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Tim Robinson, laureate of landscape

Second Reading

Second Reading
Fr Kevin Hegarty

Among the many elderly victims of the coronavirus pandemic is Tim Robinson, an Englishman who made an enormous contribution to Irish culture. He died in a London hospital on April 3, two weeks after the death of his wife. According to Michael Viney, he ‘created a unique ecological chronicle of the prime western landscape’.
Robinson was born in 1935 in St Albans in England. His mother was an artistic designer of windows for leading London shops, while his father sold engineering equipment. Their occupations influenced his interest in art and mathematics. He regarded maths as the apex of human creativity.
He won a scholarship to Cambridge where he studied maths and physics. In 1959, after national service with the Royal Air Force in Malaya, he married Mairéad, of London-Irish stock. He met her in the Camden Arts Centre, where she was manager.
They travelled to Istanbul, where he taught mathematics, and Vienna, where he painted and exhibited under the name Timothy Drever. They returned to London in 1964, and Robinson supplemented his artistic endeavours by working as a sub-editor and technical illustrator.
Mairéad’s fascination with Robert Flaherty’s powerful film ‘Man of Aran’ changed the course of their lives. In 1972, they visited the scene of the drama. To echo the phrase William Butler Yeats used of his friend John Millington Synge, the landscape of the west entered their blood. By the end of that year they had set up home on Inishmore. So began a residency on the periphery on the western seaboard, first on the island and later in Roundstone, that lasted well over four decades.
Robinson devoted the rest of his life, ably assisted by Mairéad, to a forensic and imaginative exploration of the Aran Islands, Connemara and The Burren, ‘from the little mounds of shells left by neolithic winkle-pickers to the newest bungalow’. In order to understand and honour the local culture they learned Irish. He wrote that the language is ‘the irreplaceable distillate of over two thousand years’ experience of this country’.
Aware of his artistic skills, a postmistress on Aran, Máire Bean Uí Conghaile, asked him to produce a map of the islands, for the benefit of tourists. In his preparation, Robinson walked the terrain, gathered the local place-names, listened to the stories of the locals, read old histories and consulted experts in geology and botany. He displayed similar commitment to painstaking detail in his later maps of Connemara and The Burren. He created empirical and artistic masterpieces.
Robsinson donated his archive to the James Hardiman Library at NUI Galway. It is a rich treasure trove of detailed index cards, place-name records, photographs, correspondence with other writers and manuscripts. His nephew, Professor John Drever, commented: “Tim was interested in everything – in geometry, in mathematics, in large-scale cosmological things and small things too. Somehow in that part of the world, he managed to bring that together. Connemara captured both the very large and small-scale things for him.”
When thanked for this generosity in giving his archive to the university, Robinson said, “We’d like to leave Connemara with as little as we brought to it – and return everything to Connemara.”
From this archive he had distilled five major books that are remarkable for their erudition and the elegance of the prose. Two volumes on the Stones of Aran were followed by the Connemara trilogy.
John Elder’s praise for the Aran books applies to all of them: “It’s hard to think of another author in the literature of place who has managed to combine such intricacy and precision in the mapping of his home terrain with such a passionate, questing voice.” To paraphrase some words of the poet John Montague, he has revealed to us a landscape we had lost the skill to read.