The famous Irish playwright John Millington Synge brought the Aran Islands to the outside world a little over a hundred years ago. Synge was living in France in the 1890s when he ran into W B Yeats who recommended that Synge visit the Aran Islands to learn the Irish language and to experience the culture of western Ireland. So in the summer of 1898 and for the next five summers Synge boarded a steamer in Galway destined for Inishmore, the largest of the three islands. And then he would spend several weeks on the islands, sometimes on Inishmore but mostly on Inishmaan, the middle island, where he cultivated a close friendship with many people. The people of Inishmaan welcomed this strange man to their homes and relayed to him their stories and taught him their language.
They also called him “duine uasal,” Irish for “noble person.”
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Synge was fascinated with the islanders — their talk, their clothes, their work, their beliefs, their acceptance of the extremely hard life they lived. Year after year he went back to live with the same family. One year he took his turn rocking a baby’s cradle (the baby was the grandson of the woman of the house). The next year he observed that this baby, now a toddler, ate nothing but potatoes all day long and drank a strong tea every afternoon and seemed very healthy.
One of the household’s members, a teenage son named Michael, was assigned to be Synge’s primary teacher and they spent a lot of time together, usually in the evenings when Michael wasn’t working. Synge was also interested in interacting with the people in different ways. One year he brought his camera along, intending to take pictures of the people in their everyday clothes. But they wanted only to be photographed in their very best, the clothes they had set aside to only wear when they visited Galway every 5 or 10 years. Another year he brought his fiddle along and was sometimes successful in leading some musical entertainment. But more often he failed because no man wanted to dance (women didn’t dance in public), or no one wished to accompany him (Synge needed at least a drummer; once he got by when a woman offered to join in with her harmonica). Or Synge wasn’t familiar with the song they wanted to hear.
Every year Synge brought presents to the family on Inishmaan who took him in. One year he brought them a clock because he noticed that there wasn’t a clock or watch on the entire island! You can never make an appointment on the island because no one ever kept track of the time.
The ancient fort of Dun Aengus on Inishmore was inhabited as early as 1500 BC
The pagan culture lasted for 2000 years until Catholic missionaries — locals refer to them as the Saints — came to the Aran Islands in 5th-6th century. Pagans for 2000 years and then Christians for 1500 years. Synge was fascinated with the mix of Catholicism and paganism, especially in regards to the islander’s belief in fairies. The early Catholic missionaries often blended pagan traditions with Christian principles in their attempts to convert the people to Christianity. Most of the stories that were told to Synge involved fairies who were in one way or another bothering the people. The local priest told them the fairies were fallen angels.
Synge noticed that there was very little crime on the islands and very little need for policing. If there was a general consensus that someone did something wrong and should be punished than that person was told to get himself off the island and make it to Galway where he should tell the authorities that he needs to be jailed for so long. Then when he serves his term he can come back.
Synge also observed that it makes no sense for a man to use his occupation for his surname because all of them are jack-of-all trades. They fish, farm, harvest kelp, build curraghs, thatch roofs. When it comes time to put up a new roof everyone pitches in and the job is usually done in one day.
The only vice that stood out in the islands was the ability to build a still and make and then consume poteen in large quantities.
Synge wrote his Aran Islands travel essays in 1902 but they weren’t published until 1907.
He wrote a total of six plays from 1901 to 1908, mostly based on stories or characters from the Aran Islands. All of the lines in the plays are in English but they are written as if they were translations from the Irish and they flow melodiously. Most of these plays were debuted at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin which was co-founded by Synge, W B Yeats and Lady Gregory. Many of Synge’s poems and letters were published posthumously as were many of the travel articles that he wrote for publications such as The Seanachie and the Manchester Guardian.
In one of his travel essays on The Aran Islands Synge mentions hearing about an islander who drowned and his body washed up several days later in Donegal. This event led to the writing of what some say is his greatest play, Riders to the Sea, in 1904. In fact, there are some who believe it is the greatest play in the English language! It is an one-act play that can be read in less than 20 minutes. There are only four speaking roles in the play: an old woman named Maurya, her two daughters Catherine and Nora, and her son Bartlett. And one major scene. I’m pretty sure that Synge based his characters on four of the family members he lived with on Inishmaan.
The famous German dramatist Bertolt Brecht was an admirer of Synge’s work. His play Senora Carrar’s Rifles was based on Riders to the Sea and the main character in Mother Courage and Her Children was likely based on Synge’s Maurya, the main character in Riders to the Sea.
The prominent actress Sara Allgood played the role of the older daughter Catherine in Riders to the Sea. Her younger sister Molly had a walk-on part in Synge’s The Well of Saints (based on a story Synge heard about a well in Inishmore that cures blindness) and soon replaced her sister in Riders to the Sea. Molly’s stage name was Maire O’Neill. From the moment when he first saw her Synge was smitten. In 1906 Synge was 35 and Molly 19 and they were members of two different classes and two different religions, Catholic and Protestant. The producers, writers and directors in the Dublin Theater of the day were Protestant members of the Anglo-Irish elite. The actors were mostly Catholic and a lower class. In those days you simply did not socialize with someone of a different class or religion and Synge’s family and friends were scandalized when the two became engaged. Synge suffered from ill health for several years and the wedding kept being put off because of his illness. Synge wrote his last two plays with Molly in mind to fill the two leading roles, Pegeen Mike in Playboy of the Western World and Dierdre in Dierdre of the Sorrows.
Playboy of the Western World takes place in County Mayo but is based on a story Synge heard in Inishmaan about a man who murdered his father. The play caused a riot when it debuted at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in 1907. The audience sat uncomfortably through the first act but later on when a woman’s undergarment called a shift was mentioned the riot began. Urban Irish Nationalists looked upon their rural neighbors in western Ireland as pious Catholics who seldom sinned but Synge was showing them these people have sexual feelings, too, and may also be prone to violence. The audience even objected to the specific murder weapon used, a type of spade called a loy that is the preferred ploughing tool used by good farmers. The play also caused minor riots in America when it was first staged in New York and Philadelphia in 1911. When Bertolt Brecht returned to Berlin from exile in 1948 he created the Berlin Ensemble and in 1956 the last play he helped stage before his death was a German translation of Playboy of the Western World. Slowly but surely the play gained acceptance and it is now recognized as Synge’s best work and the best play to have come out of the Irish Renaissance.
Synge died from Hodgkin’s disease in 1909 at the age of 37. His last play, Dierdre of the Sorrows, was unfinished at the time of his death. Molly and W B Yeats completed Dierdre and it was staged in 1910. In 1911 Molly married G H Mair, the drama critic for the Manchester Guardian. She named her first two children John after Synge and Pegeen after her role as Pegeen Mike in Playboy of the Western World.
The cottage in Inishmaan where Synge lived during all those summers is now a museum and tourists can now follow the playwright’s footsteps through a few fields to his favorite perch near the rock wall of an ancient fort where he smoked his pipe as he gazed at Inishmore. There’s a sign at the exact spot that reads “Synge’s Chair.”
Synge’s works are in the public domain and all of his plays and most of his travel essays can be found on the Internet for free. Some of the Internet files are text only while others are digitized books that may also include original illustrations by Synge’s friend Jack B Yeats, the younger brother of W B Yeats. Amazon sells a complete works edition for 99 cents.