A new book that claims walking and writing are one activity uses great dreamers to make its point, but the walker-writers passing through Connemara seem to have drawn on simpler inspirations
Beside the pier at Rosroe, at the end of the road, by the mouth of Killary Harbour, on the fringe of Connemara, there's a quite ordinary looking house. The last time I saw it there was a sign on the door saying it was no longer a youth hostel, a function it had served admirably well when I first saw it 40 years ago this summer having walked the breadth of Connemara to get there. Before becoming a hostel, the house was home to the poet Richard Murphy, and before that again, to philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who ended up staying there, as he said himself, because he "could only think clearly in the dark" and in Rosroe had "found the last pool of darkness in Europe". The nearby replacement hostel will serve as the starting point for the forthcoming 16th annual Connemara marathon walk, which will cover much the same route as I took all those years ago.
I've been thinking about that house a lot over the last while, thanks to a serendipitous conjunction of events. The first of these was the completion of the latest round of work on a collaboration with the composer David Bremner for this year's Béal festival, in Dublin, a choral work called Loop Walks, sections of which are intended to evoke more recent strolls in Connemara. The second was reading Murphy's 2002 memoir, The Kick, and the third was the arrival in the post of a copy of Merlin Coverley's The Art of Wandering, within days of finishing the first two. Appropriately enough, having been addressed not to the house where I now live but to one where I lived 10 years ago, the book found its way to me courtesy of that professional wanderer, our local postman.
Coverley's interesting thesis is, essentially, that walking and writing are one activity. To illustrate this, after a short discussion of pilgrim writers, he looks at a diverse range of walker-writers stretching from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to his fellow modern-day psychogeographer Iain Sinclair, via John Clare, William Blake, the English and American romantic poets, Parisian flâneurs, Rudolf Hess and the situationist international to support it. His walker/writers are what might be called romantic individualists. For a Rousseau or a William Wordsworth, the act of walking through the world was not primarily about the world itself; they were much more concerned with walking into their inner worlds. From the day Rousseau turned his back on his native city, these peripatetic writer-thinkers were bent on walking into a kind of alienated individuality. Coverley's walkers are professional outsiders; visionaries and dreamers on the road.
Connemara, on the other hand, seems to have produced wandering writers of a different ilk. Wittgenstein, who was known to stop mid-walk on the paths around Killary to draw his symbols in the mud with his walking stick, was on a long walk away from the abstract inhumanity of the Tractatus and towards the logic of everyday speech that characterises his posthumous Philosophical Investigations.
Murphy's walks around Rosroe, and his longer term home in Cleggan, were more likely to involve visits to the shops or his neighbours than any mystical end. As Cleggan is a port, and as not even poets have mastered the art of walking on water, he did the next best thing and sailed. In fact, he did more than anyone else to rescue the traditional Galway hooker, and used his boats to draw visitors and their money to an economically deprived area; his wanderings were integrative, concerned with community, and practical.
In their concern for the ordinary and for the community through which they moved, philosopher and poet were following in the footsteps of an earlier English-language writer who wandered around the area with good purpose. In the summer of 1905, JM Synge travelled through Connemara in the company of the artist Jack Yeats, by carriage, on foot and by hooker. They were there on a commission from the Manchester Guardian that resulted in a series of 12 articles for the paper and a 1911 book with illustrations by Yeats. But Synge and Yeats were not in pursuit of the picturesque to entertain the Guardian readership. Synge was wandering the west to portray the depths of poverty that was helping to destroy the community, and the paper used his descriptions as part of a fundraising campaign aimed at alleviating it. A pattern of wandering through Connemara as an integrative act, aimed at looking clearly at this small communal world as it is, was established.
Synge's true heir is, unquestionably, Tim Robinson, cartographer and peripatetic chronicler of Connemara and its offshore outpost, the Aran Islands. At the beginning of his five-volume journey through these landscapes, Robinson states as the fundamental unit of his rhythm the concept of the "good step", a more gentle placing of the foot on an actual place, sensitive to all the ecologies, both human and natural, temporal and spatial, that the act of walking integrates us into. Synge, Murphy and Wittgenstein (the second volume of the Connemara trilogy is called Last Pool of Darkness) are all present in Robinson's periplum, along with a number of other writers, both in English and Irish, associated with the area; language being one of the ecologies he is concerned to recover. I'd imagine that most of the participants in the walk will have learned much of what they know about the route from Robinson's books and many will be carrying his map for handy reference.
Perhaps it is the boggy, stony, watery unpredictable nature of its ground that makes Connemara more suitable for wandering writers with sharp sight than those in search of a vision, or maybe it's the small compass that circumscribes the activities of its walkers. Whatever the reason, it seems to me that they are different, complementary to, the more shamanic figures that people Coverley's pages. One group of wandering writers walks to discover a higher end, the other to attend to the path; as readers, as humans, it seems to me we are fortunate to possess both kinds.