Saturday, September 07, 2013

Connemara: The Last Pool of Darkness

And so, after my last two posts on Aran and the Burren, I come to Connemara, the third of Tim Robinson's ‘ABC of earth-wonders’, and the subject of his great topographical trilogy. In a review of the second volume, Connemara: The Last Pool of Darkness, Robert Macfarlane describes Robinson's method.  'Each intricately structured chapter of the book begins in or at a specific Connemara place, before gyring off into history, metaphysics, politics, ecology, geology. Robinson weaves the stories and actions of smugglers, fabulists, priests, landowners, actors, farmers, fishermen, poets, herbalists, talkers, industrialists and entrepreneurs — the cast of people who comprise the alternative history of the region.'  Our brief visit to Connemara was always going to seem superficial in comparison to the depth of study and years of conversations and exploration that have gone into these books.  We came back with impressions of the landscape but a richer sense of place would have required a serious investment of time.  In the final volume, Connemara: A Little Gaelic Kingdom, Robinson says that 'often when visitors ask me what they should see in this region I am at a loss. A curious hole in the ground? The memory of an old song about a drowning? Ultimately I have to tell them that this is a land without shortcuts.' 

At Roundstone on our way to the beach at Dog's Bay, we went down to the quay to see if we could identify Tim Robinson's house and the Folding Landscapes studio that he runs with his wife (they are described in the the first volume of Connemara).  But my young sons were keen to get on to the beach - a place of bones according to Robinson, consisting of the shards of mollusc shells and exoskeletons of foraminifera, under which there are the traces of Neolithic settlement.  There, with the sun out, a fresh breeze blowing in from the Atlantic, and children happily splashing in the surf I wondered if it was better just to lie back and put the book aside.  Towards the end of Connemara: The Last Pool of Darkness there is a poignant moment of doubt when Robinson watches some young girls swimming in the sea and envies their 'unreflecting immersion in the flux of the world'.  But there in the waves he sees a luminous detail - orange-red thong weed coiling round the jelly-fish like entities known as 'by-the-wind sailors' - and the landscape, an interlacing of history and nature, suddenly feels enhanced and enchanted.  He decides that this is a vindication of his ways.

The Connemara books are in part a memoir of Robinson's map making days in the seventies and eighties, when he first explored Aran, the Burren and Connemara, trying to establish the names for every lake and island, seeking out and pinpointing tombs and burial sites, cairns, limekilns, stone huts and ancient cooking places.  We found these maps invaluable but seductive (at one point on Inis MeĆ”in I decided to allay complaints on a walk by suggesting we explore a nearby cave marked on his map, but soon realised my mistake, shoulder deep in brambles, with no clue as to what it looked like or whether in fact it might now be half buried or inaccessible).  In Connemara: A Little Gaelic Kingdom, Robinson talks about his particular compulsion to trace holy wells that can be found on the shore, mere puddles of rainwater, but formed by erosion of cracks in the rock to form perfect triangles that came to be seen as the work of saints, and, by Robinson, as 'paradigmatic places or nodes of being'.  These are 'the purest springs of what makes Connemara itself.'  Their three sides echo the dimensions of place that Robinson has explored in Connemara: 'the intimacy of settlement with wilderness, the persistence of the deep past, and the echoing treasure house of its language.'

These photographs of Connemara are from our holiday, August 2013

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