Ultimate Place

Seamus Deane

  • Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage by Tim Robinson
    Viking, 298 pp, £12.95, February 1989, ISBN 0 670 82485 2

When it was first published in Ireland in 1986, Stones of Aran won a literary prize and a great deal of praise. It is a strange book, at once a meditation on and a journey around the island of Aran off the west coast of Ireland. The meditation takes its form from the journey, as does the journey from the meditation. Although the island itself, in all its coastal detail, its geology, history, folklore, flora and fauna, is the book’s subject, it is oddly elusive. Despite the fact that Tim Robinson’s account is the story of a pilgrimage, exhaustively detailed and loyal to every intimation, there is no ultimate moment or place of devotion. The quest is an end in itself, and it is not perhaps a quest for Aran but a quest to which Aran gives shape and meaning. Beaches, rocks, seaweed, cliffs, tides, inlets, legends, stories, ruins, insects, the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, the weather, the effects of light and shade, the spectacle of the Atlantic and the quiet gaze of Connemara are all described, pondered, looked upon with a tactful, eager strategic care that is as tender in its address as an admission of love. Yet it is the love of someone who can never, for all that effort and discipline, do sufficient justice to the loved place. Aran is not just an island to him. It is an ultimate place, the extreme form of a subject which can only be invented in writing and yet stands there as a rebuke to any attempt to represent its ageless, harsh actuality. It is so actual it demands to be represented and, of course, cannot be. There is always that surplus, that excess of the real which humiliates even the most painstaking research and the most finely modulated prose.

Mr Robinson is a map-maker as well as a writer and this book is in a way an extraordinary map of a coastline in the dimension of time as well as space. He discovers that one of the problems of mapping is the act of naming. Sometimes the names are too numerous: rocks, cliffs, shores, inlets, fields have so many that the line of the map or narrative would disappear beneath them. In addition, each name bears its own story or several stories, full of incompatibilities and contradictions, symbols and conundrums. Even to include all of these, were that possible, would still be no more than an approximation. So the map is, of necessity, incomplete. It suffers from a different form of incompletion when the name is cryptic. No explanation for it remains, so there can only be hazarded guesses or simple silence. The making of the coastal trip is the sunwise circling of an island which would present itself quite differently if the author turned widdershins and unreeled his narrative line backwards.

The island of Aran – the largest of the three Aran islands that lie in a line across Galway Bay – is Arainn in Irish, Inishmore in the Anglicised name given it in the Ordnance Survey map of 1839, after the Irish Inis Mor for ‘Big Island’, and still retains both names in speech and in writing. Inis Oirr, Inis Meain and Arainn are collectively the Aran islands, Oileain Arann, from the Irish word ara, a kidney, often applied in place names to areas that have the form of a ridged back. When the last ice-sheets melted away about fifteen thousand years ago, the islands were left polished as ‘lenses for the clearer reading of the past’.

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