In 1945, JRR Tolkien became Professor of English Literature at Merton College in Oxford. He’d published The Hobbit in 1937, before the outbreak of WW2, and The Lord of The Rings appeared in 1954-55. In 1949, Tolkien started a ten-year stint as an external examiner for the National University of Ireland, where he set exam questions for students in Dublin (UCD) and Galway (UCG). While he was staying in Galway, he took several trips to the Burren and Connemara. Tolkien was no fan of modernity and machinery, and preferred walking or bicycling for his explorations. I like the story which says he’d walk for miles until tired, then just lie down to  take a nap before getting up to carry on.

There’s a theory that Tolkien borrowed the landscape (of the Burren in particular) as the inspiration for the Misty Mountains in LOTR. The Burren Tolkien Society would add that there’s a cave there called Poll na gColm (Cave of the Rock Dove) and gColm is pronounced as “Gollum”.  The only ‘slight’ flaw in the argument is that he wrote the book in 1937-49, before he actually saw the place. There are some tough hill climbs in the Burren, but a Mount Doom? Maybe not. But there’s a ‘middle Earth-ness’ about the West of Ireland, so let’s go with it for now.

If Tolkien had set out one day on an unexpected journey through Connemara, I wondered if he might possibly have bumped into that other English academic who stayed thereabouts – Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Unfortunately for my tale, Wittgenstein had his stint in Connemara in 1948, just a year before Tolkien arrived. He was in Ireland from April to October and had retreated west to find silence to work on his writing. As Tim Robinson reminds us, he described Connemara as “the last pool of darkness in Europe”. He stayed in a cottage belonging to a friend called Maurice O’Connor-Drury (Con Drury to his friends) on the southern side of Killary Harbour. When he looked out his front door, he saw something like this:


He had a local called Tommy Mulkerrins as a servant there, and one of Tommy’s jobs practically every day was to gather a bunch of rejected papers and burn them in the yard. Wittgenstein went back to Vienna at the end of that year, then to America, and returned to Cambridge where he died from prostrate cancer in April 1951.

Maybe these two Oxbridge dons met in England, or at least knew of the other, but it would have been a magical story if the hobbitesque Tolkien rolled up unannounced one day at the door of Rosro cottage to call upon the ascetic Wittgenstein.

How would they have got on? Tolkien’s first job after leaving the Army in WW1 was working on the Oxford English Dictionary, where he worked only on words of Germanic origin beginning with “W”. And he’s a fan of constructed languages (the books were mainly backdrops to allow him to use them). On the other hand, Wittgenstein is aware of “the danger of words” and the “bewitching of our minds by means of language”. Would he have been a Sauron to poor old Frodo Tolkien?

One Does Not Simply Walk into Meaning, he might have muttered, cruelly.

I love the fact that one of the last things Wittgenstein wrote was:

“I cannot seriously suppose that I am at this moment dreaming. Someone who, dreaming, says “I am dreaming”, even if he speaks audibly in doing so, is no more right than if he said in his dream “it is raining”, while it was in fact raining. Even if his dream were actually connected with the noise of the rain.”

I wonder what it was about Killary Harbour that made him dream about rain?