Monday, March 25, 2013

Tim Robinson's "Connemara: The Last Pool of Darkness": Book Review

Taking its subtitle from Wittgenstein, who stayed here in 1948, this second installment of a trilogy surveys the tip of Western Ireland as elegantly as Robinson's previous explorations of Aran. While the little map cannot display his cartographic expertise (some places are not included and you'll have to consult his Folded Landscapes fold-out chart or an Irish road atlas), his nimble prose and learned eye combine for a rewarding companion along these byways.

I've driven many of them, but stopped on too few. So, a resident of Roundstone since 1984 such as Yorkshire-transplant Tim Robinson, with his Irish-language expertise and his mathematically trained gaze, is ideal as a guide. This time, he takes you from Killary Harbour near Leenane under the Mayo border with Co. Galway to Slyne Head in the south-west of the Connemara coast. He keeps mainly along the coast. Whereas the first book, "Connemara: Listening to the Wind," felt sometimes despairing in its evocation of ecological frailty, this one despite its subtitle feels lighter.

Even if Robinson by now is of "gammy leg and bleary eye," this volume testifies to his perspective and endurance on so many lonely lanes and along the empty shores. The concrete fills some of this, and it's sad to read of the tourist industry's scars on the landscape, too often spoiled by ugly construction. Noting the stopping of the Clifden airport on the Marconi radio station's ruins on the bog, but admitting it goes in somewhere else inevitably, he laments the "death by a thousand cuts of the natural world, and a thinning of the human spirit" that we suffer by letting one more plot of land give way to concrete and asphalt. (176)

He sees the same "mental command" in the dominating spirit to acquire and diminish even in the Neolithic sacred stones erected in 1200 BCE. This "will to power," to lock down the landscape with monumental sightlines, resembles the Ordnance Survey of the British in the imperialist age. The soil began to be depleted by these ancient Bronze Age arrivals, and it began the bog that then swallowed up the stones, "not to be revealed again until our own exploitative, turf-cutting times." (130)

He writes well of what still dominates most of the Irish west. Whether the Rev. Alexander Dallas and the Famine-era attempts to convert the Catholic peasants to Protestantism, the impact of Marconi's radio transmitter in the light of quantum physics, coral and saint's legends, or the end of Kylemore Abbey, he gets you interested. Combining scholarship with energy, he teaches you in an enjoyable and thoughtful manner at what he himself has learned and marveled.

Like his other writings on Ireland, Robinson immerses you. Sometimes in the Connemara books it feels as if the goings on of the gentry and those who have moved here take precedence over the nameless families who have endured, and perhaps then emigrated, without acclaim or notoriety. I found the sections most engaging that dealt with nature or the Irish language place names, rather than chronicles or Big Houses, but this reflects my own bias. Robinson, to his credit, tries to stay more even-handed, a mediator between those like him who have come to settle here, but who by his Irish-language acquisition understands the hidden layers. Parts may slacken only by my own comparative lack of equal engagement with a chapter's topic, but not for long--the sights keep changing as does the weather, and it's no sign of any loss of control over his considerable erudition.

He reflects on juxtapositions of ourselves with the past, hidden as the Irish language names hint at a shallow legacy under the English-language culture that has swept the old tongue nearly away and with it most of its hard-pressed natives. (I note how many living here now do not live off the land, and how many of them as himself come to this place to enjoy its views, newcomers from another land.) He ponders the lesson of the ancient markers of white quartz torn open by a bulldozer today. "Ghosts and fairies are moods of one's feeling for the Earth; they wax and wane with our desires and delusions. The glimmer of white quartz, dim afterlife of its daytime brilliance, may persist throughout a long summer evening, but will succumb to the black rainy nights after Hallowe'en." (135)

Such metaphors show Robinson's power on the page. He adds a naturalist's knowledge and a folklorist's ear to his travel account, and he mingles history, song, politics, religious rivalries, and a steady focus on the human and ecological balance in this niche off the Atlantic. Recommended and if you have not read his visits to Aran as well, add those to your list as well. (Amazon US 2-9-13)

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