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Man of Aran

John Wilson Foster

Unfolding Irish Landscapes: Tim Robinson, Culture and Environment, Derek Gladwin and Christine Cusick (eds), Manchester University Press, 254 pp. £19.99, ISBN 978-0719099472

When Minnesota Fats finally fails to pocket a ball, Paul Newman’s pool hustler Fast Eddie Felson surveys the table with a quizzical sigh. Ken Kesey made a one-line poem (“Homage to Buddha”) out of Fast Eddie’s wry comment: “You don’t leave much, do you, fat man?” The line came to me as I worked through this excellent, exhaustive (and exhausting) homage to Tim Robinson. But if Robinson resembles Giacometti’s pared, unstoppable Walking Man more than he does the circulating though equally relentless Fats, he doesn’t leave much either.

The ground Robinson has covered, less single-mindedly than myriad-mindedly, and typically on foot, is impressively various. At the outset of the volume, Paddy Duffy deftly places Robinson in cartographic tradition, including the slender tradition of pioneer individualist map-makers-cum-explorers, and identifies the central significance of his surveys of the Burren, Connemara and the Aran Islands: “his restoration of the largely forgotten harvest of place names which carpet the area”. But that is just the narrative and historical cartography, the topographical and gazeteering side to Robinson, though much is said throughout the book about the variety and novelty of his mapping methods and productions. The two editors, Derek Gladwin and Christine Cusick, tell the possibly unsuspecting reader that this is the first sustained study of a map-maker, ecologist, environmentalist, natural historian, botanist, mathematician, geographer, artist, translator, and landscape writer – all rolled, or folded more aptly, into one.

No wonder, then, that Robert Macfarlane, who provides the foreword, refers to a body of work and curriculum vitae as less an oeuvre than “a terrain” and even recalls first setting foot “on the shores of Tim Robinson”. Such is Robinson’s perceived versatility that this kind of figurative geomorphic reading, which originates with Robinson himself, soon seems normal. The mapping of Tim Robinson – and it is difficult to avoid belabouring the pun ‑ where previously there had been almost, but not quite, a blank space on the map of Irish cultural geography, might have seemed in conception too great an undertaking in one virgin-birth volume of essays. It is true, as the editors claim, that many cultural commentators and analysts have overlooked Robinson’s many-faceted significance. They have now tried to rectify matters with three ambitious sets of essays, respectively on Robinson’s cartography and geography, on his prose narratives and on his place in Irish studies.

Luckily, because of the heavily explicatory nature of the exercise, there is a rhythm of repetition that helps both to create the impression of a terrain and to make it less unfamiliar. Several contributors tells us that Robert Flaherty’s documentary Man of Aran (1934) sparked Robinson’s interest in the islands and that the island postmistress’s suggestion that he make a map for visitors was the actual ignition of what was to come. These accrue an almost legendary sense of a beginning, indeed a rebirth, though Robinson himself came to see how much of what he accomplished in the West was anticipated in the English galleries where he had shown his artworks. Several rehearse the Yorkshire-born Robinson’s early career as an artist in London before he discovered the West of Ireland. The Robinsonian quasi-mystical notion of “the step” (the “adequate step”, the “good step”) from Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage (1986) recurs: it does so twenty times in one contributor’s essay (until it is in danger of becoming merely an irritating locution). And some quotable remarks by Robinson are recruited by more than one contributor. Several can occasion in this reader a Fast Eddie-like quizzical pause: “while walking this ground I am the pen on the paper; while drawing this map, my pen is myself walking the land”.

