Where are the nows of yesteryear – In Memory of Tim and Mairéad Robinson

By Mary Moynihan

Smashing Times wish to express our condolences over the deaths of Tim Robinson and  Mairéad Robinson, partners and collaborators who have passed away within weeks of each other.

Tim Robinson was an award-winning writer, illustrator, cartographer, mathematician, and artist. He became a member of Aosdána in 1996 and a member of the Royal Irish Academy in 2011. He was born in 1935 in Ilkley, West Yorkshire, in England.  He did a period of national military service as an RAF bomber wing radar-fitter’[1] serving in Malaya (as it was called then) and studied maths and physics at Cambridge before teaching maths for three years in Istanbul. During the 1960’s he worked as an artist in Vienna and then London. He first visited and then moved to the Aran Islands off the West Coast of Ireland in 1972 with his partner and collaborator Mairéad Robinson, at her instigation. ‘After a visit to the Aran islands in summer 1972 – prompted by Mairéad’s viewing of Robert Flaherty’s drama documentary Man of Aran – they decided to return to live there in November 1972’.[2]

Tim Robinson was a lover of nature and the earth. He spent many years of his life walking the land, mapping the landscapes and gathering stories and local heritage from the Aran Islands – Inis Oírr, Inis Meáin and Árainn – and  later  the Burren and Connemara. He made maps, drawings, and  illustrations and collected stories linked to the history and folklore. He practised the art of topography, mapping out the shapes and features both natural and manmade of the land he walked. He is renowned for his non-fiction books exploring the landscapes, history and heritage of places in the west in Ireland including a two-volume study of the Aran Islands titled the Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage, Volume One (1985) and Stones of Aran: Labyrinth, Volume Two (1995). Both books were reprinted in 2008 and 2009 respectively ‘establishing Tim’s reputation as one of the greatest living chroniclers of landscape’.[3]  His trilogy of books on Connemara are  titled Connemara: Listen to the Wind (2006);  Connemara: The Last Pool of Darkness (2008) and A Little Gaelic Kingdom (2011).

Robinson made a series of beautiful and intricate maps of the Aran Islands, the Burren in County Clare and of Connemara.  ‘’These richly detailed yet marginalised landscapes he called “the ABC of earth wonders” referring to the Arran Islands, the Burren and Connemara. His maps were like pieces of art and were published by Folding Landscapes, the imprint he and Mairéad ran from their home in Roundstone, Co Galway, where they moved in 1984’. [4] Tim Robinson’s artwork has also been displayed by various galleries including IMMA, the Irish Museum of Modern Art.

According to Irish writer and journalist Fintan O’Toole

‘Robinson called what he did, not “geography” but “geophany, the showing forth of the earth”. His concern was the planet – our luck was that he chose to concentrate his great powers of observation and expression on some small rainy western Irish corners of it. . . . What made Robinson so special, and so irreplaceable, was his ability to see what he was looking at with many eyes simultaneously, to take in at once science (geology and botany), art (the fall of land and light on the perceiving eye) and narrative (the history and folklore of the people who inhabit it).[5]

Tim Robinson saw maps as ‘never-ending’ and referred to his map-making ‘as an art-form particularly suited to ordering large amounts of fact into an expressive whole’. In Adequacy is for Archangels: an interview with Tim Robinson, conducted by Pippa Marland, Robinson says ‘Adequacy is for archangels; for the rest of us it is a delusion only dispelled by exhausting oneself in its pursuit. I wore the network of tender little fields and bleak rocky shores of Aran into my skin until I could have printed off a map of them by rolling on a sheet of paper, but I was always aware of the infinity of ways in which the place exceeded my knowledge of it.’.[6]

In the same interview he tells the following story on the art of walking, a practice he described as essential for his working methods:

‘Once a wealthy friend with a big car offered to help me in my explorations of Connemara. Since I wanted to revisit a few remote glens I accepted, and we roared off. Then, ‘I must call in at that cottage,’ I said, and we squealed to a stop. I knocked at the door, but apart from a twitching curtain there was no response – whereas if I had sweated up the hill, fallen off my old bike at the gate, asked for a bucket of water to mend a puncture, etc., all the lore of the valley would have been forthcoming over tea in the kitchen. But even bicycling is inferior to walking in this context. To appear out of the thickets behind an Aran cottage, or scramble down from the bare moon-mountains of the Burren into a farmyard, is, I find, a disarming  approach, introducing me as obviously unofficial and dying for a cup of tea’[7].

