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Synge and Aran

by Tim Robinson

“I am in Aranmor, sitting over a turf fire, listening to a murmur of Gaelic that is rising from a little public-house under my room.” So begins J.M. Synge’s book The Aran Islands; and it ends equally abruptly: “Next day I left with the steamer.” The island of time represented between these two sentences was to be crucial for his development as a playwright, and for that of the islands’ iconic literary and even metaphysical status. Successive generations of romantic nationalists – many of them members of the Protestant ascendancy – had founded their separatist claims on the rediscovery of the Celtic soul, essentially at odds with the mundane progressivism of the Anglo-Saxon. For them, the last living representatives of Celtic purity were the Irish-speaking farm- and fisherfolk, and pre-eminently those of the western seaboard. Aran, that forlorn outcrop of want, was to become one of the chief shrines of this Ireland of the mind.
W. B. Yeats visited the islands in 1896, and in1898 the young Patrick Pearse went there to found a branch of the Gaelic League, while Lady Augusta Gregory came to collect fairylore. Thomas MacDonagh, later to join Pearse in the sacrificial Easter Rising of 1916, also spent time in Inis Meain. Thus by Synge’s time Aran, and Inis Meain in particular, had been widely identified as the uncorrupted heart of Ireland. The cottage of Paidin and Maire MacDonncha, in which Synge also stayed, was sometimes so full that the overflow had to sleep within the cashel walls of Dun Chonchuir nearby, and it was very reasonable of the islanders to conclude, as one of them told Synge, that “there are few rich men now in the world who are not studying the Gaelic.”
Yeats met Synge in 1896 in Paris where the latter was beginning the life of a litterateur. As the strategist of the Irish cultural revival, Yeats realized the Aran Islands’ symbolic importance, but knew that this young recruit to the cause would be better equipped than himself for their taking. So he issued his momentous command: “Give up Paris … Go to the Arran Islands. Live there as if you were one of the people themselves; express a life that has never found expression.” Synge arrived in Aran in May 1898. In Cill Ronain he got to know an old blind man who gave him lessons in the Irish of Aran, which Synge must have found very different from the Irish he had learned at Trinity, and showed him some of the island’s Christian sites, including the medieval chapel “of the four beautiful saints” whose holy well was to become the source of his play The Well of the Saints. But Synge soon found Cill Ronain too modern for his taste, and moved to Inis Meain, the least developed of the islands, where he lived for a month. He spent his time drowsing on the walls of the great cashel that looms over the cottages, wandering about and taking photographs (including some of what was probably the last eviction raid to be made on the island), 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, and in subsequent visits may have formed a relationship with one of them.
Synge revisited Inis Meain 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. In late September of 1901 he revisited Inis Meain and Inis Oirr for nineteen days. In Inis Meain several people were ill with typhus, and Synge was horrified at the thought of them dying without a doctor. In October 1902 he spent twenty-five days in Inis Oirr but did not visit Inis Meain; it was his last trip to the islands and was not reflected in his already completed book.
In 1907 Synge became famous and indeed notorious with the first performances of The Playboy of the Western World, which was partly based on a bit of local history he had picked up in Inis Meain about a Connemara man who murdered his father and was sheltered and helped to evade the police by the people of the island. In that same year, having been rejected by several publishers, The Aran Islands was published by Elkin Mathews in London and Maunsel in Dublin, with illustrations by Jack Yeats, some of them evidently based on Synge’s photographs and only one or two of them remotely adequate to the subtle and vigorous text. But Synge’s next play, Deirdre of the Sorrows, which echoes with a revelation of the terrible beauty of nature that he had received long before in the Aran Islands, was never to be completed. Synge died in hospital in March I909. At the funeral, his family and his artistic colleagues formed two immiscible groups, while the fisherfolk, tramps and playboys of Ireland whom he had celebrated knew nothing of it.