From behind the emerging impact of his extraordinary work, Robinson seems to exert a mesmeric effect on his disciples and students, akin to that of Seamus Heaney. This enables him, by a kind of unsolicited remote control, to set the agendas of his own appreciation by others, though Heaney was more hands-on in Stepping Stones in guiding his own critical biography. (If Heaney comes to mind, it is partly because he and Robinson cross ancient paths in a deeply layered Irish countryside.) Gladwin argues that Robinson is as much agent as subject of the Pat Collins documentary Tim Robinson: Connemara (2011). This could also be said of Unfolding Irish Landscapes. If Robinson is the book’s unacknowledged auteur, that is because we are still trying to take initial measure of the man and seem to need his help. And so any reservations contributors express about Robinson turn out to be Robinson’s own reservations, and those reservations augment rather than detract from the enterprise. When one contributor writes the remarkable phrase “unsummable totalities”, it turns out to be Robinson’s; ditto when another writes about the “human breath” of prose; and when another writes about “a position outwith discourse” one hears Robinson rightly or wrongly. (Robinson is partial to unusual inflections, technical terms and neologisms, as though pushing into the unmapped terrain of his own vocabulary.)

Robinson in other words is catching, and this can be hazardous when one is tracking a thinker and writer who is unafraid of the remoter edges of conveyable meaning. (Gerry Smyth in his essay lays Martin Heidegger under signal contribution in order to measure Robinson’s concept of listening and being.) Despite his appearance of dogged persistence and uncharismatic rationality, Robinson’s observations and conclusions are elastic with contradictions. But even though he has been known to quote Walt Whitman, I can’t hear him respond: “very well, I contradict myself”; Robinson would surely disdain contradiction in his almost fetishistic pursuit of first, what Macfarlane calls “an endlessly re-fathomable volume of knots, flows, webs and tides” and second, an organic unity beyond organism, like a Coleridge working at ground level and, unthinkably, wearing wellingtons.

Still, John Elder acknowledges Robinson’s atheism yet sees reverence at the heart of his worldview; Robinson eschews supernaturalism yet Macfarlane (and Robinson) remind us that he wishes to celebrate the earth “with the height and power of the religious tradition”. The author of Pilgrimage likened his circuit of the main Aran Island to that of Catholic pilgrims, with features playing the role of stations.

And Robinson may be wary of anthropomorphism and animism, as Macfarlane approvingly says, yet he can talk of a hillside “tumbling down” to the lakeside with a hut “crouching” in the shelter of an outcrop. The wind soughs but does not sigh yet Cleggan Hill can “sleep”, pressing its “ear” to the earth and lulled by “her” (earth’s) breathing and snoring. The editors tip us off that Moynagh Sullivan argues that Robinson avoids gendering the Irish landscape as feminine, thereby resisting a dominant trope in twentieth-century Irish writing and film. In fact, Sullivan (when I can machete my way through her thicket of jargon) replaces simple feminising of the land with something called “a supplementary feminine matrixial substratum”, a “deep feminine structure” which apparently encompasses “feminine/prenatal encounters” and reveals Robinson’s movement “from a phallic structure to a matrixial sphere”. Moreover, it seems Robinson is working at the true heart of art, which is trauma. Heaven knows, she may be right, but I’d like to call Fast Eddie anyway.

In what is surely an ultimate Irish stroke of anthropomorphism, Robinson’s Connemara landscape has a voice, and that voice is speaking in Irish, an interpretation several contributors are partial to, including Duffy and Catherine Marshall. I’m not sure genuine eco-criticism, let alone deep ecology, can admit Gaelic-speaking bogs and hillsides. Surely in Robinson is an astonishingly sophisticated afterlife of Irish Revival nativism, not just in a particular past culture (pre-colonial, Irish-speaking Ireland) as aboriginal, authentic and essential, but also in the identification and necessary indictment of the British colonialist enterprise that produced the Ordnance Survey maps of the nineteenth century that Robinson took it upon himself to revise, improve and tacitly annul for the region of Connemara?

