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Celebrating Tim Robinson

By Richard Marsh
I've always loved maps.  I can't think about travelling or a new place without a map, not always to find my way but more usually to try to get a picture in my head of context and the shape of things.  I recall my delight  on a visit to the Zanskar Valley in the Himalayas where the only maps available in Stanford's emporium were US Surveys with whole patches carrying warnings that, in these areas, the maps could be out by 5,000 feet in elevation and 5 miles awry in other dimensions.  It didn't seem to bother the locals that they were living somewhere which hadn't yet been properly mapped, but I was entranced by it.

But not all maps are about defining context.  The maps of Connemara, Aran and the Burren made by Tim Robinson are an entirely different proposition.

The fractured limestone landscapes of Western Ireland, and in particular, Connemara, the Aran Islands and the Burren are the subject of Robinson's cartographic and literary output.  A Yorkshire-born, Cambridge-educated mathematician, Robinson brings to his task linguistic diligence, an inquisitive spirit, and the capacity to translate and communicate the abstract into his maps and writings and make it  wonderful. Last year, my partner Ro and I explored the islands of Inis Meán and Inis Oirr, clambering over dry-stone walls, walking down ancient boreens accompanied by Tim Robinson's increasingly dog-eared map.  Monochrome, with the greyness of the landscape itself, and covered with hints and gifts, here a dolmen, there a blow-hole. And, on one memorable afternoon in the spring sun sat on the stones of an ancient fortress with the sea a distant but insistent drone and found the music of a flute that brought the first cuckoo to an eerie duet.

This is fractal cartography that describes the intersection of geology, human activity, the ascent of the human spirit in myth-making and story-telling and the ever-present sea.  The maps guide the traveller to look harder, listen longer and take time to absorb his/her surroundings.

Robinson's two volume work The Stones of Aran is a loving, irritating, learned, experienced account of the largest of the Aran Islands, Inis Mor in which, so it seems, the history, geology and mythological landscape of every red kelp-clad field is described and laid out to view.  But this is very different from the writing of  urban flaneurs or psychogeographers, though no less personally experienced or etched into well-worn shoe-leather. I first came to these islands with my father who had seen Robert Flaherty's 1934 film, Man of Aran and, with that etched on his childhood memory had always wanted to visit.

Tim Robinson's recent work has been a triology of books of essays distilling a lifetime's learning and engagement with Connemara.  The latest Connemara:The Last Pool of Darkness, is a thing of great beauty and includes an essay on the time that the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein spent in the village of Rosroe. Not only is it a wonderful description of place, time and biography; the mathematician Robinson manages  a masterful articulation of the development of Wittgenstein's thinking from the Tractatus to the Philosophical Investigations.  There are few writers who could achieve this.  Robinson maps more landscapes than those of Connemara and Aran, he maps the intersections of landscape and imagination that belong to all of us.