LAST week we talked about JM Synge’s writing about the Aran Islands, from the first decade of the 20th century. By the time we reach that other 20th-century landmark on the cultural map of Aran, Robert Flaherty’s movie Man of Aran (1934), matters have moved on dramatically. One might say, “A terrible beauty is born”, but Flaherty is hardly listening to those “matters” and that “beauty” and what he hears is distorted sound, both musically and elementally. We are now well on into the establishment of the Free State and on the brink of what might be called “De Valeran” Ireland.

De Valera’s great achievement, in league with the Roman church, was to make a virtue for others of the hard life of subsistence and struggle and self-denial. There was much that proved very dark about this, as we now know all too well, but something too, it must be acknowledged, that was enabling for the national character and culturally admirable.

READ MORE: The Unnameable Archipelago: A different way of thinking about these islands

But Flaherty, in my view, imposes a vision of Aran island life from outside: it is not expressed from observation and listening, for all that he spent two years on the island, determined to get things right. Of course the film is a fiction but it is fiction posing as documentary. “F**k the Man of Aran,” an acquaintance with whom I used to fish for mackerel off the perilous easterly point of An Sunda Caoch (Blind Sound) exclaimed to me, regarding his wife’s annoyance that he wouldn’t go with her that night to a showing of Flaherty’s film in the village hall at Kilronan. You understand what he meant.

Flaherty’s film has been much applauded as a pioneering docu-drama, as was his earlier Nanook of the North, but in both cases fictional elements vitiate the documentary art. Man of Aran is profoundly unrealistic and exploitative. Hugh MacDiarmid found and deplored “fake glamour” in representations of the Hebrides. Flaherty doesn’t quite give us that. Rather he gives us unreal hardship, undoubted heroism but in unreal or mythic circumstances.

Flaherty’s cast of islanders risked their lives to perform tasks at sea neither they nor their forebears would ever have attempted, in dangerous waters, off the far west of Inis Mór, at a most turbulent and treacherous strait, around the mini-archipelago of the Bhranóg and Iarthach islands. That no-one drowned in making the film is a miracle. Other scenes in the film, too, were hardly true to life. Synge would, I think, have been amazed if not appalled. To me the movie seems a missed opportunity for classic documentary.

It took a Yorkshireman, Tim Robinson (his mother was Scottish), and his Irish partner Máiréad to turn all this about, to speak back to Synge and beyond, to redeem the time lost to colonialism, commerce and banality, to explore the meaning of place in all conceivable dimensions, at the heart and soul of which stands the Irish language.

Robinson read mathematics at Cambridge. He has a hard-wired intellect. After adventures as an abstract artist, he visited Árainn, with Máiréad. They were bewitched by the place, and in 1972 returned to live there, settling finally at Fearann an Choirce, about midway between east and west of Inis Mór. They stayed for around 12 years, a period comparable in duration with MacDiarmid’s on Whalsay, and studied and learned Irish to a high standard.

Robinson is a philosopher and theorist, a literary writer of great erudition worn lightly, and skilful artistry. To my mind he has no peer in the literature of place except Henry David Thoreau. As in Thoreau’s case a political point is never far from the surface of his work. And what he has achieved, for Aráinn, and subsequently for Connemara, and for the Burren in Co Clare, indeed for Ireland and the world, is breathtaking.

I will restrict myself here to his Árainn writings, more or less, writings and maps, for perhaps the most important and exceptional thing about Robinson to note is that he is also a mapmaker, founder of a little operation that came to be known as Folding Landscapes, based in Roundstone, in Connemara. His prose accounts of Árainn are underwritten by his work as a cartographer. That work speaks inevitably to the British Ordnance Survey, to place-names, to language and history, to the work of the great Irish dramatist Brian Friel (1929-2015) and such plays as most notably Translations (1980) but also Faith Healer (1979), with its litanies of place-names.

Robinson reverses the colonial legacy. His maps recover and discover the Gaelic place-names of the islands in their true spellings, names for places and features of the landscape where an outsider might be forgiven for imagining there to be no need for names. Those of my readers who come from the Scottish islands will be especially familiar with the phenomenon.

