Setting Foot on the Shores of Connemara

 

THE ARAN ISLANDS AND NEIGHBOURING COASTS

Setting Foot on the Shores of Connemara & Other Writings

Tim Robinson

THE LILLIPUT PRESS
Dublin

Now and again during the twenty or so years of work on
Stones
of
Aran
and my maps, I was invited to give a talk or write an essay on some particular topic, and accepted if the occasion could be turned into one for me to step back and think about what I was chiefly at, or think at a slight angle to my main heading. The book and maps now being finished, it is time to sort through the pile of shorter works, edit out a few overlaps, and offer them as a
collection
. I thank the various publications mentioned in the sources, and the BBC, for permission to reprint.

Most of these writings relate to the ABC of earth-wonders – Aran, the Burren, Connemara – that I have been spelling out in the maps; some go farther into holes and corners, others fly off into wider spaces. ‘Landscape’ has during the past decade become a key term in several disciplines; but I would prefer this body of work to be read in the light of ‘Space’. Since as an artist and a student of mathematics I was a votary of abstract and imaginary spaces long before I engrained myself in landscape, I can only wonder at the amplitude of actual Space, in which one can without real contradiction build deep-eaved Heideggerian dwellings and revel in the latest scientific speculations about its twenty-six dimensions of which all but the three everyday spatial ones and that of time are so tightly rolled up no perception of ours can ever enter them! However revelatory the current theorizing of somatic space, perceptual space, existential space and so on, ultimately there is no space but Space, ‘nor am I out of it’, to quote Marlowe’s Mephistopheles, for it is, among everything else, the interlocking of all our mental and physical trajectories, good or ill, through all the subspaces of experience up to the cosmic.

Tim Robinson

Rounds
tone,
June
1996

The geography of Aran was explained to us on our first visit by an old man: ‘The ocean’, he said, ‘goes all around the island.’ A few days’ rambles confirmed that fact, and revealed another: that to
explore
an island is to court obsession. We returned to live in Aran as soon as we could leave the city.

There is something compulsive in one’s relationship to an
island
. A mainland area with its ambiguous or arbitrary boundaries doesn’t constrain the attention in the same way. With an island, it is as if the surrounding ocean like a magnifying glass directs an intensified vision onto the narrow field of view. A little piece is cut out of the world, marked off in fact by its richness in
significances
. So an island appears to be mappable. Already a little
abstracted
from reality, already half-concept, it holds out the delusion of a comprehensible totality.

The island is held by the ocean as a well-formed concept is grasped by the mind. But the analogy breaks down, or is
diversified
; the ocean has broken down Aran into three islands, each in its own relationship to the other, to the mainland and to the ocean itself. These three islands of Aran (Oileáin Árann in Irish) are called Árainn, Inis Meáin and Inis Oírr. I give them their proper names rather than the anglicized ones of Inishmore, Inishmaan and Inisheer, because they are of the Irish-speaking region of western Ireland. The three islands sail in line-astern across the mouth of Galway Bay. First the biggest, Árainn, with a population of about nine hundred and the islands’ chief village, the fishing port of Cill Rónáin. The landfall for its trawlers is Ros a’ Mhíl on the
Connemara
coast, but the steamer brings in bread and tourists from Galway near the head of the bay, a three-hour sail if the weather favours. The next is Inis Meáin, the loneliest one, and the last is
the smallest, Inis Oírr. About three hundred and twenty people live on each of these two, which have more to do with the Clare coast than with Connemara.

The three islands are the divided remains of a single limestone escarpment extending in a north-westerly direction from Clare. The ridge-line running from end to end of the group forms another division, transverse to the sea-straits, and is a natural axis for thought about the islands. North-east of this line: terraces bearing a mosaic of crops and pastures, villages, roads (and even too many cars, on the big island), and views across the sound into the multi-coloured depths of Ireland. South-west of the line: bare stone acres, cliffs and surge, the Atlantic horizon. This parallelism of community and solitude is most marked on the big island, where one can walk all day (making a map, perhaps), meeting nobody, getting lonely, and knowing that only twenty minutes away over the hill is a different world where every walk is a linear social occasion.