But the Revival is echoed also in the privileging of Connemara as a regional, island-wide, global, and cosmic centre, with the Aran Islands as its cultural and mystical bull’s-eye. At the outset of Pilgrimage, Robinson claims the Aran Islands as “the [sic] exemplary terrain upon which to dream that work, the guide-book to the adequate step”. That “work” is allegedly a work of art which is both created and read, which could be an actual artwork but also a metaphor for the instant of insight ‑ the realisation of “wholeness beyond happiness” achieved by various kinds of knowledge; the “step” is the physical vehicle (but also the figuration) of the moment of achievement and act of realisation. That the Aran Islands are “the” exemplary terrain for that realisation which, after all, is surely conceived of as surpassing all exemplars (rather than, say ‑ to cite landscapes I know ‑ the Inkameep desert or Fraser River delta of British Columbia, or the drumlin shoreline of Strangford Lough) I cannot easily concede. (I have written about Synge’s Aran but have never set foot there, which must disqualify me from dreaming that work.)

Still, Jerry White, who writes insightfully about Robinson and the Gaeltacht Civil Rights Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, makes the point that while Robinson is intensely interested in recovery of the past, he is not interested in the revival of the past. In this he differs from the nationalising and centralising impulses of the first Revivalists (Hyde, Yeats, Pearse and the others), being drawn as White tells us to diversity and the autonomy of communities, even when that does not privilege the Irish language; he is, says White, no idealist.

Robinson’s form of centralisation, as it were, is instead the global and cosmic aspiration of his thinking (and those moments of oceanic feeling that we might call epiphanies) and this is its own self-generated form of contradiction. A refrain in his writing is the claim to totality and the impossibility of its accomplishment (unsummable totalities). Indeed, claim and disavowal is a major rhythm of his cognitive advance. His map-making by hand makes no claims to comprehensiveness, appearances to the contrary. Each attempt to represent material space is an ordained failure. His is an aesthetic of not knowing, as Kelly Sullivan explains. Robinson does know, though, that he’ll never get to the bottom of Aran. More specifically, Robinson knows that he has failed to recover thousands of Irish place-names during what Duffy calls his “fractal-like mission” to do so.

If disavowals are part of Robinson’s method of showing and telling, so too is the self-doubt and self-effacement several contributors refer to, but which is accompanied by a persistent intrusion of himself on the landscape, however humbly framed and phrased. Duffy quotes Robinson’s hope that his own physical experience of walking a certain shinglebank would “burn through” into his final drawings, that he would “put some echo of my footsteps into the dots representing it on my map” which would then become an expression of his feeling. There is a certain solipsism at work in Robinson which means that whether one takes fully to the writing depends on how one responds to Robinson’s own emanant personality. Elder sees Robinson inviting the reader “to lay their maps edge to edge with his” and Cusick pays tribute to “his invitation to local inhabitants to participate in the narrative process” but if these are true, one might just as readily see a camouflaged intellectual autocracy at work, indeed a vast and hypnotising appropriation of an entire deep cultural complex, so impressive as to deter our reservations.

This should be of acute interest to the new eco-criticism, of which Cusick is now a leading practitioner, like her co-editor Derek Gladwin. These two contributors, alongside Nessa Cronin, Kelly Sullivan, Gerry Smyth and Eóin Flannery, write as eco-critics on Robinson, as do Elder and Macfarlane, with Andrew McNeillie, poet and editor of Archipelago magazine, providing an eco-critical verse epilogue. Part of the importance of this considerable book is its fitful but very significant contribution to Anglo-American (and Irish) eco-criticism. Robinson is clearly seen as a dream-writer and dream-naturalist for Irish eco-critics (like Robert Lloyd Praeger, whom Duffy cites, and to whom I might add John Tyndall as field naturalist).

