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May 11, 2011

Synge Travels in Ireland

A good playwright must have the very finest ear for dialogue and it is this talent that makes Synge's Irish travel writings so good. In the first part of the book he is traveling in the Wicklow Mountains northwest of Dublin and paying particular attention to the local patois. Synge was accused of troweling things on a bit, for example with this alleged quote from a Wicklow village woman: "Glory be to His Holy Name, not a one of the childer was ever a day ill, except one boy was hurted off a cart, and he never overed it. It's small right we have to complain at all." The author of The Playboy of the Western World, which caused riots at its premier for its searing caricature of marginalized Irish, is a legitimate object of suspicion, but I doubt he is distilling his material in a misleading way. In any event the flavor of the speech is clearly authentic and very charming to read.

The members of the Irish Revival were upper class people in a poor country, and most, like Synge, were Anglo-Irish. They were taken seriously as the gentry tend to be and the last section on Connemara was originally published as dispatches in the Manchester Guardian. Here we meet Synge the social reformer, getting in to quite detailed work on suggestions for the economic development of the "congested districts," meaning areas (mostly western, Irish-speaking areas) where there was not enough employment for the population. Synge is impressively perceptive and criticizes the governments' attempts to introduce new industries while ignoring some traditional ones (such as gathering kelp), showing how the Dublin bureaucrats had simply failed to think of the local industries as possibly worthwhile. He also criticizes the exploitation of poor workers and urges more economic justice as a necessary part of economic development. A worthy document that stands the test of time.


J. M. Synge was primarily a playwright, best known for his playThe Playboy of the Western World, and one of the leading lights of the "Irish Revival" movement of the late 1800s-early 1900s. The Revival fixed on the Aran Islands as representing the pure, Irish-speaking world it sought to revive, and Synge, an Anglo-Irishman whose uncle had served as the Protestant clergyman to the islands almost fifty years before, went to Aran off and on during the years 1898-1902 to study the Irish language (his Irish is good). He was also an assiduous collector of stories, poems and other folklore, an activity greatly respected and eagerly supported by the islanders. He published The Aran Islands in 1907, the same year thatPlayboy was first produced at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin.

It is a fine little book, 136 pages filled with stories, both Synge's stories of his experiences and many stories told to him by islanders. There is no politics, no irony, no discussion of Synge's life before or after his time there, nothing about the Irish Revival. There is a great deal of discussion of the Irish language and much trenchant observation of the hard life on the islands, the dangers of putting to sea in the curaghs (large rowing boats), and vivid scenes of island life abound. The islanders are fascinated by Synge and expect him to entertain them, while he is quick to record everything he can about the "fairies," but it is clear that he achieved a measure of intimacy with these very rough people that few if any other outsiders have ever accomplished. An ancient stone lookout seat high on Inishmaan (an anglicization of Inis Meain, "middle island") is to this day known as Synge's Seat.

A nice little gem of a book, very little known. My Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics 1992 paperback edition has excellent footnotes and an extensive introduction by Tim Robinson (I always read the text before the introduction of any book, but in the case of non-fiction maybe that's not quite so important; in any event Robinson's apparatus is worth reading). Synge scholars can also identify sources here for several of the plays. Indispensable for the Irish literature enthusiast and certainly one of the best popular sources on the Arans.

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