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The first thing that struck this reader about this first book of Tim Robinson's Connemara Trilogy were the similarities of the prose style to that of Thoreau's. Indeed, before I even began to read it, the subtitle "Listening to the Wind" brought to my mind a line from Walden: "So many autumn, ay, and winter days, spent outside the town, trying to hear what was in the wind..."
Robinson covers so much ground herein regarding Connemara: geology, taxonomy, impressionistic landscapes, folklore, documented history, personal friendships and reflections etc. that it's hard to see what else it is he has to say in the other two volumes regarding this rather small patch of land in the rather small - purely in terms of acreage! - land of Ireland.
Robinson's modus scribendi, more often than not here, is to wend his way through a landscape, or a history, or an association of things until he reaches some sort of epiphany, frequently very poetically expressed, at the end of each chapter. Sometimes this method worked for me; sometimes not. At times, Robinson - figuratively and, sometimes, quite literally! - becomes, ahem, bogged down in minutiae that, frankly, do not interest me a whit, such as the taxonomic controversy he bangs on about in one chapter.
At his best, though, Robinson is capable of startling, often unsettling insights which he expresses magnificently. A fantastic - meant literally - example is the reverie that comes upon him on observing Cashel Hill reflected upside-down in its lake:
"The world becomes abstracted, its attention all on its own image. Not a detail of the scene changes, but the earth's unearthly beauty is suddenly terrifying. I have witnessed this awful transformation in the expression of Connemara very often. Perhaps the last person alive in the village by the lake, for whom hope was too far away, behind those mountains scissored out of a hard blue sky, saw it too: the landscape clenched against its reflection like the teeth of a skull." - End of chapter.
Robinson certainly has his moments! It's a jolly interesting book, this, and I enjoyed the reading of it, for the most part. But this particular reader doesn't plan to plough on through the other two books of the trilogy. I already feel I know more about this particular patch of the earth than is requisite. Other realms beckon!
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John P. Jones III
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As the last century waned, it was a friend's 50th birthday bash that provided the much overdue excuse for my first visit to the land of my ancestors (more precisely, one-fourth of them). It was being hosted in Sligo, on the west coast, a relatively short drive of 200 plus km from Dublin airport. Sligo is W.B. Yeats country, where he spent his childhood summers, and now contains his grave. The western coast of Ireland is purportedly the "real" Gaelic Ireland, and Sligo contained a wonderful bookstore that was my introduction to Tim Robinson, who could explain so much about this area that my eyes were just skimming over. It was in that bookstore that I purchased Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage (New York Review Books Classics) without actually knowing where the Aran Islands were. I would be informed. The book is structured as a walk around the island's coast, with many digressive historical, biological, and sociological commentaries. Robinson is an erudite polymath. Everything interests him, and he can explain arcane facts and relationship so well. It was an overwhelming pleasure to read. How much can be said about one relatively small island? Well, more, since he wrote a second book on the interior of the island Stones of Aran: Labyrinth (New York Review Books Classics). Both works are fairly dense, and the latter is not repetitive. Each deserves a 6-star rating.
I didn't know where Connemara was either, but I knew I would be in "good hands" with Tim Robinson. It is on the mainland of Ireland, and the town of Roundtree, which is Robinson's home, is only 30 km from the Aran Islands. Historically, it served as the "wild west" of Ireland, and is about 120 km southwest of Sligo. This is the first of three volumes Robinson has written on this area, where he and his wife have lived for the last 30 years. This volume confirmed Robinson's continued erudition, and ability to explain the interactions of humans and nature.
Bogs, midges, stony, Connemara is a tough land. Though "bogs" are the dominant geographic feature, Robinson eschews the temptation to use any of the generally negative metaphors associated with them. He covers the geology of the area well, starting from the time there was no Atlantic Ocean. He gently segues from topic to topics, and positioned himself to be a vast depository of the oral history of the area, which he checks and cross-checks with the written record, as attested to by the extensive bibliography.
Robinson peppers the historical account with numerous anecdotal stories. King Edward VII visited Connemara in 1903, and security was provided by numerous "plainclothesmen" all dressed identical, pretending to be bicyclists taking a break, all at very precise intervals. The author explained the practices of "booleying," which is similar to the practice of transhumance in the Pyrennes, whereby the summer six months, that is, from May 01 to November 01, were spent in the Maumturk Mountains, 30 km to the east of Roundtree, with the flocks. It was the women who kept the flocks, and the men worked at home. Inis Ni is a small island in the bay, just across from Roundtree, now connected to the mainland by a causeway. The author depicts its rustic, poor rural past, and its transition to the holiday home crowd of absentee owners. In another anecdote, the author goes out with some of the few remaining peat cutters, and learns their now dying techniques. It is a lot of work, for a fuel that is not that efficient. Roundstone experienced significant Protestant immigration during the 19th century, which came as a surprise to me, and Robinson depicts their vicissitudes.
A majority of Robinson's work is devoted to the land and ownership arrangements which briefly provided much to the "1% crowd" of the 19th century, but ultimately did not. The decisive event of this period was the totally failure of the potato crop due to fungal blight. Starvation ensured thereafter, aided and abetted by inept, incompetent, and/or willful neglect in terms of relief efforts. Mass emigration of many of the remainder followed, resulting in a largely depopulated Connemara.
The author's prose is fresh. Among many other examples, he writes that the tour buses would now "decant" 50 Germans, or Italians. At another point, he is searching for perfectly smoothed basins carved out of stone by a smaller stone and tidal action. Beartla, his friend is helping him, and he wants to take his picture next to one of the basins: "When I looked through the viewfinder I was intrigued to see that he had picked up a scallop shell and was holding it before him between his two hands in an oddly pious and almost girlish pose. Whether tradition was at work in him I do not know, but I was made to think of the cockleshell badge of medieval pilgrims to the shrine of Compostella, and of the cockleshell-shaped madeleine that is the emblem of Proust's pilgrimage through Time." Erudition, indeed.
If I had not read both books on Aran, I would have thought that surely this one volume would have exhausted all that is to be said of Connemara. I know better now, and look forward to the other two volumes. 6-stars.