Familiar literary criticism responsive to the text is sufficient to understand, critique or honour what we might in its most honorific sense call nature writing. Nature writers write about nature chiefly through descriptive evocation. (Biologists in print and who are investigating the unapparent processes of nature are as scientists quite different and are writing a second kind of literature.) Often in the tradition of Anglo-American nature writing the writer intrudes, interposes, or imposes himself or herself. The genre of the essay in which much nature writing has been cast emerged from this writerly urge. Robert Lynd’s essay “The Hum of Insects”, for example, tells us about insects but much more about ourselves. Chris Arthur is a superb essayist whom Karen Babine, in her chapter in this book, compares to Robinson, but we learn more about him (his life and thoughts) than about nature. (Like Robinson, he is mapping himself.) Babine, by the way, says several refutable things about Irish literature, one of them being that Robinson and Arthur (whom she calls by the unfortunate name of “non-fictionists”) are lonely exponents of the Irish essay. This is untrue; Irish essayists were foolishly seen as failing to contribute to cultural nationalism from the Revival onwards and so were neglected, like all those women novelists of the Revival period. The Irish branch of the English essay became a suspect form. Lynd was an English essayist par excellence but he was not recognised as such by Irish critics despite his being an Irish republican outside the essay genre.

Robinson is seen by eco-critics as a practitioner of a third kind of writing that Macfarlane calls the new topographical writing or what is called outside this book “environmental literature” which is biocentric rather than anthropocentric and which has required the necessary development of eco-criticism. Cusick sees the new writing as avoiding as far as possible the temptation to privilege “a single human’s interest” and as uncovering “how the various components of non-human nature are entrenched in the material culture that infuses our ways of knowing”. Robinson clearly satisfies the second criterion but it is surely debatable how far he satisfies the first. In part it depends on how much of Robinson’s multifarious body of writing you include in your sweep (since he is a “fictionist” as well as a versatile “non-fictionist”).

For one American eco-critic, Laurence Buell, “human accountability to the environment is part of the text’s ethical orientation”; environmental writers and their explicators, the eco-critics, are thus environmentalists by definition. But although Robinson was concerned in Pilgrimage about the impingement on Aran of “the material destructiveness of modern life”, he also thought any ecological imperative in his own work secondary; there is an acceptance of local reality that White identifies. At best, the ecological imperative is a collateral benefit of Robinson’s own attitude to the earth that “I would like to hint at with my step” (my italics). Robinson unambiguously posits his centrality to his own enterprise.

For his part, Eóin Flannery interprets human accountability as meaning deploring colonialism – “a prime concern of ecological criticism”. I would have thought that British colonialism is an eco-critical concern less pressing than that of twentieth-century Irish nationalism and the recent depredations and mind-set of the Celtic Tiger, one beast whose decline and extinction few are lamenting and to which Flannery devotes only one paragraph. Flannery writes of the often violent and destructive human imprints, physical and cultural, on the Aran Islands but declines to identify any of the historical layers other than that he devotes much space to: British colonialism (aka neo-colonialism, capitalist imperialism, landlordism and the colonial feudal system), citing Edward Said at length. This is regrettable, since towards the end he is apparently drawn in postmodern fashion to diversity, cross-cultural negotiation and multiculturalism (in an historical and prehistorical scenario which shrinks the importance of the British on the Aran Islands), but like many Irish critics is captivated by British colonialism. In any case, his seems an imbalanced recruitment of Robinson’s preoccupation with what he calls “the grain of the actual”, his intensely local, chary and individualistic reading of the landscapes of the immeasurable past.

Flannery is on the button, however, when he sees utility and speed as the targets of Robinson’s ecological critique and refers to an ethics of slowness in Robinson’s creative life. The chapter on his deep-mapping projects by Nessa Cronin (another rising Irish eco-critic) attributes the first identification of this aspect of Robinson’s work to Michael Cronin, who argued that Robinson’s writing forces the reader to slow down and so avoid the “peripheralising dismissal of velocity”. Unfolding Irish Landscapes homeopathically shares with Robinson’s own work the refusal of surface and speed.

