DruidSynge: John Millington Synge

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John Millington Synge

biography by Tim Robinson

In Cill Rónáin Synge got to know an old blind man, Máirtín Ó Conghaile (‘Martin Conneely’) who had been a guide to George Petrie, Sir William Wilde and others, and who he realized was therefore one of those fabulous Araners he had read of in Petrie ‘years since when I was first touched with antiquarian passion’. This living antiquity gave him some lessons in the Irish of Aran, which Synge must have found it very different from the Irish he had learned at Trinity, and showed him some of the island’s Christian sites, including the the medieval chapel ‘of the four beautiful saints’ whose holy well was to become the source of his play The Well of the Saints.

While in Árainn Synge called on the Church of Ireland minister Mr Kilbride and the Catholic parish priest Fr Farragher, and acquired a camera from a fellow visitor. After a fortnight, finding that Cill Rónáin had been dragged out of the Middle Ages by the Congested Districts Board and become as banal as any other little west-coast fishing village, he left it for Inis Meáin. There he stayed in the MacDonnchas’ cottage, and their son Máirtín (Synge calls him Michael in his book) became his guide and tutor. Synge lived for a month on this more primitive island, and also briefly visited Inis Oírr. He spent his time drowsing on the walls of the great cashel that looms over the cottages, wandering with Máirtín or alone, taking photographs of the islands (photographs mysteriously in tune with the moods of his prose), and picking up folktales and anecdotes, including those that were to grow into The Shadow of the Glen and The Playboy of the Western World. Twenty-seven years old and unlucky in love, he was very aware of the beauty of the Aran girls; in his luggage was Loti’s account of one of his escapades of Cytherian imperialism, set in Tahiti, Le mariage de Loti. He read a lot; other books listed in his diary include Maeterlinck’s Le Tresor des humbles, Les grands initiés by Édouard Scheuré (an admirer of Rudolf Steiner), an unspecified work of Swedenborg’s, Rossetti’s poems, the Irish mystical poet AE’s latest collection The Earth Spirit, and, as if as an astringent corrective to these spiritual effusions, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and de Maupassant’s novel Une Vie, both of them demonstrations of the proposition that (to quote the latter) ‘l’etre moral de chacun des nous reste éternellement seul par la vie’. And above all, he wrote. A frequent entry in his laconic diary is the single word ‘Écrit’. Some at least of this writing was done in little notebooks that would fit into the palm of the hand and that he could use outdoors. It is curiously moving to read, in the stillness of the manuscripts room of Trinity College Dublin, the first connected passage in these notebooks:

I am laid on the outstretched gable of a cliff and many feet below me great blue waves hurl from time to time a spray that rises in to my face … So much spray is in the air that a soft crust forms on the pages of the notebook where I write.

During this first visit Synge witnessed and photographed one of the last – if not the last – eviction raids to be made on the island. His description of it in The Aran Islands is a fine piece of engaged reportage; when he writes

For these people the outrage to the hearth is the supreme catastrophe; they live here in a world of grey, where there are wild rains and mists every week in the year, and their warm chimney corners, filled with children and young girls, grow into the consciousness of each family in a way it is not easy to understand in more civilized places. . .

he had already shared such a hearth for long enough to intuit its mysteries. But he also knew about evictions, in their legal and tactical aspects, from the other side, for his brother Edward was a professional agent to big landlords and an efficient practitioner of the art. Synge had had arguments with his mother on the subject, and when he describes an Aran mother cursing her son for acting as bailiff in this eviction, one could imagine Synge’s mother rising opposite her to berate her own son for betraying his class by siding with rent-defaulting peasants.

On his way back to Dublin, Synge stayed for a few days at Coole Park, Lady Gregory’s home in south Galway, at Yeats’s suggestion. Yeats, Lady Gregory and Edward Martyn, her neighbour at Tulira Castle, were then planning the foundation of the Irish Literary Theatre, which later became the Irish National Theatre. One of the two plays with which the new venture was inaugurated in May 1899, Yeats’s symbolic drama, The Countess Cathleen, excited the anger and incomprehension of the Catholic Church as well as of the Gaelic League, and the boos with which it was greeeted foretold the theatre’s turbulent future, on which Synge was to ride his own troubled fame.