SSRC Members

In Connemara with Tim Robinson

Professor Ricca Edmondson offers a tribute to the late Tim Robinson, best known for his detailed writing about Connemara and the Aran Islands, who passed away in April 2020

Tim Robinson devoted his life to trying to refract the totality of an inhabited place, in his case mainly the region covered by Connemara and the Aran Islands, with the Burren also among his interests. He was captivated by the interchanges between these different localities, and their depth: their millennia of geological history shaped everything from their flora and fauna to the behaviour of those who lived in them, and these people’s conduct, the way they grew crops, built houses, even the way they talked and what they talked about, together impinged back on the land. This was cartography, for him: trying to map out every dimension that there was of a terrain. The people of the Aran Islands could sell cattle to those in Connemara, bred on the sweet grass that grew on their limestone territory, but they needed to buy fuel in return, because the islands lacked the impermeable underlay that generated turf. For our students, Tim’s capacity to bring these connections to life was like magic. During the 1990s and into this century, each year he would bring my students, studying the Sociology of the Environment in NUI, Galway, on a tour through Connemara: without exception we were mesmerised.

I recall the unforgettable moment in our bus when Tim first showed us Errisbeg Hill. Look at that hill, he said. We looked, and saw simply a hill. Tim outlined the violent geological processes by which the older part has protruded through the younger rocks, an upside-down result that has influenced the lives of those living on and around Errisbeg until almost the present time, bringing the fertile ground down within the reach of those living round the hill. This geology made it possible to farm in a certain way, for example booleying in summer – when the women and children would take their animals up to the fresh grass in summer. The shape of the terrain allowed them to return each evening instead of staying up in booley huts: another instance of the ways in which what people did, and how they were enabled to relate to each other, were responses to the physical world around them. That practical sphere has now changed, and what seemed self-evident a couple of generations ago has disappeared. But the students and I never saw the world in the same way after that: we began to perceive something of the endless complexity of the connections that each landscape offered.

Tim Robinson himself was at the mercy of the drive to unravel and record these connections. He was the SSRC’s first external member, and later gave papers at SSRC conferences, and was given an honorary doctorate at NUIG in 1997. But for a long period he was comparatively little recognised in the world in general. Certainly he had no grants or reliable public position or support. Still, in the almost total absence of the public dimensions that today’s scholars deem essential, he had the commitment and dedication, the necessary stubbornness and physical endurance, to work for years at unpicking intricate links that other people found it hard even to perceive. He never drove a car, but walked incessantly – sometimes together with equally indefatigable friends such as Paul Mohr of NUIG’s Department of Geology. Living in straitened circumstances and buoyed chiefly by the belief in him of his wife and collaborator, Mairéad, Tim would walk the land day after day, often crouching behind stone walls to shelter from the driving rain (which, he admitted, occasionally led him to question his own sanity). He learned all that seemed necessary to understand that land, from botany or farming techniques to the Irish language, whose narrative nuances and reflections of place he learned to treasure and to reproduce. For me, though not explicitly for Tim, this was part of the sociology of knowledge: an apprehension of the intertwined human and non-human life in place that was as complete as he could make it.

For us on our regular visits, he was an example of commitment to what was worth doing for its own sake.  He could perceive past and present complexities where other people saw just a bit of scrubland; he always used to complain that the map of Connemara was growing whiter, with less of importance marked on it, even as maps were being filled in elsewhere in the world. His undertaking was to restore as many as he could of the habits and practices of the past, to reinstate to memory the women and children he could see in his mind’s eye as they minded the cattle or churned the butter, or the people who thousands of years ago discarded mussel shells in the midden in Dog’s Bay.

This project might be, in a technical sense, romantic, but he was not sentimental. Tim discouraged the students from flinching from terrible things that had happened in the past. He showed us the remains of houses of whose inhabitants were turned out to starve by their (Catholic) landlord during the Famine, with the flax and potato beds they had left (and the neighbouring court tomb erected many millennia before). He brought us to the inlet where the boatman, having first rowed a beggar to the other side of the water, then raped his daughter. We learned to identify the site of the shebeen where packmen were murdered for their few shillings, until their bodies began to float to the top of the nearby lake. On Inis Nee, he showed us the holy well on the shore. If you had a child who had emigrated to America – whom it was unlikely you would ever see again – you could put in your hand to feel for a fish. If the fish came out alive, you knew the child was still alive; otherwise, dead. For the students, this brought home the baffling completeness of partings in the past.

Tim’s mathematical precision showed in his map-making (and his objections to inaccuracies in other people’s maps), but also in his fascination with fractals, the self-repeating patterns you can perceive in the Connemara coastline, each yard seeming to repeat the pattern of a larger stretch but containing just the same ones folded within itself. His eye was such that he was able to perceive where stones had been placed to dam a pool, or to show you the discreet changes made to rocks on a shoreline to make landing-places for the boats that, at one time, everyone used. In fact, his eye was so well trained that the students sometimes complained the paths on his maps were very hard for them to discern. Yet he taught them to see Connemara as a created landscape, directing their attention to the low-growing trees on islands in the lakes: they showed what the land had looked like before sheep had been brought in. For him, all these relationships belonged to cosmic patterns, like the stone alignments that marked the solstices, fusing everyday life into planetary systems. Yet he had a passion for the unpretentious and the low-key, treasuring what was said to be a local saint’s head, venerated for centuries, preserved not in an ornate sepulchre but in a bramble patch. This affected the students, and myself, changing our view of things irrevocably. It would seem strange to me to build a house without first planting trees to keep off the wind, or without ensuring that the entrance door faced away from the gales. When I was showing a German philosopher round Connemara and we encountered a man digging turf, which he assured us had been there since the beginning of time, I thought of Tim, or when I spoke to an elderly gentleman who remarked that Galway Bay had become bigger since his day. This was, I take it, because he no longer steps into his currach to cross to Kinvara in the taken-for-granted way he used to. Such ways of expressing the physical closeness of how the landscape seems were very dear to Tim, though I sometimes thought he also felt an affinity to the nineteenth-century roadbuilders who were required to commit their time and talents to a terrain with little assurance of reward. Yet despite what they sacrificed for this work, and because of what they cherished, Tim and Mairéad had special lessons for our students. Above all, they gave the strong impression that they had lived the lives they wanted to live.

Dr Ricca Edmondson is a Professor of Political Science and Sociology at the National University of Ireland, Galway and an SSRC Board Member

Tim Robinson with NUIG Students in Connemara (copyright Ricca Edmondson)