Celebrate Jamaican Independence Day with Classic Jamaican Cooking

To celebrate Jamaican Independence today we are publishing Cristine MacKie’s foreword to Caroline Sullivan’s Classic Jamaican Cooking. The mistress of a large Jamaican household at the end of the nineteenth century, Sullivan was the author of the first ever book on the island’s cooking, The Jamaica Cookery Book, of which Classic Jamaican Cooking is a lightly revised edition.

For many British and American people today, the Caribbean island of Jamaica evokes thoughts of paradisal holidays, days spent on white palm-shaded beaches, nights under a canopy of phosphorescent stars heavy with the smells of ‘ganja weed’, fresh thyme and the fragrance of allspice leaves. Frying coconut oil scenting the trade winds is the essential smell of Caribbean cooking and redolent with memories for those who have spent time in the islands.

For those who would like to deepen their experience, Caroline Sullivan’s collection of recipes and marvellous common sense provides an excellent foundation from which to try to capture some of the techniques and flavours of Caribbean cooking. When I first travelled to the Caribbean in 1970, Jamaica had only recently become independent and I was completely beguiled by the strangeness of the produce, smells and tastes. I began to hang about in the doorways of local kitchens and was young enough to inspire sympathy in the cooks, who often felt that I looked as if I needed ‘feeding up’. This way I came to sample a cuisine that I could only marvel at and was hard put to imagine where its roots lay.

Moved by all this to want to write about it, I found a mass of journals and diaries from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries that described the dining tables of the Great Houses, but there was almost nothing published on the subject of food and its historical influences so complete and revealing as Caroline Sullivan’s book. It is invaluable for all lovers of the West Indies and its unique cuisine.

Caroline Sullivan was not an innovator but a superb recorder of mid-nineteenth century Great House living in Jamaica. ‘My desire,’ she wrote, ‘is merely to introduce to newcomers to Jamaica our own native methods of cooking our own products.’ And although she modestly refers to her efforts as ‘this little work’, many of the recipes she includes could also, with a judicial change of a few ingredients, have been served at the tables of the great country houses in England.

In 1655 Cromwell seized Jamaica from the Spanish as part of his grand ‘Western Design’ and many English landowning families went to Jamaica, which quickly became the most productive of the sugar-producing islands in the Caribbean. The wealth made from the sugar industrysupported a lifestyle of incomparable opulence. ‘As rich as a West Indian planter’ was a common expression in England to describe people of great means. The island was divided into great sugar-producing estates, their names – Westmorland, Windsor, Chatsworth and Cornwall – resounding with nostalgia for England. The Great Houses were built in classic proportions with elegantly carved fretwork adorning the spacious verandas and wooden jalousies decorating the great Palladian windows. They were set in vast parklands shaded by enormous spreading jacaranda trees with violet bell-like blossoms and their branches dripping with green Spanish moss and epiphytes.

It was in such a setting that Caroline Sullivan spent her life. Her family went back to the Cromwellian invasion and clearly lived in the grand colonial style. When she came to run the Great House in the mid-nineteenth century, Jamaica was still enjoying and practising all the advantages and influences of England’s pre-industrial taste in food and cooking. But there was a difference, for Jamaica’s population was predominantly Afro-English. The English owned the great estates and organised the sugar trade, while the African (who had been transported there as a slave to plant and harvest the sugar cane) lived in small chattel houses within sight of the Great House. The result of such close proximity of two extraordinarily different cultures was a culinary marriage which is still quite unique.

Caroline Sullivan captures this for us in remarkable detail. She had a real interest in every aspect of the day-to-day running of the household, which I can hardly imagine would have met with approval in those times, since this was normally the housekeeper’s responsibility. She was clearly also a remarkable observer and not above travelling to the local markets run by the Africans, even though tradition was that the Africans would take their produce to the back door of the Great House for inspection. This was not always an easy undertaking for, like all West Indian colonies, most of Jamaica’s towns were on the coast, and during the six months of rain each year roads were frequently washed away and travel inland had to be by canoe.

