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Synge and Death

by Ann Saddlemyer

Synge died in a Dublin Nursing Home named ‘Elpis’ (ironically the Greek word meaning ‘Hope’) early on the stormy morning of 24 March 1909; he was 38 years old. Although he suffered from asthma throughout his life and once was suspected of having tuberculosis, it was finally Hodgkins’ disease that carried him off. Ten years earlier a large lump on the side of his neck, the first sign of this painless, progressive enlargement of the lymphoid tissue, was removed; not until 1908 did doctors discover an inoperable malignant tumour. But despite these symptoms, he was physically strong enough to go for long walks in the country and cycle up to sixty miles through the Dublin mountains without any strain. Indeed until five weeks before his death he was actively writing and directing plays, even taking his turn as business manager of the Abbey Theatre.

Yet although unaware of the true nature of his illness, he was always conscious of mortality, lamenting while on Aran of “the short moment we have left us to experience all the wonder and beauty of the world”. The following untitled entry in his notebook just a few months before he died again carries the same thought:
   
   I read about the Blaskets and Dunquin
   The Wicklow towns and fairs 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.
   
This celebration of the life of energy can be found in all his works. The Shadow of the Glen sings of love in the wildness of nature. The Tinker’s Wedding, The Well of the Saints and The Playboy of the Western World warn us that we must make room for both the romantic and the Rabelaisian, ‘the law-maker’ and the ‘law-breaker’,’a gallous story’ and ‘a dirty deed’; the choice between resignation and defiant revolt is ours. In celebrating life in the shadow of death Synge deliberately sounded all the notes between tragedy and farce, gentleness and brutality, humour and grotesquerie, no more movingly than in the unfinished Deirdre of the Sorrows, which eloquently anatomizes the full range of the passions, their only unity in the closure brought by death. As old Maurya reminds us in Riders to the Sea, “No man at all can be living forever, and we must be satisfied”.

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