The National:

I once published in my journal Archipelago a fascinating piece by a Lewis man, Angus Macmillan, that explored the Gaelic origins of place names in Galloway, origins blurred or buried beyond hearing by phonetic approximation and custom. By talking with the islanders and trusting evidence only when he heard the same thing independently from at least two out of any three persons he questioned, Robinson recreated the islands for the islanders themselves, working in extraordinary detail, with infinitesimal scrutiny. His work,

his “poetical view”, as George Mackay Brown rightly called it, “takes in almost everything about the place: its geology, its birds and flowers and seaweed, history and folklore and place-names and the contemporary scene”.

That last element, “the contemp-orary scene”, is crucial, and it is of course where friction might arise between outsider author and native islander – and indeed to some degree friction arose, as it was bound to – but only really as grumblings in the courts of the public house. Walk Inis Mór with Tim Robinson, as I have done, and you will quickly find how warmly, how completely, he is venerated there, by all and sundry, especially those who knew him, whether as children or adults, in his time. Robinson taught Ireland’s Aran Islanders their place, so to speak, and put them in it, but of course in no mandarin spirit, but as a disinterested but impassioned scholar who relied on their various and uneven individual knowledges to assemble an encyclopaedic map and cultural history of their world. He looked in Rome to find Rome and found the closest likeness to it possible, rather more thoroughly than Ruskin, his acknowledged inspirer, who looked in Venice for Venice, stone by stone. Think of it like this. It’s as if a single individual had outdone in numerous dimensions Lorne Campbell and company’s Book of Barra. What a model Robinson provides for anyone intent on writing a new Book of Barra, or indeed a book of anywhere.

BEHIND Robinson’s extraordinary work stands some sophisticated theorising, as Nicholas Allen has expertly pointed out in his introduction to the co-edited OUP collection Coastal Works: Cultures of the Atlantic Edge (2017), regarding Robinson, and the significance for him of Benoit Mandelbrot’s writings on fractal geography, which were set afoot by the seemingly simple question, “How long is the coast of Britain?” – the answer to which proves to be a mathematical conundrum. To my mind it is one worthy of Zeno, or even of Aristotle and his paradox of place: “If everything that exists has a place, place too will have a place, and so on ad infinitum.” (Physics IV:1, 209a25.)

“The network of stories and place names he has been documenting over the last 40 years” Nicholas Allen writes, “would complicate [the Mandelbrot conundrum] even further.” Allen goes on to quote from Robinson’s Connemara: A Little Gaelic Kingdom (2012): “there are more places within a forest, among the galaxies or on the Connemara seashore, than the geometry of common sense allows. For Robinson, [Allen continues] the proliferation of places is bound with the human experiences of them, indefinitely troubling our ability to calibrate any final measure. Questions of history, community, tradition, disciplinary perspective, and language – or languages – open up and multiply a single place into many. This too can be understood as a kind of fractal geography.”

I would add to this that the chimera that is “final measure” is surely most readily seen for what it is on a populated small island. I would also say that much of all this as to theory may be found to some degree in the cosmology and conjoined materialism of Herman Melville. And we find it in MacDiarmid: “Scotland small? Our multiform, our infinite Scotland small?” So my chosen exemplary authors map themselves together.

And I would add, as to Robinson, a most modest man, that once at an event in Galway, he told a member of the audience who’d asked him a question of a quite uncontroversial kind about his work as a whole, that he (Robinson) saw it as “reparation”.

On hearing this, his questioner was so moved he welled up with tears.

At a similar event, and in a very different context, one of comic pastoral I suppose, I once heard an Irish Gard – a policeman formerly stationed on Inis Mór – remark how Robinson’s maps had revolutionised policing on the island with regard to land ownership, the ownership of cattle, and the collection of


As to the spirit of “reparation”, and restoration, we could do with more of that. Reparation should in my view demote the marketer’s “heritage” and “legacy” in the cultural lexicon, if not assign them to what Flann O’Brien called “the catechism of cliche”.

Next week: Andrew McNeillie takes us from the Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland to the Shetland archipelago in the northernmost seas of Scotland