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Synge and Wicklow

by Nicholas Grene

Synge’s associations with the West of Ireland are so well known that his intimate connections with County Wicklow have been relatively neglected. Yet the Synges were a Wicklow family, established there from the eighteenth century, owners at one time of both Glanmore Castle and Roundwood Park, an estate of more than four thousand acres. The playwright, younger son of a younger son, held no such position as landed gent, but lived on a tiny private income of £40 a year. Still, his family always returned to the county for their extended summer holidays – three to four months long – renting houses in the neighbourhood of the home place Glanmore. It was from these holiday houses that Synge walked and cycled through the hills and glens of Wicklow until he came to know them intimately. And it was in one of them, Tomrilands, the famous old Wicklow house with the chink in the floorboards, that in the breakthrough summer of 1902 he wrote his first achieved plays Riders to the Sea and The Shadow of the Glen.

He had heard the story on which The Shadow was based from a shanachie on Inis Meáin but he transferred the setting and embedded it in the desolate valley of Glenmalure, fit location for the lonely life of Nora Burke. And he was to go back repeatedly to this same glen for The Well of the Saints, whose blind beggars sit at the crossroads of Grianan, just a few miles down from Glenmalure, and for The Tinker’s Wedding set near the village of Ballinaclash, further down the valley again. Wicklow, with its isolated communities living on the edge of wilderness, so close to Dublin geographically, yet so remote in spirit, represented to Synge his own home territory of the imagination.