Saturday, March 23, 2013

Tim Robinson's "Connemara: Listening to the Wind": Book Review

Reading this a few years after his pair of Aran books, the density of detail and erudition applied to what appears a far larger realm than an island is not diminished by the widened perspective. This Cambridge-trained mathematician, cartographer, and artist applies his Irish-language acquisition to his adapted terrain, where's he lived in Roundstone since 1984. Around his new home, he explores its shores, the Twelve Pins, and the Maamturk mountains inland in the western portion.

He walks without textbooks, so as not to get too bogged down in detail, but surely he consults them, as this learned first installment of his trilogy--well-indexed and over four-hundred pages-- documents. He tries to "see things as they are when he's not there," as a naturalist. (26) He visits a Dead Man's Grave and finds in its name a fitting reminder of our shared fate. He enters a bog to revel in its monoculture, where biodiversity may be lacking, but where it holds intact its own simple treasure.

As in all his writings and maps, the attention to the Irish enlivens this in terrain from which the spoken language has faded along this patch of its western enclave. "Irish placenames dry out when anglicized, like twigs snapped off a tree." (81) In a "gargoyle-logic of creation," Robinson inserts our own small span, as we add years, distort, and then fall rigid ourselves in odd postures. Mortality infuses these eloquent pages, where Beckett's "skull in Connemara" (and I think since this of Martin McDonagh's plays) lingers in the fate of a Famine village of Rosroe. Graves speckle some boreens so much that in his map-making he gave up marking them. Such poetry and philosophy combined with archives and science deepens the fatal impacts of the abandoned.

This narrative is best read slowly and sparingly, for sometimes the amount of local history (he seems to enjoy telling the comings and goings of the titled and the eccentric, as often the incomers get the attention given their printed records of power or orally transmitted anecdotes of oddity that the anonymous dweller or nameless emigrant will never reclaim) or botanical precision can weary. I would have welcomed more follow-through on colonist Sir Richard Bingham's 1641 coverage of the land, the 1660s Survey & Distribution books, or Richard Martin's holdings, for instance; Robinson has published on the Martins separately, but sometimes he alludes in this volume too briefly to matters that only whet the curious appetite. And the map here, the same in the sequel (see my Feb. 2013 review of "Connemara: The Last Pool of Darkness") is far too small and sketchy. You will need Robinson's own maps of Connemara (and Aran) to fully enjoy his books.

Still, that gap shows a book that generates interest. Derryclare Wood's five thousand years in the making, the felled conifer plantation's disaster zone adjacent make for a telling symbol of Irish stewardship for a fragile ecosystem. But, a great joke about King Edward VII's visit to Recess in 1903, and a spirited encouragement on the Barony Bridge at Ballynahinch, restored after the War of Independence, sum up promise well. Young John Barlow hesitated to cross it; an army officer at the other end cheered him on. "Come on, little boy! This bridge was built for you!" (398) (Amazon US 2-14-13)

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