DruidSynge: John Millington Synge

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John Millington Synge

biography by Tim Robinson

Synge visited Inis Meáin for nearly a month in September 1899, finding the island, in the rains and storms of autumn, a darker place, and the islanders dejected after a poor season’s fishing. He caught a feverish cold and had fears of dying and being buried there before anyone on the mainland could know of it. He was there again for a month in September of the following year, when he participated in the islanders’ grief over a drowning and witnessed scenes of despair and resignation out of which he was to make Riders to the Sea. Throughout his Aran seasons he advanced in island proficiencies; he talked and understood more Irish, learned to row a currach, contributed to evenings of fun and music. He went over to Inis Oírr again for a few days during this third trip, and got to know two girls there, one of whom corresponded with him later on. Whether it was one of these of whom in his notebook he wrote, ‘One woman has interested me in a way that binds me more than ever to the islands,’ is not known; the relationship, whatever its nature, seems to have come to nothing – but one wonders if later on this woman ever felt she had lost the only Playwright of the Western World?

In his alternative life in Paris Synge was engaged in another profitless love, with an American art student, Margaret Hardon, whom his diary often refers to as ‘La Robe Verte’; he sketched a play (later entitled When the Moon Has Set) in which a writer loves a nun, whom he persuades to renounce her vows; she exchanges her habit for a green dress and gives herself to him. Reality was not so complaisant, nor was the sketch a success, and Lady Gregory and Yeats when they read it suggested he turn to peasant themes.

By the summer of 1901 Synge had put together the first three parts of his Aran book, which he sent to Lady Gregory; she and Yeats were impressed by it, but thought it would benefit from the inclusion of more fairylore. In late September he revisited Inis Meáin and Inis Oírr for a total of nineteen days. In Inis Meáin several people were ill with typhus, and Synge was horrified at the thought of them dying without a doctor. He would have met the islands’ district nurse in Inis Oírr on one of his previous visits – she was later to write a gruesome account of her struggle against the insanitary folk-cures and the filth of those hearthsides Synge found so cherishing – but it seems that no medical help was available in Inis Meáin at this time. In Inis Oírr he collected folksongs with the dedication of a professional, and translated an eighteenth-century version of the ancient legend, The Children of Uisneach, which had been published recently; it was to furnish the matter of his last play, Deirdre of the Sorrows.

On his way to Paris that November, Synge delivered the manuscript of The Aran Islands to a London publisher Yeats had suggested, Grant Allen, who soon returned it. In January I902 Fisher Unwin, also of London, similarly declined it. His writing career was depressingly unsuccessful; he was still living on an allowance of ’£40 a year and a new suit when I am too shabby’. But he doggedly pursued his commitment to the Celtic by following a course in Old Irish at the Sorbonne, where he was frequently the lecturer’s sole hearer. These were his seasons of endurance, and they were at last rewarded by a creative outflow; during the next summer, which he spent with his mother in a rented house in Wicklow, he wrote The Shadow of the Glen and Riders to the Sea, and began The Tinker’s Wedding. The two completed plays were very welcome to Yeats and Lady Gregory, for their Irish National Theatre was more blessed with talented actors than with plays worth acting. Synge spent twenty-five days in Inis Oírr in October but did not visit Inis Meáin; it was his last trip to the islands and was not reflected in his already completed book.
Synge gave up his Paris apartment that winter and lodged in London, where he was introduced by Lady Gregory and Yeats to the literary world. John Masefield took note of this new, but not young and rather sombre face:

Something in his air gave one the fancy that his face was dark from gravity. Gravity filled the face and haunted it, as though the man behind were forever listening to life’s case before passing judgement . . . The face was pale, the cheeks were rather drawn. In my memory they were rather seamed and old-looking. The eyes were at once smoky and kindling. The mouth, not well seen below the moustache, had a great play of humour on it.

Then he returned to Ireland, and in June 1903 he heard The Shadow of the Glen read by Lady Gregory to the actors of the Irish National Theatre. That autumn he visited Kerry instead of Aran, and found there an English-speaking peasantry whose dialect he could more immediately adopt into his plays.