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John Millington Synge

biography by Tim Robinson

[From ‘Place / Person / Book’, an introduction to J. M. Synge’s The Aran Islands, ed. Tim Robinson, Penguin Books, London 1992]

The factual framework of the following is drawn from the standard biography, David H. Greene and Edward M. Stephens, J. M. Synge 1871-1909 (revised edition, New York and London, 1989).
Quoted in Dr William Stokes, Life and Labours in Art and Archaeology of George Petrie (London, 1885).
Synge’s substantial attainments in the knowledge of the Irish language and its literature, together with his changing attitudes to the policies of the Gaelic League, are discussed in detail in Declan Kiberd, Synge and the Irish Language (London, 1979).

George Steiner (After Babel, New York and London, 1975) writes, ‘MacKenna gave his uncertain physical and mental health to the translation of Plotinus’ Enniades. The five tall volumes appeared between l917 and 1930. This solitary, prodigious, grimly unremunerative labour constitutes one of the masterpieces of modern English prose and formal sensibility.’
This account of his visits to Aran is based on Synge’s diaries and notebooks in the manuscripts department of Trinity College Dublin. The fullest of the notebooks (4385), used on his first visit and corresponding to the first and longest section of The Aran Islands, has been usefully transcribed by Marek van der Kamp (‘An Authentic Aran Journal’), M. Phil. thesis, TCD, 1988). On Synge’s second visit he used some pages from a notebook (4384) started years earlier in Paris. I have referred to 4385 and 4384 as the first and second notebooks respectively. A third notebook (4387) contains mainly folklore material used in Part IV of his book, and a fourth (4397) also has some notes from his fourth visit
The twenty-three surviving photographs of Aran have been published in My Wallet of Photographs: The Photographs of J. M. Synge, arranged and introduced by Lilo Stephens (Dublin, 1971).
Not The Life of Guy de Maupassant, as the standard biography has it!
For the background to these evictions, see note 23 on p. 143.
B. N. Hedderman, Glimpses of My Life in Aran, Part I (Bristol, 1917).
J. Masefield, ‘John M. Synge’, The Contemporary Review, April 1911.
Marie Bourke, Painting in Focus: ‘The Aran Fisherman’s Drowned Child’ by Frederick William Burton (Dublin, 1987).
The Hon. Emily Lawless (1845-1913), daughter of Lord Cloncurry, published her best-known novel Grania: The Story of an Island, set in Inis Meáin, in 1892; her other works include poetry, historical studies and biography. Synge read Grania during his first visit to Aran, and in his notebook criticized the superficiality of her knowledge of the islands.
The Collected Letters of John Millington Synge, ed. Ann Saddlemyer, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1983).
Synge mentions the story of the Connemara man hidden by the islanders in Part I of The Aran Islands, and in a draft of this passage he adds, ‘Another story is told here of a highway robber who escaped from his prison and hid himself away among the people in the Connaught hills . . . At last two girls were arrested on a charge of harbouring him, and he gave himself up to clear them. This happened recently.’ The Connemara man was the son of a poor farmer called Ó Máille and was born about 1838 in Callow, west of Roundstone, where his story is not quite forgotten. According to local lore collected early in this century (Tomas Ó Máille, An Ghaoth Aniar, Dublin, 1920), he was a handsome athletic man, the pride of the neighbourhood, but his father was a quarrelsome drunkard. When the son wanted to plant some potatoes, the father tried to stop him by grabbing his ‘loy’, or spade, and in the struggle had an attack and seemed about to die, and young Ó Máille took to the hills. (A very circumstantial account of the quarrel and of Ó Máille’s wanderings in Connemara is preserved in the manuscripts collection of the Department of Irish Folklore, University College, Dublin, among material collected through local schools in 1937-8.) After eluding the police for several months, he crossed to Cill Rónáin, where he was sheltered by a woman relative (who, it is still remembered in the island, was living next door to the Atlantic Hotel at the time of Synge’s visit). Because he was so distressed by what he had done, and was talking to nobody, the islanders tried to cheer him up with parties, dances and cardgames. Word of his presence reached the authorities, so the islanders took him to Inis Meáin, and when the police surrounded the cottage in which he was sheltering there the man of the house let himself be captured in his place. After living rough for a time, Ó Máille got away to Tralee in a boat carrying potatoes from Árainn, and signed on as a sailor in a ship for America. He revisited Galway as a ship’s captain two years later.
The other case was that of James Lynchehaun (c. 1858-c. 1937), a wild and unpredictable school-teacher who had already been arrested for a minor assault and jumped bail before the period of the crime that made him famous. In 1894 he was facing eviction by Mrs Agnes MacDonnell of Achill Island, Co. Mayo, who had been his employer. Her stables burned down one night and during the confusion she was assaulted and left dreadfully battered, with her nose nearly bitten off. Later that night her house burned down as well. She accused Lynchehaun of the asssult (and he was probably behind the burnings too). He was arrested, escaped from the police, was hidden by distant relatives including a young female cousin, in a hole in their floor under a dresser, was discovered and rearrested, tried and condemned to life imprisonment. He became celebrated in ballads and in newspaper reports as ‘the Achill troglodyte’. In 1902 he made a most ingenious and daring escape from Maryborough Gaol and got away to America. When arrested there he claimed his crime was political, and with the support of the Irish nationalist community avoided deportation. He revisited Achill in disguise in 1907 and returned safely to America, despite having been briefly detained by the local police over a break-in. Later he returned to Achill again, was arrested and released after a few months. It seems he died in Girvan, Scotland. In The Playboy of the Western World he is mentioned as ‘the man that bit the yellow lady’s nostril’. ‘Yellow’ here means English, as in the derogatory name for an Englishman, Seán Buí, ‘yellow John’; Mrs MacDonnell had English connections. (See James Carney, The Playboy and the Yellow Lady, Swords, Co. Dublin, 1986.)