Saturday 17 February 2018

Review: Travel: Connemara - A Little Gaelic Kingdom by Tim Robinson

Penguin Ireland, €25

This is the third volume of Tim Robinson's Connemara trilogy. The three volumes amount to 1,231 pages, an extraordinary monument to one man's love for the western seaboard.

Even more remarkable is the fact that Robinson is originally from Yorkshire and, as the title tells us, the pre sent book is devoted to the Irish-speaking part of Connemara. He has taught himself the language to a standard that must shame most of us.

The book begins, suitably enough, with reflections on the relationship to Connemara of another son of an English father: Patrick Pearse, whose cottage in Ros Muc is now a National Heritage Site. What Robinson does here is typical of his method: he goes back to a short story by Pearse set in Rosmuc and not only reveals that its message is sexist -- girls should stay at home, have children and leave the serious business of Suffering to men -- but that it was written as a result of Pearse's opposition to a visit to the area by Lord Dudley, the then Lord Lieutenant.

In addition, by examining the geography of Rosmuc, Robinson is able to suggest that when the girl in the story has a vision of Christ it is Pearse himself that she sees. And all this information takes the reader merely to page five ... .

The first part of the book is called "The Road Before Me". Its eight chapters are connected like ribs to the "spinal road of the Ros Muc peninsula", and to the people who have travelled on it, not least "the mighty Alexander Nimmo" who designed the road system in the 1820s.

One of those people was Caitlín Maude, the poet and sean-nós singer who died in 1982 aged 41. This fierce creature shocked even her admirers with "the verbal violence" she "unleashed on a Fianna Fáil minister" whom she "regarded as a fake Republican and traitor to the language when he turned up at an Éigse, a literary festival, in Dundalk." (Unfortunately, Robinson doesn't name the traitor.)

Connemara was described in 1898 by a Professor of Metaphysics, the Rev Thomas Aloysius Finlay, as "a vast sheet of granite ... broken occasionally by patches of peat and heather". The second part of the book is devoted to "the astounding harvest of words and music" that has come out of the area.

For instance, in Carna as late as 1966 there was a storyteller called Éamonn a Búrc whose recorded folktales run to 2,000 pages -- even the insatiable Robinson shirked reading them all. One is reminded of Myles na Gopaleen's nightmare native Irish speaker: a man with a vocabulary so rich that he never utters the same word twice.

The final part of the book, 'Anfractuous Rocks', begins by trying to answer the question: "How long is the coast of Connemara?" On the Ordnance Survey one-inch map the answer is 64 miles. On the six-inch map, which starts to measure the wobbles, it's 130 miles.

And as you increase the scale, the zig-zag length increases exponentially to such an extent that Robinson says if he were to "take a foot-rule to all the ins and outs of the water's edge, the only conclusion I could come to would be that there is no conclusion ... it just gets bigger and bigger, indefinitely."

Some of the mysteries of Connemara are comic: the late Fine Gael Senator Pól Ó Foighil, for instance, congratulated Robinson on "the improvement in my Irish", though Tim had never met him before. Ó Foighil is described as "a ranting demagogue", but his energy was awesome.

Robinson has a sharp tongue for the way some of the people have desecrated their inheritance. But the mystery of Connemara keeps him searching the place for something reasonable that goes beyond reason -- for instance, the natural and exactly triangular holy wells at Garomna in the diocese of Tuam.

There he finds, not meaning, but difference -- the three dimensions of Connemara: "settlement with wilderness, the persistence of the deep past, and the echoing treasure house of its language".

At these moments the reader realises that Robinson is not so much a travel writer as a sculptor of verbal monuments and a mystic with an extra understanding for mathematics.

Brian Lynch is a novelist, screenwriter and poet.

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