- Walking:Tim Robinson's Stones of Aran
Tim Robinson's Aran Island volumes, Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage (1986) and Stones of Aran: Labyrinth (1995) are two of the most celebrated texts to emerge from Ireland in recent decades, finding favor and garnering influence across numerous disciplines and readerships. Taken together, these companion volumes amount to an extraordinary and encyclopedic survey of Árainn Mhór, the largest of the Aran Islands, or Inishmore, as it is more popularly known. Robinson is an author possessed of diverse talents and interests, all of which are brought into play in Stones of Aran. A reader will be able to enter his work in a variety of ways. These might include—though should by no means be restricted to—such perspectives as cartography, cultural and physical geography, geology, languages, literatures in both Irish and English, colonialism and postcolonialism, ecology, the connection between Robinson's earlier life as an artist and his second calling as a cultural geographer and cartographer, and the space Robinson shares with his English contemporaries who have produced well-regarded explorations of regions beyond their homeland; in this later category, two that stand out are Bruce Chatwin's The Songlines (1987), set among the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, and Jonathan Raban's National Book Award-winning book on Montana, Bad Land (1996).
Another approach to Robinson's oeuvre would be to read these works with a view toward how the act of walking figures in the Aran volumes. In each, the act of walking makes Robinson's adventure possible; governs his methodologies of discovery, and influences and underlines the literary forms present in his text. Here, William Least Heat-Moon's nonfiction work PrairyErth (1991) can provide a helpful context. It is a contemporary work from America that shares much with Stones of Aran, particularly in how it addresses issues related to language, place, and literary form.
Inspired by Robert Flaherty's documentary film Man of Aran (1932), Robinson first came to Aran in the summer of 1972, and later settled on Inishmore with his partner for a number of years, during which he learned Irish and became part of island society. Before his arrival in Ireland, Robinson—who was born and raised in Yorkshire—had studied Mathematics at Cambridge and [End Page 66] worked as a visual artist and teacher in Istanbul, Vienna, and London. At the suggestion of the postmistress of Cill Mhuirbhigh, who had noticed his "hand for the drawing, an ear for placenames and legs for the boreens," Robinson set about drawing maps of the island that would be of use to visitors.
Published in 1975, Robinson's first map found favor with both islanders and tourists alike, and began to bring him into contact with various experts who visited Inishmore and sought him out as a guide. From these experts and from his own readings, Robinson developed a deeper understanding of the complexity of the landscape of the island, and the ways it had been layered by the passing of time. These contacts drew him deeper into its dinnseanchas, or lore of place. The more he learned, the more the complexity of the island grew—and the more he doubted the simple tropes that underlined the functional maps he had drawn. Clearly, there was more to a place than its roads, buildings, hills, and so on. Each road, for example, was more nuanced and detailed than a mere line drawn between settlements. Landscapes, as he points out, "cannot themselves be shown or named"—for the minimal language of maps, not to mention the problematic nature of language, are never quite pliable enough to convey the ineffable spirit of place.1 He found as Melville had before him, that maps can conceal more than they reveal, "It's not down in any map; true places never are."2 To map Inishmore, or to "deep map" it, to borrow William Least Heat Moon's term, would require a larger narrative structure than could be provided by "simple" cartography.3 In this respect, Robinson had discovered the limits of maps in a way similar to that articulated by the American writer Barry Lopez in Desert Notes: