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’.

Tim Robinson identifies his ‘real subject’ as ‘that unsummable totality of human perspectives’ on the islands; it is indeed inscribed from the beginning, since the naming of the islands is itself indicative of a complexity which the polished clarity of their stones seduces one to believe is more readily discernible here than in the mysterious countryside of the Burren in Co. Galway, to which the islands are geologically related. Because they lie at the edge of Europe and of Ireland, because the traces of Neolithic tombbuilders, Celts, early Christian monks and many others since are so visible, and because the islands are one of the last outposts of the Irish language, they have in cultural terms a quality of the ultimate which matches the naked extremism of their geology. There are other associations of more modern date which enable the islands to retain their cultural status. Because of Synge’s visit in 1898 and his account of it in The Aran Islands (1905), they became one of the sacred places of the Irish Revival. Yeats and Pearse were among the most notable of a long sequence of visitors, seeking some authenticity or purity not to be found elsewhere. Robert Flaherty’s film Man of Aran (1932) was a ‘decisive moment in the formulation of the Aran myth’, and the writings of Aran natives like Liam O’Flaherty and the Irish-language poet, the late Mairtin O’Diereain, have added further nuances and extensions to its appeal.

Robinson, who has lived on the island and learnt Irish, adds to these visitations and surviving accounts of them the memories and lore of the islanders themselves. Strangely, as in Synge, we read the stories about the seandream (the old people), and hear of the retentiveness of the communal memory, in the awareness that this is a vanishing resource, fading before the requirements of modern tourism and economic change. Every memorialist of Ireland’s ancient past, from Crofton Croker to George Petrie, Sir William Wilde, John O’Donovan, Eugene Curry and a host of others has issued this same warning. What you see now will soon be visible no more; what you see now is only the remnant of what once was. There is, of course, a great deal of truth in this. All traditional cultures have suffered irreversible change and despoliation in the last two centuries. But in Ireland that despoliation has always involved a political dimension. The pollutions of the modern world are savage in their effects, but nothing has been so savage as the history of a colonialism which demoralised and depopulated the West of Ireland and impoverished traditions which it later, in a burst of antiquarian anxiety, attempted to preserve.

One of the attractions of this book is the author’s capacity, without diminishing them, to absorb historical events into the infinitely long perspectives of geological time. It is in the rocks and stones of Aran that he sees, laid bare, the record of 270 million years. Yet one rock, one ruin, one yard of space can be presented as something that is vividly in the present while also being a mutable expression on the face of time. More importantly, Robinson is not one of those antiquarians who bemoans the disappearance of things which only poverty and misfortune had enabled to survive. He is not converting Aran into a lost Eden. He is fascinated by the longing that is expressed in that image and finds his own figure for it. In ‘the construction of my metaphysical Aran’, as he calls it, he wants to overcome ‘the inadequacy of our step to the earth that bears it’ and take the ‘good step’ that would conjoin us to the earth as the dolphin’s plunge conjoins it to the water.

In the section called ‘Fear of Falling, Fear of Failing’, from which these quotations are taken, he writes about the vertigo of the clifftops and describes a rock that protrudes over a sheer cliff face. Fifteen feet long, two feet across, eight or ten inches thick, it is called An Troigh Mairbh, the step of the dead. Island tradition has it that an English officer walked along this stone plank, jeered at by his recently-wedded wife who mocked his hesitation until, as he reached the end, the stone broke and he fell to his death. Across the water, in Connemara, where the Irish name for the stone is An Troigh Mharfach, the deadly step, the story has it that a man, pacing the rock, is encouraged by his wife to go on and take ‘the step that isn’t there’ until he steps off the end. Robinson’s book is, in his own view, a refusal to take such a step into the obsessionally desired or dreaded void. His step is to the earth itself, but it is as driven as the fatal step off the rock plank. The ground he walks on is forever vanishing and forever recovered. His book is not just about Aran. It is about the act of writing itself, about the instant when the foot touches the ground that a moment before was untouched and a moment after will have forgotten his tread. He is walking in the footsteps of countless others and he is walking on the barest, cleanest rock in Europe. Imprinted by history and scoured afresh by the sea, the stones of Aran are full of presence and of absence. Both these properties come alive again when the good step is taken. Both are lost when we take the step that isn’t there, into an emptiness that has become, for some pathological reason, preferable to the earth.