Duffy notes the current growing interest in a return to “slow landscapes” and it would not be trivialising it to connect it to the current trends towards slow food, slow cooking and the return to foraging, to the revival of the bicycle and the 20 mph limit in city centres ‑ all privileging the local and resisting, it seems, the recent accelerations of life provoked by the social and other media as though in validation of their first registering by the American sociologist Neil Postman in Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985). Fast Eddie Felson, a fictional avatar of Hurricane Higgins, would disapprove but patient and slow-moving Fats would not.

The preoccupations with distance and speed were part of the Modernist project, as I tried to show in my studies of the Titanic complex, and they were not invalidated by Postmodernism, which preferred to work like Modernism on the horizontal surfaces, simply multiplying them. Now we are experiencing a revival of that feverish Modernist cultural metabolism through accelerating digital transmission. But rather like his own chosen landscapes, Robinson has bided his time, and by going with the grain of the actual has gone against the grain of familiar campus-based scholarship (as Eamonn Wall from his own mid-western campus perhaps too persistently points out in his chapter). It seems, too, that he had to wait for eco-criticism, the new turn in Irish cultural analysis, to appear in order for him to get a patient and appreciative hearing in the perceptive and painstaking Unfolding Irish Landscapes. Before that, to borrow his own phrase, his work was clearly of deep if obscure significance. If his place in Irish studies, however, remains unclear, that is because it will eventually be settled outside eco-criticism.


John Wilson Foster is professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia and honorary research professor at Queen’s University Belfast. His recent books include Between Shadows: Modern Irish Writing and Culture (2009), Pilgrims of the Air (2014) and Titanic: Culture and Calamity (2016).

Space to Think, an anthology bringing together more than fifty of the best pieces to have appeared in the Dublin Review of Books since its foundation ten years ago, will be published in October. Selling in the shops at €25, it is available now for pre-order at a special price of €20 (to collect in Dublin) or €20 + post and packing charges as appropriate for shipping to addresses in Ireland and internationally. To buy online, follow the steps from the home page of our website.

One piece featured in Space to Think is Roy Foster’s review-essay from 2015 on the Protestant experience in independent Ireland, “Feeling the Squeeze”. Here is an extract:

[T]he picture that emerges is in some ways a surprising one. Implicitly invoking David Trimble’s memorable phrase about Catholics in Northern Ireland, [David] Fitzpatrick points out that the minorities he surveys “became expert at keeping themselves warm in cold houses”, and the picture that emerges suggests that – in the twentieth century at least ‑ intercommunal tension owed more to land hunger and historic grievances than sectarian animosity. His picture of Irish Protestant life at the demotic level investigated here reminds us of some salient facts, obvious but often implicitly ignored. One is that Irish Protestants were far from universally a middle- or upper-class elite ‑ especially before the 1920s. Another is that, before independence, and partition, a Protestant presence – at all social levels ‑ was distributed more widely throughout the island than later commentators often assume. And a third important fact is that for many Irish Protestants, partition presented itself as a worse evil than the prospect of all-island Home Rule. The recognition may have come belatedly, but it came nonetheless.

As late as the 1960s, the ecclesiastical architecture of provincial Irish towns and cities featured not just the elegant spires of the Church of Ireland, but a surprising variety of modest meeting-places dedicated to Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Congregationalists ‑ and often a “Protestant Hall” used by all varieties for social purposes. Rural congregations were more scattered, but still hung on tenaciously in places like Co Cork, the subject of much of Fitzpatrick’s research. His early chapters, however, dealing with the Orange Order, necessarily concentrate on Ulster, all nine counties of it (there is much interesting material on Monaghan, as well as a wide gallery of Belfast activists). The origins of lodges are related to an Enlightenment moment, though their idea of “civic and religious liberty” differed from that of the freemasons, with whom their rituals had much in common. The rebarbative ideology of Orangeism widely infiltrated the army and yeomanry, a process carefully traced in this book; this led to serious issues regarding conflicts of loyalty and instability of allegiance, which came into sharper relief when Orangeism emerged as equally dominant in paramilitary organisations.



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