Road Trip: Ireland

Ireland’s Aran Islands: A Writer’s Retreat for J.M. Synge

Irish writer J.M. Synge, April 16, 1871–March 24, 1909

Edmund John Millington Synge was born on this day 145 years ago. Though he died of Hodgkins disease at the age of 38, the playwright, poet, and travel writer left a lasting imprint on Irish letters, influencing Samuel Beckett, Brendan Behan, and many others. Much of his writing sprang from his experiences over the course of six summers on the untouched Aran Islands off of Galway, a county skirted by Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way driving route.

J.M. Synge was a key figure in the Irish Literary Renaissance, also known as the Celtic Twilight, which revitalized Irish nationalism by reinventing traditional Irish culture, promoting the Irish language, and extolling the simplicity and folklore of the Irish peasant and Ireland’s natural beauty. In 1899 he founded Dublin’s Abbey Theatre along with poet William Butler Yeats and Lady Gregory. Although he left the nationalist struggle against British rule to other writers­­—choosing instead to focus on social and local conditions—Synge’s impact on Irish society was incendiary.

Dublin’s Abbey Theatre today

Like many in the revivalist movement, Synge was the highly educated child of an Anglo-­Irish Protestant family. Despite his elite credentials, he was enthralled by the traditional culture of the Aran Islands’ Roman Catholic peasants and what he saw as their essentially paganistic world view. His time spent collecting stories and folklore and learning the Irish language on the islands was the basis for his 1898 book The Aran Islands and his play Riders to the Sea (1904), hailed as one of the finest one­-act tragedies of the 20th Century.

But the drama known as his masterpiece, The Playboy of the Western World (1907), a comedy about apparent patricide, sparked riots at the Abbey Theatre. The play’s portrayal of Irish peasant culture was criticized from different quarters as being too idealized and not idealistic enough. Although Synge caused considerable controversy, it can’t be denied that he fulfilled W.B. Yeats’ urging that he “go to the Aran Islands” to “express a life that has never found expression.”

Teach Synge, a cottage­turned-­museum located on Inishmaan in the Aran Islands, helps preserve the legacy of J.M. Synge
Teach Synge, a cottage-­turned-­museum on Inishmaan in the Aran Islands, helps preserve the legacy of J.M. Synge

Synge and his life’s work are honored on the ruggedly beautiful island of Inishmaan at Teach Synge, former home of the MacDonagh family, who hosted the writer during his visits. The restored 300­-year old thatched cottage is now a museum housing memorabilia including photographs, drawings, and  letters; a converted stone outhouse holds a reference library of publications by and about Synge, Yeats, and Lady Gregory. The museum is open to the public in the Summer and by appointment in the Fall. The islands can be accessed via the Aran Island Ferries.

Featured Image: Galway’s Aran Islands, objects of fascination for Irish writer J.M. Synge