Both land and sea in that part of the world provided an abundance of food. The warm tropical waters provided lobster, turtle, snapper, kingfish, shark and old wife, while the creeks, morasses, swamps and rivers marries traditional English Worcester and anchovy sauces with Jamaica pepper and pepper wine; lime juice is substituted for lemon, while the classic mix of butter and parsley retains its place. Even today salt fish dishes are among those most in demand. Caroline wrote that in England salt fish was then seen as a penitential dish, while in Jamaica it was as popular among the natives as the upper classes.

Her sound common sense and wide knowledge as a working cook is in evidence throughout her book. She insisted that her readers should already have English cookery books which would guide them in the basic cooking of beef, mutton, poultry or pork. Her knowledge of the difference in pricing between town and country must have been invaluable too, and she warned her readers that newcomers might be disconcerted to find that the butcher always served equal amounts of beef and bone. This is still so today and it takes a strong stomach to watch the dismembering of a fresh carcass, flesh and splintered bone flying through the air under the not always expert chop of the cutlass. She also knew that the best saddle of mutton came from the salt ponds or from the grazing pens and was not to be fobbed off with mutton which was in fact old goat, that suet from a mountain-fed goat was better for pastry than the local beef suet, that meat could be tenderised by wrapping it tightly in a towel and burying it in a deep hole for two hours, that nothing could remove the taint of meat that had fed on guinea weed. She must have been a marvellous cook and was obviously always prepared to get into the kitchen, for she writes of successfully overcoming some of the prejudices of visitors who enjoyed her preparation of goat, unaware of what they were eating until afterwards.

In the mid-eighteenth century the majority of seeds taken from England to Jamaica failed, but by the mid-nineteenth century successful planting techniques had been established and an amazing array of fruit and vegetables was available on the island. Caroline Sullivan’s knowledge of tropical tubers and the banana family is clearly the fruit of years of study and is still indispensable to any real cook of Caribbean food. She wrote that ‘plantains green, plantains ripe, plantains turned’ were all liked by the people and the visitor. The Africans put them in their soups and salt fish and it was de rigueur to serve them wrapped up in a napkin to accompany the planter’s cheese. Tropical fruits abounded, and from pineapples, grenadillas, guavas, ackees, mangoes and many more she imaginatively made stews, puddings, preserves, custards and jellies.

Caribbean cooking is strongly intertwined with our own historical and culinary traditions. The ingredients called for in this book are now widely available in Britain, the United States and Canada, making it possible to recreate this marvellous but little-known cuisine so evocatively described a century ago by Caroline Sullivan.

Cristine MacKie is the author of Life and Food in the Caribbean.

Read more about Classic Jamaican Cooking here

Remembering Chenjerai Hove

Two years ago today, poet, novelist, and essayist Chenjerai Hove passed away in Stavanger, Norway. One of Zimbabwe’s leading writers, Hove was born in 1956 in what was then the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. His novels include Bones, which won the 1989 Noma Award for Publishing in Africa. The author of four collections of poetry, including Rainbows in the Dust and Blind Moon, he  also wrote many essays on politics and life in Zimbabwe and a number of radio plays. A strong critic of Robert Mugabe’s regime, he was a founder member of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Association and president of the Zimbabwe Writers Union between 1984 and 1992.  Hove was living in exile at the time of his death as a fellow at the House of Culture in Stavanger, as part of the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN).

Serif were proud to be the publishers of Hove’s Shebeen Tales: Messages from Harareand to mark Chenjerai Hove’s death we’re offering this short extract from the book, in which he reflects on Zimbabwe’s “masked democracy” under Mugabe.
Continue reading “Remembering Chenjerai Hove”

Celebrate the Chelsea Flower Show with Frances Bissell

To celebrate the Chelsea Flower Show we’re offering 30% off Frances Bissell’s The Scented Kitchen: Cooking with Flowers and The Floral Baker: Cakes, Pastries and Breads.

