Letter from Europe

Unfolding Connemara

Issue no. 2019/5

Picture above: A fine black-and-white shot of the town of Clifden with the Twelve Bens in the background. Few writers capture the spirit of these Connemara landscapes as well as Tim Robinson (photo © Michael Walsh / dreamstime.com).


Clifden is an interesting example of a purposefully planned community in the outback. The town was founded just over 200 years ago in what was then one of the remotest corners of Ireland. Recently, we travelled to Clifden by bus.

Dear fellow travellers

The man in the booking office directed us to the bus stance alongside the railway station. "Ah, you'll be wanting the Clifden bus," he said. "It's sad of course that the trains don't run any more."

The train hasn't run out to Clifden for over 80 years. But the bus diligently follows the former route of the Great Southern Railway on its journey west to the very end of Connemara. We slip past the southern end of Lough Corrib, pausing here and there to set down or uplift passengers in communities which once had railway stations: Oughterard, Maam Cross, Recess and Ballynahinch.

Clifden is an interesting example of a purposefully planned community in the outback. The town was founded just over 200 years ago in what was then one of the remotest corners of Ireland. In the early days, the only sensible way to reach Clifden was by boat. But by the 1830s a primitive road across the rock-strewn bogs and wilderness was under construction, followed in 1895 by the railway from Galway. For 40 years, the railway was a Clifden lifeline.

These days it's just the buses. With Lough Corrib behind us, we rattle west through landscapes which have been beautifully captured in the work of Tim Robinson. Tim is Connemara's very own nature writer and cartographer. From his studio on the quayside in Roundstone, not far from Clifden, Tim has run Folding Landscapes Press for a quarter of a century.

No other living writer has so astutely captured the Connemara landscape with its "brining walls of rain, low ceilings of cloud, dazzling windows of sunshine, the endless transformation scenes of the far west."

From the bus, we sense the insistent, haunting presence of the bog. And, approaching Clifden, there are tantalising glimpses of the quartzite peaks of the Twelve Bens away to the north. Robinson's Connemara Trilogy, especially his Listening to the Wind, gives a sense of why these western landscapes have been inscribed on the Irish imagination. Robinson's work as an advocate of wilderness places him in the premier league of landscape writers.

We travelled to Clifden for no particular reason. It was merely the serendipity of having a free day while exploring the railways of Ireland. But if Clifden and fresh seafood were the ostensible purpose, it was Tim Robinson's maps, plus his prose and his poetry, which tugged at our imagination.

Just as our understanding of the Cairngorms is so powerfully shaped by Nan Shepherd's The Living Mountain (written in the 1940s but only published 30 years later), so we see Connemara unfolded by Tim Robinson. He has shown us how the dull topographic writing of yesteryear can be reinvented for a more knowing, postmodern era. It is part cultural geography, part travelogue, but much more besides. It is, we reflect, as the bus pulls into Clifden, quite like what we try to capture in hidden europe.

Tim Robinson's wonderful prose and maps made the journey more than worthwhile. The oysters helped too!

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

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