Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Tim Robinson's "Connemara: A Little Gaelic Kingdom": Book Review

While the last published of this trilogy, Robinson tells us first off it's meant to be the second installment. It nestles into the southern Connemara coastline. Concluding this exhaustive investigation of this Irish-speaking (if increasingly threatened) enclave thirty-odd miles west of Galway city, this Cambridge-trained mathematician turned Connacht cartographer tracks down its traditional place names and wanders in the lore and the landscapes of these locales near his Roundstone residence the past thirty years. The Atlantic pounds these shores with only slightly less fury than on the Aran Islands, the chief of which marked his earlier map and two books in the 1970s and 1980s.

Now, nearing eighty, Robinson circles the last lap of his adopted home turf. He begins at Ros Muc, the "little Gaelic kingdom" envisioned by Patrick Pearse a century before, and looks at other writers, natives influenced by uneasy terrain, such as Pádraig Ó Conaire and Cáitlín Maude. Robinson deftly shows the tension in the former author's novels and the latter poet's terse, "tired" verse.

In "An Piarsach"'s adopted realm, Robinson finds "a glint of comedy" during Pearse's arrival. It's "not the last of the mutual misunderstandings between ruler and subjects of the little Gaelic kingdom-to-be, for the former came with an ideal of the latter that no one east of Tír na nÓg could ever have lived up to." (30) Robinson circles from where Pearse yearned to revive both a language and a nation.

The Irish language, despite Pearse's rural and urban ambitions, recedes a century later. Efforts by "An Ghluaiseacht," the civil rights movement of its speakers, led to TnG broadcasts from the Connacht heartland, but a better economy, massive tourism, and holiday homes endanger its "health" among an anglicized, globalized younger generation. One notable advantage Robinson possesses is not only his intellect and network of contacts, but his own (however English-accented) command of the local variant of Gaeilge. He reveals its rich store of placename lore by his access to overhearing or engaging in the local craic which would elude many visitors to this region, where Irish holds much behind closed doors that outsiders cannot eavesdrop upon or tease out from a signpost.

The twilit, sunset-oriented tone of this final volume, elegiac, suits the now-venerable author himself. Previous books on Aran and Connemara tended to become weighed down by eccentric tales of a Big House owner, eccentric blow-ins and misfits, and the flora and fauna often rendered in arguably necessary but at times typically overwhelming detail, given Robinson's Cambridge training and his combination of art and science. Mandelbrot's fractals, tectonics, kelp, middens: these fit into marine expanses and geological inheritances neatly. Still, he confesses after on such effort to figure out a derivation: "I have spent too much time trying to make these fragments cohere into significance." (155) Instead, he revels if soberly by "my walking of the tide-line between place and story." (169)

He intersperses bilingual renderings of songs and stories throughout, enriching the experience of the mentality and attitude of those who've come of age and endured, or emigrated from, these rugged contours. While fewer Big House or blow-ins (including one with a tragic tie to the Titanic who merits your own discovery) managed to endure its wastes and winds among islands and peninsulas of the jagged and blustering south coast, this narrative flows smoother than the preceding two studies.

His deft portrayals of Pádraic Ó Máille and Colm Ó Gaora during the Black and Tan War, or the sean-nós singers Joe Heaney and Sorcha Ní Ghuairim, resonate. Robinson finds common cause for a preservation of freedom and heritage among these eloquent natives raised around Mám's streams or on Iorras Aintheach, who found in now treeless plains, peat-stripped slopes, or barren shores a heap of lore akin to the seaweed dragged up and left to enrich the stony soil.

Around An Cheathrú Rua, at the studio home of painter Charles Lamb, Robinson observes the disjunction between what Lamb's student Walter Verling selects to paint and what's now evident. Neither telephone wires nor bungalow blight appears. "West of Ireland naturalism is reaching the end of a narrowing outlook. It will be driven into ever-greater selectivity, and so fall into undertruth by omission, unless it takes on modernity in all its ungainly contradictions." (297) Yet, he qualifies this as an exaggeration immediately.

Robinson, not given to hyperbole or even belief in what cannot be charted, remains sensitive to the damage done by developers, as South Connemara divides between locals courting industry and visitors wishing naturalism--but who also demand accommodations, diversions, and excursions. Still, he inveighs against a Tír an Fhía "ranting demagogue" who portrayed Robinson as wanting "Connemara emptied of its human inhabitants in favour of the landscape." (335) His depictions of Carna's desolate industrial estates and defunct Sisters of Mercy school or the massive new harbor at Ros a' Mhíl which funnels 300,000 ferry passengers to Aran each year will comfort none eager to find in Robinson confirmation of an artist's careful avoidance of contemporary impacts. He ties a phrase from T.S. Eliot to a rape-murder of a girl on a waste shore; he learns where holy wells and famine graves endure next to concrete estates and gabled sprawl: he sums up much in little. (Shorter, by a couple hundred words 3-23-13 to Slugger O'Toole. As above to Amazon US 3-27-13)

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