He also says ‘I hope that my readings of particular terrains, although naturally couched in terms of human scales, those of my own limbs, eyes, breath etc., are suffused by an awareness of almost inconceivably greater and unimaginably smaller physical dimensions, not to mention those of the flowery fields and terrible cliffs of dreams’.

Tim Robinson learned how to speak the Irish language while living in Árainn. When he was creating his maps, he paid particular attention to identifying and collecting original Irish place names and recording the stories associated with those names, bringing places alive through his maps and accompanying books. In recovering the original names, he ‘describes this work as a kind of ‘rescue archaeology’, gathering things in from the outer edge before they are lost forever’.

Mairead Robinson play a significant role in bringing the work of Tim Robinson to a wider audience. She originally trained as a lawyer and ‘she mastered Gaelic, Italian, French and read Latin and Ancient Greek’[8]. Mairéad was a ‘social activist, editor and great champion of the cooperative movement’ [9].  Mairéad and Tim both set up a company called Folding Landscapes which was a

‘specialist publishing house and information resource centre dealing with three areas of particular interest and beauty around Galway Bay: the Aran Islands, the Burren and Connemara. Folding Landscapes was set up in 1984 by Máiréad and Tim Robinson, and has its studio on the quayside in Roundstone. Its main purpose is to publish Tim Robinson’s maps and some of his books. These maps, renowned for scholarly exactitude and artistry, are widely used in university departments and schools. They inform the discriminating visitor about the region’s culture and landscapes, and nourish community spirit by identifying the irreplaceable uniqueness of local environment and history.[10]

In 2015  Tim and Mairéad moved from Roundstone in Galway back to London.   The Robinsons bequeathed  their home in Roundstone to the National University of Ireland in Galway along with a rich archive of Tim Robinson’s work including photographs, records, books, correspondences and manuscripts. Apparently there are plans to convert the studio and home in Roundstone where the Robinsons lived while in Connemara into an arts centre.

Mairéad Robinson passed away in March 2020 followed by Tim Robinson who was suffering from Parkinson’s disease. Tim  lost his life to the coronavirus at St Pancras Hospital in London, aged 85, on April 3, 2020.  

Tim Robinson believed there were infinite ways of looking at things as he charted landscapes, lived experiences and as he wrote himself the

‘half-dimension of things not to be believed in but to be wondered at’. Tokens of the inexhaustible fractality of both the real and the imaginary, they challenged the art of words. Every tale entails the tale of its own making, generalities breed exceptions as soon as they are stated and all footnotes call for footnoting to the end of the world. So, discourse being fractal and life brief, I will let the Saint’s black shortcut lead me between those rocks and over the waves to his island, from which it is no distance at all to my own home[11].

Even though the Aran islands are on the edge of Ireland and Europe they are a centre in their own right, full of life and a rich cultural heritage. During my twenties and thirties, I experienced endless hours of pleasure in navigating the islands of Árainn and Inis Méain, following Robinson’s map and book Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage, as I discovered the landscape through direct experience of the place itself and through the place names, stories and histories that Robinson had gathered and which were not just words in a book but a part of ‘the art of place and space’. One evening on Árainn,  I wandered down to a small lake near the edge of the sea and I remember my delight on spying two large mute swans or Eala Bhaldh on the  lake exactly as Robinson had described. ‘With spring the gathering disappears. The whooper swans fly north to their nesting grounds in Iceland and beyond while the mute swans fight balletic wars until just one pair holds the lake for its territory’.[12] That evening I sat by the lake in the stillness of nature with only the pair of contented, majestic swans for company, surrounded by an ancient past that lives around and within us to this day.