It was no doubt the common knowledge that I spent so much time exploring the unfrequented parts of the island that prompted Máire Bn. Uí Chonghaile, the postmistress of Cill Mhuirbhigh in Árainn, to suggest I make a map of it: tourists were always asking her for a map, and it was an embarrassment that the island could not provide one. In fact, the only maps covering Aran were the six-inch Ordnance Survey sheets, which broke the islands up into five awkward bits and were no less than seventy-five years out of date, and the skimpy half-inch map of the whole of Galway Bay. I produced a rough design for the map that same evening, the project appealed to me with such urgency. First, it would involve all the things I liked doing: walking, drawing, asking questions. Secondly, it fitted in with ideas I had been hatching about the effects of tourism on such communities. Aran has suffered a loss of confidence over the last few decades; the reasons for this go deep, and the summer invasion of visitors often critical of the islands’ ways and uninformed of their excellencies is a mere
aggravating
factor; yet it did not seem useless to commend the islands’ fragile uniqueness to the protection of the greater world, and this was a task a map could begin, if it could be made expressive of as well as informative about that uniqueness. Finally, a vague cloud of ideas about maps and their relationship to the place mapped,
some of which I had half-realized in artworks before now, could perhaps be worked out in practice; thus the project appeared as a step in an interior evolution, and its execution as what I think of as a private work of art.

The making of a map, I soon found out, is many things as well as a work of art, and among others it is a political, or more exactly an ideological, act. The old Ordnance Survey shows this clearly. Whereas the nineteenth-century surveyors meticulously recorded every crooked wall on the islands, they handled the placenames with a carelessness that reveals contempt, often mishearing them and even misplacing them on the map, and crudely transliterating them in English phonetics. To the colonial administration of that time rents and rates came before any other aspect of life, and the language of the peasant was nothing more than a subversive
muttering
behind the landlord’s back. This historical insult stings the sharper in Aran because Irish is its first language, and although with each generation some of the placenames are forgotten or become incomprehensible, thousands of them still bring their poetry into everyday life. This made it intolerable that the
barbarisms
of the
OS
be perpetuated. Was it possible to make amends? For me, a beginner in Irish, it was a considerable
challenge
, but fortunately I didn’t realize that until I had become
fascinated
by the problem. A thesaurus of local history, anecdote and myth was to be deciphered among these stones; each farmer driving his cows from a field to a well, each fisherman setting his lobster-pots off a rocky shore, held the key to part of it – but I was soon to discover that persuading him to turn out his mental pockets and produce that key, however rusty, bent or broken, had to be a work of patience and cunning.

I was anxious to get on with the actual mapping as soon as
possible
, though I had little idea of how to go about it. It was to be a summer of unprecedented rains. Between showers I set off for the remotest village, Bun Gabhla, a group of ten dwellings in a hollow of the north-western shoulder of Árainn. One cottage-length
seemed
a unit good enough to let me sketch the layout of the village without obtrusive peering-about; back at home I could then
identify
the older cottages on the
OS
, and by a little deduction pinpoint the more recent ones. I sat on a wall and opened my notebook; a few drops of rain soon added their blurring commentary. On my
way back up the hill I turned to look down on Bun Gabhla and check my work. A sea-mist had silently encircled the village,
leaving
it in a pool of light. A woman running out to the clothes-line behind her cottage, two children playing in the street, a goose stretching its neck in a little meadow, were all living in a world so small and detached I could almost pick it up and examine it; yet as I stood wrapped in semi-invisibility on the hillside I felt that my task was impossible, that no scale of miles could express the
remoteness
of this place. Often during that summer, struggling along briary paths in the rain, or on the cliffs trying to sketch the
headlands
with the wind ripping my notebook apart in my hands, I felt that this obstinate isle was not returning my love. It was only after my return the following spring with the completed and printed map that Aran rewarded me with a period of golden calm.

Most days of the mapping took me to and fro between the two aspects of the island, the convivial and the solitary, corresponding to the sheltered terraces of the scarp slope, and the dip slope inclining towards the afternoon sun and the Atlantic storms. Working along the main road that links the villages was my
opportunity
to talk to everyone, the women who run the little shops or who put up summer visitors (for I aimed to make the map a sort of gazetteer as well), and the farmer, fisherman, publican and priest I had to consult about placenames. All along the way men were at work, erecting the first factory of the islands, digging the trenches for an extension of the water supply, building houses, preparing a site for the generator which would give us electricity for the first time. The transformation of this face of the island was going ahead at an exhilarating and alarming pace; I saw that my map, recording a moment in a time of unprecedented changes, would quickly date.

