Hearing voices in the wind

The late Tim Robinson:  ‘I am an eternal student’.

The late Tim Robinson: ‘I am an eternal student’.

I have often wondered how the unusual name of Zetland found its way to the head of Cashel Bay in the heart of Connemara. It is, of course, the name of a well known hotel today. The hotel was founded in the closing years of the 19th century, by the son of a mountain farmer, JJ O'Loughlin, who had a canny instinct for business. The hotel was originally called The Zetland Arms, and before that The Viceroy's Rest. All these names allude to the hotel's distinguished patron Lawrence Dundas, Viceroy or Lord Lieutenant of Ireland from 1889 to 1902, in which year he became the Marquis of Zetland.

JJ O'Loughlin was a local character, who had great ambitions for himself and his family. He began his business career by opening a small shop which sold boots, shirts, groceries, and hardware. It hugely prospered. He was a kind-hearted man, and in the lean years he never refused the loan of a bag of potatoes or 'yella male' to his neighbours when they were in need. He operated mainly a credit business. After every local fair he would collect what he could from his debtors. If they hadn't the money he would cheerfully accept eggs, fish, chickens or pigs in exchange. He sent his pretty daughters to good schools, and realising he couldn't expect them to come home to the old thatched cottage, and to fulfil the ambitions he had for them, he set about building a large house, adding a few bedrooms for travellers.

Angling in the Connemara lakes in those days was excellent. His rooms were never empty. The crowning success came when the Lord Lieutenant himself, no less, stopped for three days. On his departure he presented JJ with a signed photograph. The house immediately became a hotel, and the name The Viceroy's Rest was proudly hung over its door. As the good Lord Lieutenant's career progressed, the name changed to the rather grand sounding, if exotic, The Zetland Arms.

But poor JJ lost the run of himself entirely on the occasion of Edward VII's visit to Connemara in 1903. The King and Queen disembarked from the royal yacht near Leenane in Killary harbour, and were driven by motor car to Tully where the curate read out an address of welcome under a banner reading: 'Friend of our Pope.' After a pleasant lunch the motorcade proceeded down the Inagh Valley towards Recess, where JJ, quite beside himself with excitement, greeted the royal couple with a 'cavalry escort'.

In fact what greeted the King and Queen (and probably alarmed them as well ), was an avalanche of men and boys yelling, laughing, knocking each other as they rushed towards the road, leaping over the ditches. They were dressed in rags and tatters, black coats, flannels or home-made stuffs, riding on farm-horses, cart-horses, ponies, and donkeys of all sizes and descriptions. Some with saddles, others had none; some had reins, and some had straw ropes. The King's reaction is not recorded; but he did ask to see the organiser of the O'Loughlin's Royal Connemara Mixed Cavalry. Bursting with pride JJ stepped forward and "made a most profound obeisance."

According to local legend, the King was supposed to have observed: 'That of all the courtiers he ever had standing around him not one of them ever made such ‘an iligant bow as Mr Johnny O'Loughlin.’

Interpreted the landscape

The above story was gently observed by the late Tim Robinson in his absorbing book Connemara: Listening to the Wind. In past times a handful of Englishmen have helped Ireland see its hidden worlds and treasures. I am thinking of Robin Flower who went to the Blasket Islands off the west Kerry coast in the 1930s and 40s and translated Tomás Ó Crohan's The Islandman; and closer to home the interesting George Thomson of NUIG who befriended Muiris O'Sullivan, also on the Blaskets, and urged him to write Twenty Years A-Growing. These two scholars introduced the world to the literature of those small islands, and to the last of the ancient European oral tradition of story telling. Their stories would have been lost but for the encouragement of these men.

Our own Aran Islands have had a score and more of Irish and continental artists and writers, and academics, willing to collect, portray and catalogue the stories and folklore of the islanders; but no one interpreted the Aran landscape as imaginatively as Tim Robinson.

Secret language

A Cambridge educated Yorkshireman, Tim managed to combine his passion for art with the mathematical precision that map making required. He met Máiréad, who was originally from county Wexford, at the Camden Art’s Centre, where she was manager. They married in Islington in 1959, and travelled and painted, while Tim taught mathematics in Istanbul and Vienna.

Returning to London they were unhappy with the art world there. Following a visit to the Aran Islands in the summer of 1972, prompted by Máiréad’s viewing of Robert Flaherty’s drama documentary Man of Aran, they both agreed to abandon life in London and move to Aran immediately.

In the early 1970s Tim crossed and recrossed Aran on foot, sometimes on a bicycle, what to many of us is mainly a weather-scarred but living landscape; and reproduced, in exquisitely drawn maps, its ancient pathways, holy wells, and deserted houses and villages.

Turning over the bones of all that he saw, he generously gave us back in a series of beautifully written books and maps, the secret language of place names (Tim and Máiréad became fluent Irish speakers ), the mythologies that they represented, and the stories of the people he met along the way, and those who had passed who had left their mark. First he explored with his artist’s eye, the Aran Islands; then the Burren and finally Connemara.* After more than 40 years this gigantic undertaking was magnificently achieved, culminating in the library of books and maps they produced.

‘Eternal student’

Tim and Máiréad presented their rich archive of photographs, place name records, reference books, correspondence, manuscripts and early drafts of his books to the James Hardiman Library, NUIG, along with their last home overlooking the harbour at Roundstone. There are plans to turn their home into a study centre.

At the presentation of his gifts Tim said that he could not have done any of his work without the help from NUIG experts in botany, geology and archaeology. He thought that his frequent visits to the university might have given some people the impression that he was a teacher. But no, “ I am an eternal student,” he said.

Responding to the appreciation of his gifts he replied: “We’d like to leave Connemara with as little as we brought to it - and return everything to Connemara.”

The couple returned to London five years ago. They had hopes of coming back to visit friends one more time, but poor health prevented them. Tim, who latterly suffered from Parkinson’s disease, died from Covid 19 at St Pancras hospital, near their flat in West Hampstead, on April 3. Máiréad predeceased him by two weeks.

Next week: More stories and places from Tim Robinson’s journeys.

NOTES: * Tim Robinson’s library inspired by the Aran Islands, the Burren, and Connemara is extensive. It includes: Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage (1986 ), and Stones of Aran: Labyrinth (1995 ), published by Folding Landscapes, established by Tim’s wife Máiréad Robinson.

Listening to the Wind (Penguin 2006 ), The Last Pool of Darkness (Penguin 2008 ), and A little Gaelic Kingdom (Penguin 2011 ).

 

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