We shall remember ‘through words, those chinks in time’[13]  and by walking the ‘good steps’ as we explore what connects us on many different levels.  Tim Robinson’s work explored an interlocking between place, space, history and community, bringing to life a depth of meaning for each place as he mapped out the ‘unsummable totality of human perspectives” [14].

All of us in Smashing Times offer our deepest condolences to the family and friends of Tim and Mairéad Robinson on their passing.

Recommended Viewing

Listen to an RTE interview with writer, mapmaker and artist Tim Robinson on the ‘elsewheres of his life and work’: in conversation on RTÉ Radio 1’s Arts Tonight with presenter Vincent Woods in Roundstone, Co Galway, 2014, produced by Cliodhna Ni Anluain


Watch a short interview Unfolding the Landscape with Tim Robinson in conversation with Vincent Woods.

Watch a presentation by Dr Nessa Cronin on , on an artist project called Iarsma; Fragments from an Archive, an Artists in the Archive project created in 2016, inspired by the Tim Robinson archive in NUI Galway, and involving of Dr Nessa Cronin, project initiator, Tim Collins, composer and musician, Deirdre O’Mahony, visual artist and the dancer and choreographer Ríonach Ní Néill.

Bibliography and Recommended Reading

Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage, Tim Robinson

Stones of Aran: Labyrinth, Tim Robinson

Connemara: Listen to the Wind, Tim Robinson

Connemara: The Last Pool of Darkness, Tim Robinson

Connemara: A Little Gaelic Kingdom, Tim Robinson

Essay: Two Cries, Two Cliffs: An essay on near-death experiences by Tim Robinson, taken from Tim Robinson’s new book, Experiments on Reality, published in the Irish Times, 17 October, 2019, https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/two-cries-two-cliffs-an-essay-on-near-death-experiences-by-tim-robinson-1.4052845

Article: One of the greatest writers of lands, A poetic genius who marvellously mapped the Burren, Connemara and Aran Islands. Fintan O’Toole on Tim Robinson, Irish Times, April 3, 2020

Anticipating Deep Mapping: Tracing the Spatial Practice of Tim Robinson, by Jos Smith, College of Humanities, The Queen’s Drive, University of Exeter. www.mdpi.com/journal/humanities

Adequacy is for archangels: An interview with Tim Robinson by Pippa Marland   for Land Lines: British Nature Writing

[1] http://www.ricorso.net/rx/az-data/authors/r/Robinson_T/life.htm

[2] https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/people/tim-robinson-obituary-english-writer-who-went-native-in-connemara-1.4225031

[3] https://landlinesproject.wordpress.com/2018/11/12/adequacy-is-for-archangels-an-interview-with-tim-robinson/

[4] https://www.irishtimes.com/life-and-style/people/tim-robinson-obituary-english-writer-who-went-native-in-connemara-1.4225031

[5] https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/fintan-o-toole-on-tim-robinson-one-of-the-greatest-writers-of-lands-1.4220220

[6] https://landlinesproject.wordpress.com/2018/11/12/adequacy-is-for-archangels-an-interview-with-tim-robinson/

[7] https://landlinesproject.wordpress.com/2018/11/12/adequacy-is-for-archangels-an-interview-with-tim-robinson/

[8] http://camdennewjournal.com/article/mairead-housing-activist-and-supremely-talented-scholar

[9] https://www.hiddeneurope.co.uk/a-tribute-to-tim-robinson

[10] https://data.gov.ie/dataset/folding-landscapes

[11] Connemara: A Little Gaelic Kingdom, Tim Robinson, 380

[12] Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage, Tim Robinson, page 196

[13] Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage, Tim Robinson, page 198

[14] Anticipating Deep Mapping: Tracing the Spatial Practice of Tim Robinson, by Jos Smith, College of Humanities, The Queen’s Drive, University of Exeter. www.mdpi.com/journal/humanities