From the main road the rough grassy side-roads or boreens lead across the terraces of little fields down to the northern coast or up on to the creigs (
craga
)
as the bare rocky areas are called. The scale of these terraces is domestic; the tiny fields succeed each other like wry and tilted suites of rooms, and the boreens and ‘roadeens’ (
róidíní
) just wide enough for a cow that branch off from them, are more like hallways and staircases than public
thoroughfares
. Almost the entire area of the island is divided up by drystone walls into a maze of fields reached by a bewilderment of
paths. Each field can feed two or three cows for a certain number of days, and this network of paths is mainly for driving cattle from one field to another, or to and from a spring, a job I was
sometimes
called upon to assist in as I came by. Because the paths branch so frequently, the number of ways a few bullocks can go astray when driven from behind by one child rapidly approaches infinity, and the task is complicated by the fact that the field entrances are closed not by gates but by short stretches of specially loosely-built wall, to be knocked down and then rebuilt when the cattle have passed through. After an hour of running and shouting, and piling and unpiling of stones, the outsider is tempted to think that there must be an easier way. But Aran is virtually treeless; stone is the only material to hand, and that in disheartening
abundance
. This dizzy multiplication of walls has come into being through the centuries as the solution to various problems: clearing the ground of loose stone, protecting stock and crops from gales, the control of grazing, the marking of new boundaries when land was subdivided. There are said to be two thousand miles of wall on the islands! Sometimes as I forced my way along an ancient overgrown
róidín
now bypassed by a wider and more convenient way, I felt moved to record it as an act of piety to the disregarded generations that created this system of fields and paths, an image of human labour in all its wearisome repetitiousness and tireless spontaneity.

Here and there in sheltered hollows among these fields are the roofless ruins of tiny mediaeval churches, reminders of the time of ‘Aran of the Saints’, when these islands played a role comparable with that of Iona in the advance of Christendom. These churches must always have been humble places, and now, reduced to the few and spare gestures of their simple architecture – pointed
door-arch
of two curved stones leaned together, deep-set slit window, blocklike altar – they serve to focus vision on what is most delicate in this introspective landscape, the violets in spring and harebells in summer growing in and around the ruins, the wren scuttling like a mouse in the chinks of the field-walls.

The wren may be king of the birds north of the ridge-line, but south of it the raven rules. Often when I was crossing the bare grey plateau that slopes almost imperceptibly down to the cliff edge, the only sound apart from a loose stone rattled by the wind would be
the croak of a raven circling high above. The thin pasture of these crags is used for winter grazing and in that season one sometimes sees a man carrying a sack of turnips to his cattle or a child with a milkcan, but in summer this can be an unnervingly desolate region. There are acres of bare limestone scattered with strangely perched boulders of Connemara granite brought over by the last Ice Age. Glaciation has polished some areas into natural dance-floors and moulded others into successions of whale-backed ridges. In places the limestone is so closely divided by long parallel fissures it is like a series of knife-blades underfoot. Where the joints are wider and deeper they are filled exactly to the brim with vegetation, for
wherever
there is shelter from the wind the moist Atlantic climate encourages a vigorous growth, and the flora of these barren regions is paradoxically rich and various. Southwards the creigs stop in mid-air, and breakers crash on the rocks two or three hundred feet below. Corresponding to the little Christian ruins in the sheltered hollows of the terraces, a series of great pagan forts dominate these windy spaces. Two of these drystone ‘dúns’ are actually on the cliff edge; the largest, Dún Aonghasa, lording it over a stormy sea from the brink of a three-hundred-foot sheer drop, stands out against the sky like a diagram of ‘the sublime’; its appearance is entirely
adequate
to the romance of the theory that it was the stronghold of a defeated people driven to a glorious last stand on the outermost rim of Europe. In fact these so-called forts, that crown the heights of Aran like vast reservoirs of legend, were the combined
stockyards
, follies, citadels, temples and places of assembly of
long-settled
and prosperous Iron-Age or Early Christian farming
communities
.

I spent much time perched on promontories drawing the cliffs, as I intended to show them in perspective on my map. The strata of shale interleaved with the limestone, which have led to the
formation
of wide terraces on the more sheltered side of the island, show up on the cliff face as deeply cut ledges, in which during the nesting season rows of guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and fulmars are shelved like books. I had heard many stories of the men who used to be let down on ropes to kill the seabirds as they came in to roost, and be hauled up again rigid with cold in the dawn. While a few men still catch rockfish with long lines from the clifftop,
nowadays
most islanders shun the cliffs and quite rightly regard them as
treacherous. They are, in fact, deeply undercut and collapses are not rare. In one place a pillar of rock has become detached and leans out over the sea bearing a little green field on its head as if caught in the act of filching a bit of someone’s farm; when it falls, I shall have to revise the map. I met nobody during the days I spent working along the cliffs, peering over the edge and trying to work out how the strata run. After a spell of this it was often a relief to turn away from the wind and the aboriginal clamour of the gulls, and recross the creigs to the other side of the island, the cherishing side, of cups of tea in friendly kitchens, Guinness in pubs the colour of Guinness, and lifts home by pony-car or minibus.

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