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Synge and the Irish Language

by Declan Kiberd

Synge first studied Irish while he was a student at Trinity College, Dublin, from 1888 to 1892. Irish was part of the curriculum for those under-graduates who were intended for a ministry in the Church of Ireland. Both sides of Synge’s family had produced Anglican bishops in the past; but Synge soon abandoned evangelical Protestantism: ‘Soon after I had relinquished the Kingdom of God I began to take a real interest in the Kingdom of Ireland … .’ Years later Synge was to look back: ‘In those days, if an odd undergraduate of Trinity … wished to learn a little of the Irish language … he found an amiable old clergymen who … seemed to know nothing about the old literature of Ireland.’ In December 1892, Synge graduated from Trinity College with a ‘gentleman’s degree’, undistinguished but for his prizes in Irish and Hebrew.

In 1893, Synge began to make entries in Irish in his diary. He wrote ‘July 30, Lá Bhaleusca’ (Valeska’s Day) on the day on which he made one of the lasting friendships of his life. Synge wrote of his last day with her: ‘31 December 1894; Bhaleusca, ochón, ochón’ (Valeska, alas, alas).

In April, 1895, Synge settled in Paris and studied comparative linguistics. One year later he attended a lecture on breton life by Anatole Le Braz and became a passionate student of Le Braz’s works whose example Synge may have been inspired to follow in _The Aran Islands _. In February 1898, he attended the lectures of Professor H. d’Arbois de Jubainville on Old Irish. He writes later that these lectures on Celtic Literature were of ‘valeur inestimable’ (inestimable value).

On 10 May 1898, Synge landed on Inishmore and after two weeks moved on to Inishmaan, ‘where Gaelic is more generally used… ’ He writes later: ‘In 1898 I went to the Aran Islands to learn Gaelic and lived with the peasants. Ever since I have spent part of my year among the Irish-speaking peasantry.’ Repeated visits to the island enabled Synge to become a competent speaker of the language. Synge’s sometime companion on the island was a boy named Martin McDonogh. He writes to Martin in January 1899 in Irish: ‘Tá go leor leabh Gaeilge agam anis agus mé ag l. go minic.’ (I have many books in Gaelic which I often read).

The great closing speech of Maurya in _Riders to the Sea _ has its source in a letter from Martin: ‘Caithfidh muid a bheith sásta mar nach féidir le aon duine a bheith beó go deó.’ This became in _Riders _: ‘No man at all can be living forever and we must be satisfied’. Much, as can be seen here, of the mortal charm of Synge’s dialect is traceable to a Gaelic substratum, those elements of syntax and imagery carried over from the native tradition by a people who continue to think in Irish even as they speak in English.