Just enter the discount code CHELSEA at purchase to get 30% off.

Be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter for news on Frances’ The Fragrant Pantry: Floral Scented Jams, Jellies and Liqueurs which will be published by Serif Books later this year.

Evelyn Waugh’s travels in Guyana

Fifty-one years ago today, shortly after attending an Easter Latin Mass, Evelyn Waugh died at his home in the Somerset village of Combe Florey. He was 62. More than thirty years before, Waugh had spent a winter in what was then British Guiana (now Guyana). Afterwards, chronicling his travels, he wrote Ninety-Two Days: Travels in Guiana and Brazil.

Even Waugh’s comic imagination could not have invented the characters he met in South America: A cattle-rancher who claimed to be a close friend of the Virgin Mary, a Jesuit missionary with a pet toad that ate burning cigarette ends, and a gold-prospector who believed he was guided through the jungle by speaking parrots. Below is Waugh’s amusingly bad-tempered introduction to the book.

October 12th, 1933

At last, relentlessly, inevitably, the lugubrious morning has dawned; day of wrath which I have been postponing week by week for five months.

Late last evening I arrived at the house I have borrowed and established myself in absolute solitude in the deserted nurseries; this morning immediately after breakfast I arranged the writing table with a pile of foolscap, clean blotting paper, a full inkpot, folded maps, a battered journal and a heap of photographs; then in very low spirits I smoked a pipe and read two newspapers, walked to the village post office in search of Relief nibs, returned and brooded with disgust over the writing table, smoked another pipe and wrote two letters, walked into the paddock and looked at a fat pony; then back to the writing table. It was the end of the tether. There was nothing to it but to start writing this book.

I read the other day that when his biographer revealed that Trollope did his work by the clock, starting regularly as though at an office and stopping, even in the middle of a sentence, when his time was up, there was an immediate drop in his reputation and sales. People in his time believed the romantic legend of inspired genius; they enjoyed the idea of the wicked artist – Rossetti unhinged by chloral, closeted with women of low repute, or Swinburne sprawling under the table; they respected the majestic and august, Tennyson, Carlyle and Ruskin in white whiskers and black cloaks; what they could not believe was that anyone who lived like themselves, got up and went to bed methodically and turned out a regular quantity of work a day, could possibly write anything worth reading. Nowadays, of course, opinion is all the other way. The highest tribute one can pay to success is to assume that an author employs someone else to write for him. Most Englishmen dislike work and grumble about their jobs and writers now make it so clear they hate writing, that their public may become excusably sympathetic and urge them to try something else. I have seldom met a male novelist who enjoyed doing his work, and never heard of one who gave it up and took to anything more congenial. I believe it would have been better for trade if writers had kept up the bluff about inspiration. As it is the tendency is to the opposite exaggeration of regarding us all as mercenary drudges. The truth I think is this – that though most of us would not write except for money, we would not write any differently for more money.

All this is, in a sense, an apology for the book I am going to write during the coming, miserable weeks. It is to be a description of the way I spent last winter and, on the face of it, since there were no hairbreadth escapes, no romances, no discoveries, it seems presumptuous to suppose that I shall interest anyone. Who in his senses will read, still less buy, a travel book of no scientific value about a place he has no intention of visiting? (I will make a presence of that sentence to any ill-intentioned reviewer.) Well, the answer as I see it, is that man is a communicative animal; that probably there are a certain number of people who enjoy the same kind of things as I do, and that an experience which for me was worth six months of my time, a fair amount of money and a great deal of exertion may be worth a few hours’ reading to others. Just as a carpenter, I suppose, seeing a piece of rough timber feels an inclination to plane it and squire it and put it into shape, so a writer is not really content to leave any experience in the amorphous, haphazard condition in which life presents it; and putting an experience into shape means, for a writer, putting it into communicable form.