We gain further access to Robinson’s ambition in this book through his commentary on Flaherty’s film Man of Aran. Flaherty was profligate in his use of film; hundreds of feet had to be edited out, and, in one instance, a complete magazine of film which had been expended on one unbroken pan-shot of a cliff, from top to sea-level. Robinson finds this characteristic of Flaherty the prospector, the man who had been trained to prospect for iron-ore in the Canadian wilds, and who wanted always to see, through the consideration of the surface, what was hidden below.

It is Aran that is really the central image and obsession of the film, not the human heroics of the men in their frail currachs, engaged in their anachronistic shark-hunting. It is tempting to see this reading of Flaherty as corresponding to something in Robinson himself. But while it is a characteristic insight, it is not a self-portrait. Robinson, too, is interested in non-human reality, but he is more interested in the relation between this and human reality. Cosmic time and historical time intersect for him, over and over again, in the fine meshed grid map of Aran. He is abundant in his detailing of the harsh lives of the islanders, past and present: but even as he provides this, he shows how, in their extremity, these people were compelled to take account of what the earth provided and demanded. It was a more peremptory and enduring presence than landlords, soldiers, police, middlemen, chieftains, monks and kings. They lived in a political world and briefly were important in it: but they also lived in the eternal sea and skies that surrounded them. It is, nevertheless, interesting to see how the dependence on natural materials – seaweed, for example, for manuring the fields or for sending off for processing – decreased as the modern world made the separation from nature an economic possibility. With that, the seaweed, all its uses and all its names, all the feuds and places associated with it, begins to lose its importance for the islanders and the labour involved in its recovery becomes more and more a mattter of legend. This is a good example of a rich lore which was sustained by back-breaking poverty. The loss of one is surely compensated for by the disappearance of the other. Tim Robinson would, I think, agree, but, at the same time, he cannot but regret any loss that shrivels the intimacy between man and the earth and sea. In this light, his book is a marvellous act of retrieval which is not marred by a sentimentality that fails to take into account the plight of the people who live on the island. His Aran remains a place of habitation, not a museum piece in which interesting relics can be observed under the white light of a severe scholarship.

The book is in three parts. Part One, ‘South’, has 32 subsections; Part Two, ‘Excursion’, is a single interlude in which the author pays a visit to the Brannock Islands, which are fragments broken off the main Aran island itself; Part Three, ‘North’, has 43 subsections. Each subsection is an exploration in time of that point in space reached by the line that defines the coastal journey. Robinson can, in any one of these forays, give us an account of a place that accommodates different kinds of reality without strain, although in any other context there might be a sense of rupture or a felt need for a hierarchical arrangement of the elements involved. In the subsection called ‘Signatures’, for instance, he describes a stretch of ground along the clifftops which has been scoured by wind and sea for a fifty-yard wide stretch below the storm beach. Here in 1975, the English artist Richard Long created one of his characteristic circles out of the available stones. Robinson and his wife first saw it from an aeroplane as they flew in from Galway. Later they found it. By the autumn, it had gone, wiped out by the seasonal storms. Another signature is the thick sprinkling of white dots of calcite, fossils of an alga called Saccamenopsis, first discovered in Irish rocks only a few years ago. A third signature is ‘a series of horseshoe-shaped ripple-marks in the bed of a rivulet worn by rainwater in a sheet of bare rock’. According to island tradition, these are the hoofmarks of a sea-horse; fainter marks are the imprint of its foal. Stories of sea-horses, seen by the old people, are plentiful.

‘Such,’ writes Robinson, ‘are the stories I have heard, and they are much the same as those Lady Gregory collected here in 1898.’ The work of art, seen first from an aeroplane, the recently-discovered but ancient fossil, the legendary sea-horse and its connection with Lady Gregory’s earlier foray to the island, are all part of the human meaning of that bare clifftop passage. Robinson’s gift is that he can let each item be both itself and companionable to the others. The signatures are all ephemeral traces, each with its own explanation, each seen and then not seen, each always there because it has been here once and each obliterated or to be obliterated by the passage of time. Patience of this kind is wider than tolerance and spacious as the imagination. Robinson’s Aran will, inevitably, become part of the place’s myth but perhaps it will endure even longer as a work that tells us something of the next good step that might be taken, not in some unearthly domain, not in obsession, but in the humane love that makes knowledge possible and ephemeral. It is a wonderful achievement.