DruidSynge: John Millington Synge

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John Millington Synge

biography by Tim Robinson

The Synges came to Ireland in the seventeenth century from England, produced a succession of bishops for the Protestant Church of Ireland, and married land. J. M. Synge’s father, John Hatch Synge, was a younger brother of the owner of Glanmore Castle in Co. Wicklow; he inherited a small estate in Co. Galway, became a barrister in Dublin, and married the daughter of an Ulster-born rector of intemperate evangelical zeal. As landowners and clerics of the established church, standing on the apparently natural and divinely sanctioned economic and cultural rights of the Anglo-Irish community in Ireland, families like the Synges were loftily remote from such aboriginals as the Catholic, Irish-speaking and illiterate peasantry of the Aran Islands. At the same time the ties between the two classes were close and necessary (at least to the well-being of the former). The Synges’ income derived in part from the rents paid by the small tenants of their Galway estates (as J. M. Synge’s mother sharply reminded him once, when his social conscience was troublesome), while for his proselytizing forebears the rural Irish were a field of souls for the harvesting; in fact Synge’s uncle had been the Church of Ireland minister in the Aran Islands in the 1850s.

But by J. M. Synge’s generation the attitudes of the Anglo-Irish to the peasantry had become more complex and problematic, as the Protestant hegemony cracked before the rise of the Catholic middle classes. Among the Synges’ peers were some of the intellectual leaders of the new version of Irish nationalism which found its inspiration in the hitherto despised folk of the countryside – but the Synge family itself had no truck with such an abdication of the duties of civilization.