When anyone hears that a writer is going to do something that seems to them unusual, such as going to British Guiana, the invariable comment is, ‘I suppose you are going to collect material for a book,’ and since no one but a prig can take  the trouble to be always explaining his motives, it is convenient to answer, ‘Yes,’ and leave it at that. But the truth is that self-respecting writers do not ‘collect material’ for their books, or rather that they do it all the time in living their lives. One does not travel, any more than one falls in love, to collect material. It is simply part of one’s life.

Find out more about Ninety-Two Days here.

J.M. Synge and The Aran Islands

One hundred and eight years ago today, playwright, poet, and travel writer John Millington Synge died in Dublin at the age of just thirty-seven. Synge was a key figure in the Irish Literary Renaissance. Born in County Dublin in 1871, he studied at Trinity College Dublin and then at the Royal Irish Academy of Music. With Lady Gregory, William Butler Yeats and others, he was a co-founder and later a director of the Abbey Theatre. He is best known for The Playboy of the Western World, which famously provoked a riot on its opening night, and his travel writing – notably, The Aran Islands and Travels in Wicklow, West Kerry and Connemara.

In this extract from the foreword to The Aran Islands, painter and writer Julian Bell considers Synge’s legacy.

Image of the Aran Islands between l898 and 1902 taken by Synge.

“Here I am Lord of all I survey – surrounded with dirt & ignorance … It is a very wretched Island, the soil very scanty almost all a barren rock … I get on with the people so far very well but how it will be when we begin to attack their bad ways & religion etc. I don’t know.’ The Synge who was preparing to ‘attack’ the Aran Islands was not John Millington Synge, born in 1871, but his uncle, a Protestant minister, writing his letters home twenty years before. The Reverend Alexander Synge spent three years on Inishmore (also known as Aranmor), the largest of the three rocks in Galway Bay, during the early 1850s. It was an unhappy sojourn. The minister could only draw a trickle of islanders to his services, though by way of a small victory for propriety he managed to put a stop to their Sunday games of handball. The land being unprofitable, he tried to introduce some enterprise by investing in a sailing trawler. The fishermen of Galway saw it as a threat to their catch and set out in a flotilla to board it, armed with spears and stones. After his narrow escape from the ‘organised terrorism’ of these ‘savages’ (in the words of the 1853 Galway Vindicator), the Reverend attempted to identify the ringleaders’ boats, but was set upon by massed fishwives and only escaped by jumping in Galway’s Corrib River, while the police charged the mob with fixed bayonets. Luckily for him, Alexander Synge soon afterwards found a living in London.

The contrasts could hardly have been greater when Alexander’s nephew ventured, for the first time in his life, out into the west in 1898. It is fair to say that at the age of twenty-seven John Millington Synge had so far proved a grave disappointment to his proud Ascendancy family. The Synges had been Church of Ireland bishops and they had much land in Wicklow; one elder brother was a missionary in China, while another ran estates, supervising among other matters the evictions of defaulting peasant tenants. But the youngest son, reared among women after losing his father in infancy, was regarded as sickly and sensitive; much worse, his scolding mother came correctly to suspect that as he grew up he was losing his faith. Music became his main escape route from the Protestant pieties of her house in the Dublin suburbs. He took off to wander Germany with a violin. From there he drifted towards Paris and towards the notion of somehow becoming a writer. But while he attended courses at the Sorbonne, his attempts at poetry and essay-writing accumulated nothing but rejection slips.

