NUI Galway and the Moore Institute mourn the passing of Tim Robinson

The university community and the Moore Institute mourn the passing of Tim Robinson at the age of 85, one of the finest writers on landscape in the last hundred years, who made the Aran Islands and Connemara the subject of his greatest work. Based initially in Árainn and then in Roundstone, Co. Galway, Tim composed a series of books exploring the relationship between cartography, place, and folklore, interweaving Irish and English-language traditions in an astonishing invocation of the landscape, natural history, and people of this historic region. He mapped what he called “the ABC of earth wonders”, the Aran Islands, the Burren and Connemara, in exceptional detail, producing some of the most valuable surveys ever made of these complex terrains. The fact that he was born and raised in Yorkshire, followed by his education in Cambridge in mathematics, and an early career as a visual artist that took him to Istanbul, Vienna and London, makes his journey here and contribution as a writer all the more remarkable.

In 1972 Tim and his wife Máiréad arrived in the West of Ireland. His sequence of major literary work began with two volumes inspired by his time on the Aran Islands: Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage (1986) and Stones of Aran: Labyrinth (1995). His maps and other collections followed, before the appearance of his masterful Connemara trilogy: Connemara: Listening to the Wind (2006); Connemara: The Last Pool of Darkness (2008); Connemara: A Little Gaelic Kingdom (2011). Tim’s style was virtuosic – unstrained, compressed and measured, rich in observation and flashes of personal experience, drawing on his encounters as he travelled the landscape. He had the paradoxical temperament of an austere romantic.

He also immersed himself within the Irish language traditions of the region, and the value of his long-term friendship with Liam Mac an Iomaire can be seen in their collaborative works, Conamara Theas: Áit agus Ainm (1992), and Camchúirt Conamara Theas (2002). Their translation of Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s Cré na Cille as Graveyard Clay won the prestigious Modern Language Association-Roth Award in 2018. Up until Liam’s death in 2019, they were working on a new translation of Annála Beaga ó Iorrus Aithneach (1941) by the renowned folklore collector Seán Mac Giollarnáth.

His publications continued as his years advanced. In 2014, Connemara and Elsewhere appeared – a collection of his pieces together with a photographic essay in response by the French photographer Nicolas Fève, edited by Jane Conroy of NUI Galway; the brilliant collaboration on Graveyard Clay; and just last year, a much-celebrated memoir, Experiments on Reality.

Tim’s life and work were inseparable from his depth of relationship with Mairéad. His natural reserve was matched by her outgoing generosity and force of personality. They shared a talent for friendship. Together they created Folding Landscapes to foster the publication of the maps of the region. They formed deep bonds with the community in Roundstone, in Connemara, and across the island of Ireland as a whole, as well as with a wide international network of people who came to their house, snug beside the bay in Roundstone. A good-sized room in this former knitwear factory, with hardwood floors and an angled ceiling, served as a gathering place for discussion, tea, biscuits and conviviality, with glorious views of the changing sea and sky, and Inishnee in the distance.

As their health became uncertain and living more difficult, Tim and Mairéad returned to London, still possessed by the desire to get back to Connemara. Mairéad passed away just two weeks before Tim. No one who knew them could imagine the two apart.

Widely recognized as the most accomplished writer on landscape of his generation, Tim was elected to Aosdána in 1996 and to membership of the Royal Irish Academy in 2011. He returned to Cambridge in 2010-11 as Parnell Fellow at Magdalene College. A number of his abstract paintings are in the Irish Museum of Modern Art.

His ties to NUI Galway were close and extensive. In an interview with Vincent Woods recorded in January 2015, he commented on the benefit he received from the advice of colleagues in botany, geology and archaeology, saying: “I’ve been in and out of almost every department” in the university. Tim received an honorary doctorate from the university in 1997. He commenced the transfer of his extensive archive to the James Hardiman Library in 2013, consisting of maps, correspondence, photographs, and vast numbers of notecards with his meticulous recording of townlands, place names, details of the landscape, Irish language terms, and other observations. In 2014, Jane Conroy and Nessa Cronin prepared an exhibition in the Hardiman Research Building on his work, inspired by the Connemara and Elsewhere volume.

His legacy of intellect, imagination, care for tradition and for close attention to the physical world and our cultural inhabiting of it, lives on and will continue to flourish for generations to come. Fear íseal uasal ab ea é. Ar dheis dé go raibh a anam dílis.

Daniel Carey
Director, Moore Institute