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John Millington Synge

biography by Tim Robinson

John Millington Synge was born in 1871 in Rathfarnham, then a village, now absorbed into the suburbs of south Dublin. His father died in the following year, and Mrs Synge, left with five children and a reduced income, moved to a house next door to her mother in nearby Rathgar. John was a sickly, asthmatic child, and laboured under the burden of his mother’s vivid belief in hell-fire. An early love of the countryside and wildlife afforded some relief from the fond oppressions of home, but his reading of Darwin (when he was fourteen) introduced the new pain of religious doubt. Within a few years he no longer regarded himself as a Christian but as a worshipper of a new goddess, Ireland. His disbeliefs and beliefs formed rift-valleys of incomprehension between himself and his relatives, though he always preserved his status as a member of the family household. He gulped the patriotic balladry published in a nationalist newspaper, The Nation, and scoured the countryside in search of the Irish antiquities he read about in the writings of George Petrie. And in Petrie he would have read:

The Araners are remarkable for fine intellect and deep sensibility … If the inhabitants of the Aran Islands could be considered as a fair specimen of the ancient and present wild Irish … those whom chance has led to their hospitable shores to admire their simple virtues, would be likely to regret that the blessings of civilization had ever been extended to any portion of the inhabitants of this very wretched country. But, fortunately for them, they cannot be so designated; much of their superiority must be attributed to their remote, insular situation, which has hitherto precluded an acquaintance with the vices of the distant region.

Synge’s enthusiasm for Irish matters did not close his mind to a wider cultural heritage. He took up the violin, and, while scraping through a second-class degree at Trinity College, which introduced him to the Irish language and to Hebrew, he worked for and won a scholarship in counterpoint from the Royal Irish Academy of Music. It seemed that music was going to be his life. In 1893 a distant relative, Mary Synge, a concert pianist, arranged for him to stay with friends of hers, the Von Eiken sisters, in Oberwerth on the Rhine. After two months of studying music there, he moved to Würzburg. But he came to feel he would never be sufficiently confident to perform in public, and that his compositional talents were of little worth. He moved to Paris, and in 1895 he commenced courses in modern French literature, medieval literature and comparative phonetics at the Sorbonne, with the idea of becoming a critic of French literature. He lived the student’s life of cold attics and introspective scribbling; he read such subtle adversaries of his mother’s simple words of God as Mallarmé, Huysmans and Baudelaire. Holidays with his family in Wicklow alternated with a visit to Rome and further eclectic studies in Paris: the anarchist Sebastian Faure, Marx, Morris, Petrarch, St Thomas a Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ (a discipline of meditative practice he seems to have tried to adapt to aesthetic contemplation). In Ireland he was pursuing an unpromising attachment to a girl called Cherrie Matheson, the daughter of a Unionist barrister prominent among the Plymouth Brethren; she would not have him because of his atheism. On the Continent he got to know a number of young women with whom he corresponded – all too often, some of them felt, on the subject of Cherrie – and with whom he obviously found it easier to form close friendships than with the men of his aquaintance.