The Left Bank brought Synge into contact with socialism, spiritualism, the drama of Ibsen and suchlike vogues of the 1890s; also, with the growing intellectual interest in the archaic Celtic world. The Sorbonne’s Professor de Jubainville and his colleagues in German universities were lending a new scientific edge to the fascination with Europe’s ‘primitive’ far west that had taken root in the Romantic era. These citydwellers’ reveries had tended to fix on distant Aran. Just a few years after the Reverend Synge’s colonial encounter with its ‘ignorant’ natives, a deputation of Dublin antiquaries made a grand pilgrimage to Inishmore, hailing its prehistoric hill fort of Dun Ængus as ‘the last standing-place of the Firbolg aborigines of Ireland’. Now, towards the century’s end, the gap between missionaries and mythologisers was being filled in by statisticians – as in an 1893 Ethnography of the Aran Islands, measuring the inhabitants’ average height and cranial conformation – and by philologists and folklorists. Inishmore, Inishmaan and Inishere offered an ideal laboratory to those investigating the Irish language – its etymological strata, its dialectal variations, its repositories of oral narrative. An islander’s perspective on all this activity is recounted somewhat wryly:

‘I have seen Frenchmen, and Danes, and Germans,’ said one man, ‘and there does be a power a Irish books along with them, and they reading them better than ourselves. Believe me there are few rich men now in the world who are not studying the Gaelic.’

These then were the broad cultural currents that carried along the solitary, gaunt-faced passenger who took a train from Dublin to Galway on 10 May 1898 and the next morning boarded a steamer crossing the bay – the journey described on the book’s opening page. Synge had in a sense reached the west of Ireland by way of continental Europe: a radical-leaning cultural sophisticate stirred into a quest for authenticity. With his own brothers, the land agent and the missionary, he was by now quite out of sympathy. But two other brothers, each after his fashion Synge’s friend and supporter, were instrumental in launching the book that was to be the backbone of his brief but momentous literary career. One, the poet William Butler Yeats, provides the standard account of how Synge was impelled towards The Aran Islands. In a 1905 introduction to Synge’s play The Well of the Saints, he describes how he met the unknown littérateur – six years his junior – in Paris in 1896:

He had … nothing to show but one or two poems and impressionistic essays, full of that kind of morbidity that has its root in too much brooding over methods of expression, and ways of looking upon life, which come, not out of life, but out of literature, images reflected from mirror to mirror …I said: ‘Give up Paris. You will never create anything by reading Racine, and Arthur Symons will always be a better critic of French literature. Go to the Aran Islands. Live there as if you were one of the people themselves; express a life that has never found expression.’ I had just come from Aran, and my imagination was full of those grey islands where men must reap with knives because of the stones.

The great poet was a great looker-through of people. Where others might see individuals to converse with, he saw portents, emblems, prophetic possibilities. Imperiously, he conceived a quest for his deferential junior, and here he is declaring that it has been fulfilled: that Synge’s theatre work, based on his Aran experiences, places him among the world’s great dramatists.

Synge was naturally happy to accept the accolades of this literary celebrity, but that does not mean his motivations were identical with William Yeats’s. Eighteen months passed after that meeting in Paris before he journeyed out to Aran. He spent six weeks on the islands on that occasion, during late spring, then returned to them in the Septembers of 1899, 1900 and 1901. It was after the 1900 visit that Synge sat down in his Paris apartment to gather the notes of his journeys to date into the book’s first three parts, which he duly submitted to Yeats and Yeats’s patron Lady Gregory. The latter replied, speaking for the poet as well as herself, that the manuscript was ‘extraordinarily vivid’, but that it would ‘gain by the actual names of the islands and of Galway not being given’ and ‘would greatly be improved by the addition of some more fairy belief ‘. Both these lofty apostles of the Gaelic Revival longed for a text about Aran that would be imbued with ‘a curious dreaminess’. For on Yeats’s own sea-journey there through the fog and spume, the poet had found powerful fuel for his mystical inclinations: ‘I have never believed less in the reality of the visible world,’ he rhapsodised.

