhg O’Flaherty, who forbade fishing in the lake by his castle, to the fish-ins of the Gaelic Civil Rights Movement in the ’sixties, the fisheries of Connemara have been occasions of resentment. Perhaps the man died cursing the river that had brought him a lifetime of midge-bites and the condescension of the rich.
Whatever the burden of the gillie’s last breath, it was dispersed into the air to be degraded by the hiss of rain or eroded molecule by molecule in the Brownian fidget of drifting pollen-grains, and captured, a little of it, by the tilting, spilling, cups and saucers of the water surface, dissolved, hurried under the old bridge at Tuaim Beola and added to the sea. So one can imagine it infinitesimally present in, and persuasively interpreting, the sough (which we should not delude ourselves is a sighing) of the Ballynahinch woods, the clatter (not a chattering) of the mountain streamlets, the roar (not a raging) of the waves against the shore.
These indefinite but enormous noises are part of Connemara. Sometimes from my doorstep on a still night I become aware that the silence is set in a velvet background like a jewel in a display case, a hushing that, when attended to, becomes ineluctable. It is compounded of the crash of breakers along distant strands, variously delayed, attenuated, echoed and re-echoed. A frequently falsified but never quite discredited forewarning of gales, it is an effect that, from our perspective here, precedes its cause: a depression moving across the Atlantic and advancing its concentric rollers towards our coast. By the morning, perhaps, a tumult of air will be battering the windows, all its wavelengths, from the vast heft of gusts over the hill that half shelters us, to the spasms of the garden shrubs and the fluting of a dry leaf caught between two stones, merging into one toneless bulk noise. Going here and there in thought through the pandemonium, only the most analytic listening can disengage its elements: shriek of sedge bent double out on the heath, grinding of shingle sucked back by the reflux, slow chamfering of a stone’s edge by blown sandgrains.
Such vast, complex, sounds are produced by fluid generalities impacting on intricate concrete particulars. As the wave or wind breaks around a headland, a wood, a boulder, a treetrunk, a pebble, a twig, a wisp of seaweed or a microscopic hair on a leaf, the streamlines are split apart, flung against each other, compressed in narrows, knotted in vortices. The ear constructs another wholeness out of the reiterated fragmentation of pitches, and it can be terrible, this wide range of frequencies coalescing into something approaching the auditory chaos and incoherence that sound-engineers call ‘white noise’: zero of information-content, random interference obliterating all messages, utterly dire, a metaphysical horror made audible, sometimes dinned into prisoners’ heads to drive them mad in the cells of their brains.
Similar too is the sound of the past, the wreck of time’s grand flow in tortuous passages. It includes and sometimes drowns the sound of history. History has rhythms, tunes, and even harmonies; but the sound of the past is an agonistic multiplicity. Sometimes, rarely, a scrap of a voice can be caught from the universal damage, but it may only be an artefact of the imagination, a confection of rumours. Chance decides what is obliterated and what survives if only to be distorted and misheard. Of the gillie who died by the river, I know nothing more, but may yet find out something. But who, for one of the crowding shades besieging my book, was Cuach na Coille, the ‘cuckoo of the wood’? I hear of her from a single source only, and only this: that she was a beautiful horsewoman, who lived in Derryclare Wood. I fear that nobody living can tell me more. Even in the ancient forest itself, where slender shafts of sunlight look almost material enough to cast a greenish shadow, and sometimes in the restless canopy a cuckoo claims to be ‘here / there’, the mysterious horsewoman does not appear, tantalising with her untold tale. Hers, with his, may stand for all Connemara’s abolished voices.
The trilogy is divided into three volumes; Connemara: Listening to the Wind, Connemara: The Last Pool of Darkness (a phrase from Wittgenstein, on whom Tim Robinson writes about in connection with his stay in Connemara) and, finally, Tim is using his time as a Visiting Fellow at Magdalene to finish off the third volume, Connemara: A Little Gaelic Kingdom, which is about the Irish speaking areas of Connemara.
To find out more about Tim and his map-making, see: http://www.foldinglandscapes.com/