DruidSynge: Synge and Kerry, Connemara and Mayo

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Synge and Kerry, Connemara and Mayo

by Patrick Lonergan

Synge’s writings about the Aran Islands are probably the best known of his prose works, but he also published accounts of his visits to other parts of Ireland. His writing about Kerry appeared as travelogues, a form of writing that reveals almost as much about Synge himself as it does about the people and places he encountered. His work on Connemara and Mayo was commissioned by the Manchester Guardian, and should be seen as socially-motivated journalism, intended to expose – and thus to encourage people to redress – the poverty of people living in the so-called ‘congested districts’ on Ireland’s west coast. So these writings were presented in different forms, and intended for different audiences. Nevertheless, both reveal much about how Synge’s experiences of rural Irish life inspired his plays.

Synge first visited Kerry in 1903, after he had written Riders to the Sea and Shadow of the Glen. He presents the county as a vibrant, diverse place, with a rich social life and great natural beauty. In Dingle, he attends an uproarious circus, and in Dun Chaoin, he discusses the merits of French tobacco. In a Dingle Bay village, he is told stories about local misers who were buried with all of their money; and he plays the fiddle (poorly) for bemused locals. He tells us of races taking place on a Kerry beach, and describes the crowning of a goat as King of Puck Fair in Killorglin.

The most interesting account of Synge’s journeys in Kerry must be his visit to the Blasket Islands, which lie off the coast of the county. Like the Aran Islands, the Blaskets were Irish-speaking, and poor – although people living there did not experience the same levels of hardship: Synge was told that it had been forty years since a Blasket islander had been drowned at sea; but, as Riders to the Sea shows, such events were not uncommon on the Aran Islands.

Synge seems to have been greatly taken by the people of the Blaskets, just as they seem to have been very curious about him. He describes waking on his first morning there, to be greeted by the sight of several villagers staring at him as he lies in bed – a scene that calls to mind the second act of Playboy of the Western World.

A notable feature of Synge’s writings about the Blaskets is his admiration for the local women, who seem to have influenced his construction of characters such as Pegeen and the other village girls in Playboy. His hostess on the island appears to have made a particularly strong impression upon him. Showing her his photographs from the Aran Islands, Synge states that she was “especially taken with two or three [pictures] that had babies or children in their foreground; and as she put her hands on my shoulders, [she] leaned over to look at them, with the confidence that is so usual in these places”. Later, Synge is accompanied on an evening walk by two young women. “Just outside the village we met an old woman who stopped and laughed at us”, he writes. “Well aren’t you in good fortune this night, stranger”, she said, “to be walking up and down in the company of women”. “I am surely”, Synge replied. “Isn’t that the best thing to be doing in the whole world?”

Synge first visited Mayo in 1904, the year in which he began writing Playboy of the Western World. The following year he returned to the west of Ireland, with Jack B Yeats, to produce the series of articles about that district for the Manchester Guardian.

His presentation of life in Connemara contrasts starkly with his writings on Kerry. “It is part of the misfortune of Ireland that nearly all the characteristics which give colour and attractiveness to Irish life are bound up with a social condition that is near to penury,” he writes – providing us with an important statement about poverty in Ireland, and with a key insight into his plays as well. Many of Synge’s dramas celebrate the “colour and attractiveness” of Irish life, but they also set out to reveal what he terms the “shame and dejection” of the impoverished people in this part of Ireland.

He presents scenes of extreme hardship, using anecdotes and small details to make broader points about the problems faced by this part of Ireland. He describes fishers at Spiddal, who are so poor that they cannot afford matches to light their tobacco. Instead, they keep pieces of peat turf burning throughout the day, using them to light their pipes when required. At Dinish Island, he meets a widower with a large family. “Isn’t it a fearful thing,” the man says, “to think I’ll be kept here another ten years maybe, tending the children and striving to keep them alive, when I might be abroad in America living in decency and earning my bread?”

Emigration was a huge part of the life of this part of Ireland, and Synge devotes particular attention to the way in which small farmers were forced through indebtedness to sell their lands and leave Ireland. “This is probably the worst kind of emigration’, he writes, “and one fears the suffering of these families, who are suddenly moved to such different surroundings, will be great”. Yet emigration was the only option available to many. Synge describes how many people sought to make a living from making kelp, which would be shipped to Scotland to make iodine. The success of this industry was largely dependent on the weather, and many people would go heavily into debt in the hope of a good season. In addition to insecurity caused by the weather, there was also the uncertainty of whether these workers would get a fair price for their work. In such conditions, it is hardly surprising that people sought the stability offered by a life overseas.

Synge concluded his writings about Mayo and Connemara with suggestions for possible remedies to the problems he encountered there, such as improved transport infrastructure, and the development of a strong national culture that would encourage people not to emigrate. Synge is often accused of idealizing the Irish peasantry, or sanitizing the hardships they faced – but these practical suggestions reveal the extent to which his presentation of Irish life was not just well-informed, but grounded in a genuine concern for the well-being of the people he met.

Further Reading
JM Synge: Collected Works Volume II: Prose (Colin Smythe, 1982)