What’s in a name? What’s in the landscape?

The Irish landscape is full of unrecorded placenames, part of a hidden local placelore which is being slowly recovered in many parts of the country.  The Field Names of County Meath, published last year, is an example of such a voluntary community project.

The work of Tim Robinson is an outstanding example of one man’s contribution to the exploration and revelation of aspects of the landscapes of the west of Ireland. Robinson came to live in the Aran islands and Connemara forty years ago and devoted his life to mapping and recovering their wealth of placenames, placelore (or dinnseanchas) and history.  He saw his mission as compensation for what the Ordnance Survey did in the early nineteenth century when it mapped the land and landscape of the west but largely emptied them of their cultural and human significance as recorded, for example, in names and places.  Robinson published intricate maps of the Aran Islands, The Burren and Connemara in hand-crafted ‘organic’ cartography which tried to represent the complexities and intimacies of the human and physical landscapes.

His maps were based on meticulous field work carried out on foot and bicycle among the local people. An Englishman, he learned Irish so that he could talk to the locals and obtain correct pronunciation of the names, and the stories behind them.  Accompanying the maps were comprehensive gazetteers of the names, arranged by townland and parish, with their oral traditions and histories.

Throughout Ireland local placenames have a poetry that rhymes with local identity and sense of belonging – names ‘that sigh like a pressed melodeon’ across the landscape in the words of poet John Montague. The names on Robinson’s maps have a lyrical ring to them, and reflect an acute awareness of the local environment by its communities in the past: Nead an Iolra, Log an Fhia, Meall an Fhathaigh, Gob an Damha, Caladh na hInse, Cuainín an Róin, Poll an Phíobaire, Aill na Síog, Loch na nUilleann, Sruthán na Seilide, Fuaigh na gCacannaí, Sruth na Rón, Carraig na gCapall.[1]

Robinson’s mission was to restore the names faithfully in Irish, rather than in the pidgin Irish/English of the Ordnance Survey (OS), which he calls colonialist attempts to render the sounds of one language in the spelling of another: ‘Irish placenames dry out when anglicized, like twigs snapped off from a tree.  And frequently the places too are degraded, left open to exploitation, for lack of a comprehensible name to point out their natures or recall their histories.’[2]  Some of the OS renditions were ugly, even comical – like for instance, Sruffaunoughterluggatoora and Muckanaghederdauhaulia in Connemara, and Bullaunancheathrairaluinn in the Aran islands.

The dinnsenchas or oral tradition which Robinson recorded from local people reflects the depth of memories of events from generations ago: Poll na Marbh / the hole[cave] of the dead, an area named from graves said to be those of some O’Flaherty men killed in a feud between two branches of the sept over ownership of the castle of Ballynahinch in Connemara, in 1584.’[3]  Meall an tSaighdiúra is said to have been called after an English soldier who profaned Tobar Chonaill holy well and died.  There is also Binn an tSaighdiúra which may be connected with an OS sapper who fell to his death while surveying the area in the 1830s. Cúgla [Cúige Uladh] is called after migrants from Armagh ejected from Ulster in the 1795 sectarian strife.  Duirling na Spáinneach [rockbank of the Spaniards] remembers the armada ship Concepcion wrecked off this point whose survivors were executed in Galway.[4]

Robinson realized early on that maps and lists on their own were inadequate to capture the totality and depth of the places encountered around Galway Bay, and so he has written extensive memoirs containing his reflections on his travels through these places:  Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage (1986); Stones of Aran: Labyrinth (1995); Connemara: Listening to the Wind (2006) ; Connemara: The Last Pool of Darkness (2008); Connemara: A Little Gaelic Kingdom (2011). These books are beautifully expressed explorations of his journeys, pilgrimages he sometimes calls them, through the boreens, fields and bogs, and communities of Aran and Connemara. They are enormous projects which have been taken up by literary scholars, especially in the field of ecocritism.  Ecocriticism is the interdisciplinary study of nature and environment mainly through literature. Tim Robinson’s  writings (and his maps) have been highly acclaimed in ecocritical literature.   His books have been compared in stature and scope in Irish literature to James Joyce’s Ulysses.

In the past week Connemara and Elsewhere, a collection of essays and photographs in honour of Tim Robinson, has been published by the Royal Irish Academy.  A leading essay in the collection, ‘Unfolding the map’, is by Professor John Elder, who has taught English and Environmental Studies in Middlebury College, Vermont.  Tim Robinson was trained as a mathematician, and worked as an artist before he came to Ireland.  Since then he has been a geographer, if not by training, certainly by instinct.  His work is true geography (‘earth description’) in the classic sense – mapping and recording landscapes and people.  Yet he has been largely ignored by geographers in Ireland.   His work doesn’t  fit into geographical orthodoxy as it has emerged in the past generation. There is nothing in any of the syllabi in irish schools of geography which engages with the Irish landscape as Robinson has.  There is, therefore, a certain irony in his popularity among scholars in other disciplines and traditions outside Ireland.

Patrick Duffy


[1] The eagle’s nest, the deer’s hollow, the hummock of the giant, the point of the sandbank, the harbour of the island, the little harbour of the seal, the piper’s hole, the cliff of the fairies, the lake of the elbow/angle, the stream of the snails, the cove of the cormorants, the stream of the seals, the horse rock.; Connemara: Gazetteer, 33, 39, 48, 60.

[2] Connemara: Listening to the wind, 81.

[3] Companion to the map of the Aran islands, 34.

[4] Connemara Gazetteer, 74, 75, 78, 81, 96.


One comment

  1. […] Read more in Mr. Duffy’s blog post, What’s in a name? What’s in the landscape? […]


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