Tim Robinson: Aran as a site of cultural movement

The following was designed to be presented at Textualities20, a mini-conference I was involved in, due to have been held on 20th of March. It was cancelled once the colleges closed.

Its subject, Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage, was written by Tim Robinson, a Yorkshireman who passed away on the 3rd of this month at the age of 85, two weeks after the death of his wife Máiréad. He had Parkinson’s Disease and recently contracted the pulmonary disease that ended his life.

He lived on Aran for much of his life and he wrote beautifully about that part of the world. His was my favourite book of all those we studied this year. I didn’t know him but I was saddened to hear about his death.

He was interviewed by RTÉ in 2014.

Today, I’m going to be talking about the Aran Islands. My MA is in Irish Writing and Film and we’ve covered Aran a lot in that time. In our film module last year, we looked at Man of Aran, a pseudo-documentary about life there made in 1934. At the same time, in the Gender and Sexuality module, we read Grania, The Story of an Island, a novel published in 1892 that tells the story of a girl growing up on the islands. Earlier this month, we read The Aran Islands, a travelogue of sorts written by John Millington Synge. These each have their merit but they are fairly fanciful. The first two in particular are fictional creations and Synge’s, which is certainly more grounded than the others, is still coloured by his Romantic worldview.

Tim Robinson was a Yorkshireman who came to live in Ireland in the 1970s. He lives on the Aran Islands and wrote two very long books there over a period of years. Together, they were called Stones of Aran. One was called Pilgrimage and described the islands’ coastline. The other was called Labyrinth and covered the islands’ interior. It’s Pilgrimage that I’ll be discussing today.

I read Pilgrimage as part of a module called Space and Place and reading it reminded me of doing Geography in secondary school. He pays close attention to the landscape features I knew so well during the Leaving Cert. I love exploration and finding my way through new and unfamiliar landscapes so I’ve always been interested in the land and the processes that shape it. It’s a bit poetic, but I do believe the land lives in the sense that it is subject to mechanics that change and shift it constantly.

Robinson is a cartographer by trade. He worked as an artist in Istanbul, Vienna and London before he settled in the Aran Islands. He moved “from London to Aran” (ix), according to an introduction written by Robert Macfarlane in the 2008 edition of the book by Faber and Faber. Robinson focuses pretty much entirely on the island and doesn’t really go into detail about his own past life. Still, he’s not a native but he’s not a tourist either, so people are quite happy to share local stories and myths with him. I think he has the curiosity of someone who didn’t grow up hearing the stories, so he comes to them with new eyes, so to speak. He tries to understand the land properly. The book first came out in 1986 and he moved there in 1972, so Aran was certainly his home by that time. I’d say he was much closer to a native than to a tourist. He makes liberal use of Irish, too. He has maps at the end of the book and these are all marked by place names as Gaeilge, from the islands themselves to the places on them.

He sets aside several chapters to talk about Dún Aonghasa, the fort on Inis Móir. I saw a picture of it in a book in fifth or sixth class. Looking at it, I’m not sure why tourists flock to it so much. Obviously it has great archaeological significance but I can’t imagine it being much fun as a tourist attraction. Robinson seems to share my view. He says “in summer a line of slow-moving coloured dots slants across the hillside west of Cill Mhuirbhigh” (84). I’ve spent my childhood and teens hiking, so I’m used to seeing all the brightly-coloured plastic windbreakers snaking around cliffs. I’ve included this quote here:

“The ancient and remote fort is a cog of a world-wide machine, hauling up a chain of expectations almost as predictably as a ski-lift” (85).

He then proceeds to put the superficial, touristy experience of exploring the fort in perspective by looking at the fort’s broader context. He goes into its mythological origins. What’s interesting here is that the mythological peoples in the legends themselves come from all over Europe. He mentions all sorts of people from Celtic and other mythologies and even the Bible, such as the Fir Bolg, the Milesians, The Israelites and the Fomorians. The Ireland presented in this account is a hotbed of cultural movement. People are drawn to Aran because of its grasp on the imagination. Could modern-day tourism reflect a continuity of imagination?

In his last section on the Dún, Robinson gives his own account of the fort, based on his own observations. He sees it with an eye trained in visual art and in map-making. He gives really accurate and professional descriptions of the site. He doesn’t view it in purely mathematical or even scientific terms, though.  He’s trying to relate to it in an intuitive sense. He says “I have failed adequately to be in this place, this knot of stone from which the sky has broken out” (109). That’s what I’ve really loved about reading the book. He’s not trying to contain the place or boil it down or rob it of its mystery but at the same time, he’s not exactly attaching excess Romanticism to it either.

The best part of the experience for me is the form and style of the book. Its title is perfect. He takes a journey around the coast. It’s a long book, about 370 pages long, so he doesn’t have to rush. Its comfortable pace let me move gently along the coast with Robinson as my guide. I’d recommend it, of course. It’s an expansive tome, to be sure, but paradoxically, that makes it yet more readable, instead of less. I hope those of you interested in the Irish landscape might try it out.

Works cited:

    Robinson, Tim. Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage, London: Faber and Faber, 2008.

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