Synge received Lady Gregory’s letter during his fourth spell on the island, but hardly heeded its directives when he wrote up the visit. One publisher who looked at the completed manuscript, however, rejected it just because it was too immaterial – ‘too shapeless … too much hung in the air’. Others simply responded that its Celtic subject-matter was too uncommercial. (‘Poor Johnnie!’ commented his mother. ‘We could all have told him that.’) The Aran Islands joined Synge’s stack of rejections. From 1903, however, his ambitions at last began to acquire substance, as the dramas he was also coaxing out of the Aran material were staged by the new Irish National Theatre Society (another initiative of Yeats and Lady Gregory). Through this new forum, Synge got to meet the English poet John Masefield: and it was through Masefield that he got to team up with Jack Butler Yeats, the younger brother of William. Masefield, who was on the staff of the Manchester Guardian, suggested to its editor that the promising new author from Dublin could be paired off with an artist friend of his to deliver a series of illustrated features on social conditions in the west of Ireland.

Image of the Aran Islands between l898 and 1902 taken by Synge.

Jack Yeats, who was a couple of months younger than Synge, had quite another style of operation to his bardlike sibling. He bantered, he disarmed; he was canny, droll, unassuming, elliptical. He had chosen to follow his father John into art by way of a training in London, but instead of portraiture he concentrated during his early years mainly on graphic work. Jack Yeats drew for British outlets such as Punch, culling a stock of comic material from Ireland’s race tracks, boxing rings, circuses and streets. His draughtsmanship carried forward much of the brusque, rumbustious vigour of John Leech and Charles Keene, Punch’s Victorian mainstays, but into an age where Japanese prints were setting the style. As with the graphics of William Nicholson in London or of Félix Vallotton in Paris, Yeats made much active use of the frame and the blank and the interplay of fat lines with lean. He was all the while stealthily building up a knowledge, not just of eye-catching Irish characters, but of a whole way of living on the earth and reflecting on that life. The most original aspects of Jack’s imagination would in fact only reveal themselves later in his life (a career pattern echoed by his brother’s), in the thirty years of extraordinary painting that began around 1920.

But as of 1905 Jack was walking the counties of Galway and Mayo in the company of Synge, sketching the poor of the ‘Congested Districts’ for the Guardian. The collaboration was a great success. Jack was stirred by Synge’s robust curiosity. ‘He was the best companion for a roadway any one could have,’ he later remembered, ‘a bold walker, up hill and down dale, in the hot sun and the pelting rain … always ready to go anywhere with one and when there to enjoy what came.’ Also by his kind heart:

Synge was delighted with the narrow paths made of sods of grass alongside the newly metalled roads because he thought they had been put there to make soft going for the bare feet of little children.

The twelve articles, combining incisive analysis of social problems in the disadvantaged west with lively forceful pen drawings, were much admired by the Guardian’s editor and readership. In their wake, Synge could at last persuade Maunsel & Co. of Dublin to publish his unplaceable typescript about the Aran Islands. As an inducement, he was able to promise them a set of illustrations by his new artist friend.

And so the text and pictures reprinted here finally appeared in print in April 1907, three months after Synge had hit the headlines with the greatest (and most controversial) of his plays, The Playboy of the Western World. The bold graphic work needs little commentary. But note that, in a very specific sense, it speaks for Synge. Jack Yeats did not actually visit the Aran Islands to research this project: departing from his normal working practices, he drew close adaptations of photographs taken by the author. That fact reflects back on the text in several ways. Synge’s original plates, taken with a hefty Lancaster Instantograph, show him to be an admirable visual artist in his own right. They come at the islanders and their land intimately and earnestly, often looking from a low viewpoint and (breaking beginners’ guidelines) straight into the light. So it is with the prose. The author’s eye is everywhere keen with inquisitive wonder. Where black-and-white illustration cannot reach, his enthusiasm rushes in, evoking ‘the joy’ – on grey days – ‘with which the eye rests on the red dresses of the women’, or alternately ‘the radiance of blue light … Galway Bay, too blue almost to look at’ as he basks in sunshine, ‘a perpendicular cliff under my ankles, and over me innumerable gulls that chase each other in a white cirrus of wings’. These islands and these seas, unlike William Yeats’s, are in high definition – pinned down on the map, sharply physical too, with their stones that grate upon the ankles and their ‘crash and rush of water’.

