This review is also a personal note: my branch of Clan Mullen came to America from Aran in the late 19th century, which is what led me to Robinson's books, "Stones of Aran." "Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage" is Robinson's description of the island as he makes a circuit of its shoreline.
Although the title "Stones of Aran" might suggest that the topic is geology or, perhaps, geography, "Pilgrimage" is actually an eclectic mix of these plus paleo-biology, ornithology, botany, anthropology, archaeology, etymology, mythology, cartography, and maybe some others. Robinson claims professional authority only in the last of these, having one time mapped Aran and parts of neighboring Connemara. To the rest of these fields he brings the energy of a keenly interested amateur, and he attempts to fuse from them the shoreline's gestalt. He deliberately and explicitly eschews photography, preferring to assemble pictures from nouns and adjectives, which he deploys in profusion and with technical specificity.
Occasionally this approach is irksome. Robinson admits to needing a bird identification book, for example, but he then rattles off species as if the reader were an ornithologist. In such passages I substitute "bird" for the various and mysterious names and practice my speed reading for a few paragraphs. A reader more at leisure might enjoy the delay of looking up all these curiosities in his own bird book.
There is no plot in this volume, no story line whatever, except when occasionally Robinson relates local legends, lore, or hagiographies of the saints. Rather the order of the narrative is an exploration of space, arranged sequentially as one walks (Robinson admits to occasionally pedaling to points on the shore, but in the descriptions he is always on foot) from the eastern-most point of the island, westward along the south shore, round the western end, then back along the north shore. Robinson is never an actor in this walk, only the narrator. The reader observes the circuit through Robinson's eyes and mind. One never reads or in any way derives a sense of his aching feet, watery eyes, or chilled limbs. It is a God's-eye view.
There is, in fact, something extremely impersonal in the narrative. Robinson rarely writes of contemporary people in Aran, and when he does--as, for example, when he hitches a ride from a couple of lobstermen to an offshore island--the description of the event is written in "first-person-remote," i.e., with an aloofness of attitude that leaves the reader feeling like he is watching events from a long ways off through a telephoto lens. Similar to listening to news on National Public Radio, it's as if some omnipresent authority is floating serenely, invisibly, and untouched above earthly things, ultimately objective, neither affecting nor affected by events below. Robinson similarly seems to want Aran and her people unaffected by his passing there.
Though any one section of the book can be accused of being too introspective, of containing too much arcana, or of being an egotistical exercise of linguistic nicety, what emerges with time and patience is an image of Aran that is at once general and intimate. It is similar to the sense you might get from looking out upon any landscape: you see a variety of trees, a roadway with a culvert diverting a stream underneath, the ruins of a barn encrusted with creeping vegetation, old pasture going to weed alongside a river, a hillside rising away to over-looming cliffs. You can take the parts separately--identify the various trees, look up who once owned the farm, climb the cliff, paddle the river--but your eye takes them together at a glance, and together they make one image. So it is with "Pilgrimage." From the disparate parts Robinson creates a whole, and you come to feel as if you "know" Aran in some way, and probably in a better way than you would from reading a travel brochure and looking at photographs.
Members of Clan Mullen enter the narrative at a few points, all of them related to Cousin Pat of "Man of Aran" fame. Whereas the Wikipedia entry for his actress daughter, Barbara, tells of Pat leaving his wife and ten children in Boston, Robinson says it was only three children, two daughters and a son, and the son, "PJ," returned to Aran with him. (This accords with Cousin Pat's account in "Man of Aran.") Robinson also accounts for Pat Mullen's employment while he was in America--"rambling, labouring, and moonshining"--and he reports that he left his wife in Boston "running an illicit drinking-house." And religious skeptics among us may be interested to learn that Pat's branch of the clan were notorious for impiety. "Johnny Mullen, father of Pat, was considered such a social and religious heretic that it seemed doubtful if Father Killeen, the parish priest of the day, would permit his burial in God's ground....'If we can't bury him we'll pickle him!' Pat is said to have said, but instead they forestalled the priest by bringing the corpse here ["here" being Poll na Marbh, a place where unbaptized infants and strangers-not-known-to-be-Catholic were interred] and burying it secretly, replacing the sods, erecting no cross, but taking `marks' for the spot...so that none but they would be able to find it."
Robinson, who helpfully translates Irish place names throughout, inadvertently gives some clue to the etymology of the name "Mullen." There is a knoll near the east end of Aran called An Maoilin: "The word `maoil' in Irish means among other things a hillock with a flattish top; it cognates with dozens of others denoting things blunt, bald, roofless, or low-topped in some way." I have always heard that the name "Mullen" derived from Irish for "The Bald One" or something like that. Indeed, I have here a postcard from a friend, who brought it from Ireland, showing the Mullen coat of arms and explaining that the name derives from the Irish word for "bald." With my usual distrust of such authoritative pronouncements (which in my experience are often no more than reiterations of some long-ago error), I wonder if "Mullen" might just as likely derive from Aran's "maoil," or "flattish top." Perhaps our family of modern warriors spring from an ancient ancestor who went into battle sporting not a bald pate, but rather that frightening 80's hairstyle, the "mullet."