DruidSynge: John Millington Synge

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John Millington Synge

biography by Tim Robinson

The play was taken to England in the summer, and although Yeats decided that it was too risky to put it on in Birmingham where what he called ‘the slum Irish’ might have been organized by the nationalists to demonstrate against it, performances in Oxford and London were very successful. Synge was in London and in good health for the occasion, and was lionized. Also The Aran Islands had at last been published (by Elkin Mathews in London and Maunsel in Dublin), and so 1907 gave him his brief summer of glory. July he spent in the Wicklow hills; Molly and her sister came to spend a fortnight at a cottage near his, and they rambled and rejoiced together.

Over the next autumn he worked on a play very different from his four savage comedies. The plot of his tragedy Deirdre of the Sorrows is adapted from the ancient Irish tale, a version of which he had translated in Inis Oírr five years before: the lovely girl being brought up in seclusion as bride for the old king who rules at Emain persuades the young huntsman she has seen in the woods to run away with her, but eventually, as if compelled by the beauty of her own legend, returns to Emain and the fate foretold at her birth. Although Synge’s setting is of woods and hillsides, references to the clouds coming from the west and south, and the rain since the night of Samhain, soon take us back to the meteorological determinism of Riders to the Sea. Deirdre appears at first as the child of nature itself, unpossessable by all the knowledge and power of civilization, and ends in suicide over a grave dug in the earth, mourned by nature: ‘if the oaks and stars could die for sorrow, it’s a dark sky and a hard and naked earth we’d have this night in Emain’. Perhaps this is the echo of that thunderous revelation, transcending art, love and death, on the cliffs of Árainn; long-delayed, almost too long-delayed . . .
For Synge’s period of incipient glory was also that of his dying, and Deirdre of the Sorrows was never to be quite finished. His neck glands had been troublesome for some time, and in September he had been operated on for their removal. Although he still discussed marriage plans with Molly, and revisited Kerry, his periods of health and good spirits were sporadic now, and there were endless quarrels and schisms within the theatre company to depress him further. His family no longer opposed his marriage, but it had to be postponed when he went into hospital in April 1908 for investigation of a painful lump in his side, and was found to have an inoperable tumour. He was not told of the fatal implications, and for a time felt much better, but the pain returned. The household he was preparing for Molly had to be broken up, and he returned to live with his mother, who was failing too. Writing to Molly, he said, ‘She seems quite a little old woman with an old woman’s voice. It makes me sad. It is sad also to see all our little furniture stored away in these rooms. It is a sad queer time for us all, dear Heart, I sometimes feel inclined to sit down and wail.’ Then, rallying, he went off to Oberwerth to see the Von Eiken sisters once again, and bought works by the medieval German poets von der Vogelweide and Hans Sachs with the intention of translating them. His mother died while he was still in Germany, and he did not feel well enough to face the journey home for her funeral. On his return he lived alone in his mother’s house, and worked intermittently on his Deirdre. He looked through his earlier work and wrote,

I read about the Blaskets and Dunquin,
The Wicklow towns and fair days I’ve been in.
I read of Galway, Mayo, Aranmore,
And men with kelp along a wintry shore.
Then I remembered that that ‘I’ was I,
And I’d a filthy job – to waste and die.

By the spring the filthy job was done. He entered Elpis Hospital again on the 2nd of February I909 and died there on the 24th of March. At the funeral, his family and his artistic colleagues formed two immiscible groups, and the fisherfolk, tramps and playboys of Ireland of course knew nothing of it.

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