And at the same time, this fresh-eyed observer makes his own camera-work a facet of his story. He tells how he showed islanders pictures from his first visit when he returned for his second: when some ‘young and beautiful woman leaned across my knees to look nearer at some photograph that pleased her, I felt more than ever the strange simplicity of the island life’. By the same token, Synge touches on his own difference from that life – just as he touches on broader cultural ironies when he quotes the islander who claims that ‘there are few rich men now in the world who are not studying the Gaelic’. This account of a kind of idyllic simplicity is never itself simplistic, and for all Synge’s ardour for the archaic ways of life, ‘strange’ they remain to him. He is unable to enter into the islanders’ churches, just as he cannot spiritually inhabit their awe-inspiring keening nor yet their hardness of heart towards others’ sufferings. The Aran Islands is thus poised on a delicate, light self-consciousness. It is neither an attempt at ethnographic or topographic objectivity, nor yet, like so many more recent travel books, a self-serving tale of ‘how I found who I was at the ends of the earth’ – even if that happens to be the function that Synge’s visits to Aran performed in his career as a writer.

For of course, the sense that is uppermost in this book is not sight but hearing. Synge is there to listen. Partly he is on Aran to gather folklore, all those yarns tied up with the refrain Seo mo scéal – ‘That is my story.’ The voices floating on the peat smoke and the westerly wind will be captured and preserved, their diction distilled and their narratives lent literary permanence: the man who shams dead to catch out his wife will inspire The Shadow of the Glen, the man who flees to the islands having killed his father ‘with the blow of a spade’ will become the Playboy’s Christy Mahon, while Riders to the Sea brings together all Synge hears on his third visit about drowning and bereavement. But the will to listen goes beyond his own search for dramatic and idiomatic material. Masefield remembered his friend as ‘the perfect companion’, invariably quiet about his own opinions: ”

He liked to know the colours of people’s minds. He never tried to be brilliant. Life was what interested him. His talk was all about men and women and what they said and did when life excited them. 

Synge’s interest in people is unremitting, but it is level-tempered. He lets us feel his angry sympathy with the victims of eviction in their struggle with the ‘civilised’ class to which his own brother belongs, and yet he discourages the villagers from returning violence. (Nor does he dissociate himself from the missionary uncle who preceded him.) Rather than draw rhetorical conclusions from that charged episode, he deflects the onward flow of his writing instead back to folklore – telling a tale of the Phoenix. And this, I think, is because the steering principle of this book derives from his musical studies, and that is to open up themes and then interweave them, to return, to variegate, change key, keep all in play. What Synge called in a notebook ‘the strange concord that exists between the people and the impersonal limited but powerful impulses of the nature that is round them’ is thus translated into an extended tone poem. The Aran Islands is humane, physically vivid and informative, yet ‘hung in the air’ is not actually a bad description.

The gaunt and pallid passenger who stepped onto the Inishmore quay in 1898 was under a stay of execution. The year before, he had experienced his first encounter with the lymphatic cancer that would hound him through the decade to come and kill him at last in 1909. Death at thirty-seven, needless to say, only helped to cement Synge’s reputation, and his lovely book about Aran soon became a fixture of twentieth-century Irish culture. It has ploughed an ever-spreading wake of myth-elaboration and reinterpretation, in film, television, poetry and prose, all serving to open Aran to us visitors. Its impact can be sensed in the airstrip and the tarmac roads that now greet us. It has worked its way into the islands’ rocks.

Julian Bell

January 2008

Read more about The Aran Islands here.