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.