Ireland 2019: J M Synge and the Aran Islands

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.”

Kilronan Harbor on Inishmore. That’s our ferry on the right. It took us 40 minutes to get to Inishmore from Rossaveal. 120 years ago it took J M Synge more than three hours to get there on a steamer from Galway.

Click on any photo to see a larger version of that photo.

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.

A small curragh stored upside down in an Inishmore yard. Today there are ferries that go to all three islands. Synge had to hitch a ride on a curragh if he wanted to get to Inishmaan or Inishsheer or back to Inishmore.

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 walls of the Seven Churches in Inishmore were built about a thousand years ago.

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.

A close-up view of  one of the walls of the Seven Churches on Inishmore. We were told that most of the walls have been there for a thousand years. There’s a stone in the center of the photo that has an inscription that could be Latin or perhaps Irish. I wonder what the story is there?

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.

About crowcanyonjournal

I am a family man with interests in family history, photography, history and travel.
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10 Responses to Ireland 2019: J M Synge and the Aran Islands

  1. StillWalks says:

    A fascinating post indeed. I have been enjoying very much your visits to Ireland and the Aran Islands. They bring back memories of my own times there – in the west in particular. I first visited Galway as a young teenager on a family holiday to Roundstone. I later stayed with my wife and parents at a friends cottage on Inishmore for a couple of weeks. They were wonderful times 40 years and more ago and before the technology revolution and modernisation that took place later on.

    The last time I was in the west was when working on a tapestry commission for the Bank of Ireland in Sligo about 30 years ago. The design was taken from The mountain Ben Bulben which features in W B Yeats poetry and. Elbow which he is buried.

    I have not been there for a long time now and while I would love to visit again, I fear how I would feel about that modernisation – silly I’m sure and I won’t let that put me off going when I get the chance. In themes time it is good to read of your enjoyable times there. Thank you 😊

    • Thanks for the nice comment. Alastair. Yes, Inishmore has succumbed to tourism and I felt a bit cheated when I observed absolutely no sheep on the island and discovered that the wool in the sweater market came from New Zealand and the sweaters themselves were machine-made in Counties Cork and Kerry and elsewhere in Ireland. I was glad, though, when on our lunch break in Kilmurvey I walked by our driver who was shooting the breeze with three or four fellow drivers (they all go to the same places) and I didn’t understand a word that was spoken because they were conversing in Irish!

      If you ever revisit the Aran Islands I would like to suggest that you visit Inishmaan. I hear that very few tourists go there, They don’t even have bike rentals! They received electricity in the 1970s and I hear there is one electric car on the island. But the people — there are less than 200 of them on the entire island — live their lives very similarly to those who welcomed Synge to their homes 120 years ago.

      Btw, I understand that what we call sweaters are called jumpers, jerseys and guernseys elsewhere in the UK. What are they called in Wales?

      • StillWalks says:

        Thanks for the tip – I’ll remember that. “Pullovers” is the only word you’ve missed out in the list. All the others are used (though guernsey less commonly) and in my own experience they are all pretty much interchangeable (sweater included) from family to family and people use more than one term. On another matter, I am familiar with your last name but would love to be able to call you by your first. If you have mentioned it in the past or in your posts, I’m afraid it has got lost in my head somewhere. Thanks again 😊👍

  2. Peter Klopp says:

    Thank you for the excellent report on the playwright Synge who learned the Irish language and culture on the Aran Islands! I wonder if you have a close-up of the stone with the inscription. If it is written in Latin, I might be able to help you with the translation. Have a great Sunday, my friend!

    • Sorry, Peter, but I don’t know how to insert a photo in the comments section of a post. It looks to me like two words. The first word looks like “anai” with an indecipherable letter at the end and possibly one or more letters missing at the beginning. The second word looks like “icon” which could be in English but I doubt it. My guess is that this wall is not that old and was probably repaired with whatever rocks were lying around, including bits of stone from a broken tombstone. The church ruins also act as the main cemetery on the island and there have been inscribed tombstones there since the 11th century. This was a monastic settlement a thousand years ago when the primary language was Latin. A hundred years ago the primary language was Irish.

  3. disperser says:

    A short but interesting life. Well told, the above.

    • Thanks, Disperser. Yes, he had an interesting life. Synge graduated in 1892 from Trinity College Dublin where he studied Irish and Hebrew and music (mainly the violin). He then spent several years in Europe and learned to speak and write fluently in German, French and Italian. In Germany he decided to turn from music to writing and he studied the German translations of Ibsen’s plays. In France he traveled to Brittany and later observed the similarities in the lives of the peasants he met there with those of the Aran Islanders. He also translated portions of Petrarch and Dante’s works and sent them to friends and relatives back home. Synge was raised as a Protestant but sometime during his twenties he became an atheist. He was 31 years old when he completed his first play.

  4. Thom Hickey says:

    Thanks. He was a very great writer. He understood the mystery of life and its joys and soorows and he was able to dramatise this understanding in a deeply poetic way. In a sense the translation might as well be from the Greek as from irish as he wrote elemental drama.

    Regards Thom

  5. Pingback: Ireland 2019: Dublin’s Custom House Quay | Crow Canyon Journal

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