Sacred Texts  Sagas and Legends  Celtic  Index  Previous  Next 


In 1897, or thereabouts, as Mr. Yeats said in his interesting introduction to "The Well of the Saints," John Synge was eking out a scanty subsistence in Paris, endeavouring to support himself by literature, with no very definite idea as to his aims, but full of suppressed vitality awaiting an adequate outlet for expression. It was then his ambition, native Irishman though he was, to become a competent critic of French literature, from the French point of view. In this somewhat hazy state of mind, Mr. Yeats found him, and, according to his story; persuaded him to abandon his immediate and somewhat unprofitable critical purpose, and to turn to account the creative impulse, which had hitherto been lying dormant within him. The poet himself was fresh from a trip to the Aran Islands, and the rude but healthy atmosphere of them and of their people had taken possession of a nature ever keen to realise and appropriate new sensations, particularly those which carried with them a deep and noble spiritual import. How magnetic their appeal to the stranger must be was never more fully illustrated than in the intensity of the impression which Mr. Yeats had carried away with him from the islands and communicated to Synge,--though the result, as the poet tells me, of but a single day's stay on Aranmor.
Here then was a new motive set before Synge, a new direction for his literary energies, and one wherein he repudiated the art of the decadents, based as it was on the complicated experience and adjustment of modern life, for a return to nature as fresh and sincere in its courage and originality as the previous return had been of Coleridge and Wordsworth to the simple standard of truth and beauty. On this motive he acted, and in 1898 we find him, for the first time, in the Aran islands.
Picture this later Heine settling down in these wild and desolate islands, adapting himself to simpler and ruder conditions of life, taking the people as he found them, and yet somehow, despite the wandering spirit that possessed him, succeeding tolerably well in domesticating himself, so that we find him rocking the baby's cradle or joining eagerly and naturally in the story-telling circles of an evening by the flickering firelight.
That he made himself at home and was as well-liked by the people with whom he stopped as one of themselves is evidenced by the kindly memories which many of them who have since emigrated to America have treasured up of his presence among them and the quality of his personal magnetism. That he was a strange man they felt, as one of them has confessed to me; but that he was likable and that he became known throughout the islands as the man who was staying at Patrick McDonagh's, is clear from the tone in which those Aran men and women whom I have met speak of him.
Remember that to them he was simply a strange but kindly young man who was eager to learn all the Irish that they could teach him, and was fond of picking up strange stories of life in the islands from those who were prepared to tell them to him. And then remember also how many philologists and young poets and dramatists flocked to the islands, and especially to the home of Patrick McDonagh on the middle island of Inishmaan. Would it have been strange if among all of these, most of whom doubtless consciously told of their mission, the humble name of John Synge should have been all but forgotten? Again, he did not stay at Mr. McDonagh's cottage only. At first he went to the inn on Inishmore, the northern and largest island of the three. From Concannon's at The Seven Churches, he went over to Inishmaan realising that there, and there only, could he find the complete, whole-hearted life and temperament with which he sought to surround himself.
It was in the McDonagh home that he found himself at last. Here he lived life as he had never lived it before, and the fruit of his experience is told in the pages of this book. It is to Inishmaan that we owe his two great tragedies. The stories were here told to him which formed the germs of "Riders to the Sea" and "In the Shadow of the Glen."
I have met and talked with men and women who came from each of the three islands, and though Synge stopped elsewhere than the places I have mentioned,--at Thomas Connelly's, for example, on Inishmaan, and at Michael Powell's on Inishere, the southernmost island--all associate him with the household in which he was truly happy, the household of Patrick McDonagh on Inishmaan. It is of this family that he has most to tell in the following pages, and it is from the lips of one of Patrick McDonagh's sons that I have been told of those whose names figure so often in this book.
The psychological situation in which he and others who have come to America after him found themselves in reading these pages for the first time must have been a rare one, for therein they found depicted the lives of relatives and friends whom they have not seen for many years, and in at least one case I have met with a man who figured personally in the little volume. One and all, they agree that John Synge has reflected faithfully and sympathetically the life which he saw, and, though once or twice Mr. McDonagh has called my attention to a story or incident which was not familiar to him and whose truth he was therefore inclined to question, it is quite clear that the dramatist was keen enough to discard such stories as might have been told him in an irresponsible mood. The only criticism that I have heard expressed was that Synge might have written a better book if he had told more about the sea and the birds and the storms, and less of the people, who, in their very quality of humanity, are slow to recognise the romantic beauty with which they are clothed in the eyes of strangers keen to feel and express life's spiritual values.
The old story-teller whom Synge met on his first visit to the islands--a visit, by the way, which lasted only a month or six weeks,--is vividly remembered by the people whom I have met, as Pat Doran, the man who "could tell more lies in a day than four of us could in a month," and Synge's picture revived many old memories in their minds. That Doran had a sharply outlined personality is clear from the fact that Miss Costello, the daughter of the cess-collector of the islands, who comes from Kilronan on Inishmore, and who has told me much about the people, remembers him distinctly, though he was a native of Inishmaan and too infirm to leave the island at that time.
"Michael," the boy who taught Synge Irish, is the son of Patrick McDonagh, and his real name is Martin. He has married and settled down on the island, though his elder brother has come to America. His brother remembers Synge well, and often taught him also. His wife is from Inishere, but does not remember Synge.
These people have memories of many another who has gone to the islands in the past,--of John MacNeill and Stephen Barrett, well known Irish scholars and mighty fishermen,--of Father Eugene O'Growney, whose Irish text-books have become classic and circulate wherever Irish is spoken or studied,--of Lady Gregory, who came many times, endearing herself to the people by her simple kindliness and companionship,--of Finck, the German who has given us the only dictionary and grammar that we have of the Aran dialect,--and of Pedersen and Jeremiah Curtin,--while older memories of Kilronan folk go back to the days of Sir William Wilde and Petrie.
The picture they draw of these men posted at the door of the cottage with notebook and pencil ready to dart out when a stranger passed and ask him the word in Irish for "bed" or "stone" or "mackerel" sheds a bright light on the way that Synge learnt his Gaelic, and it betokens a high quality of persevering endeavour that under these circumstances he should have mastered the idiom perfectly, and that he has bended it and moulded it to his uses in such a wonderful creative way.
That people have not been slow to learn of these islands and their charm is instanced by the fact that Mr. McDonagh has been compelled to add rooms on to his cottage, and that even now people have to wait their turn to come and stay with the family who are, after all, responsible in a very direct manner for the stimulus which Synge translated by genius into the creative work of his plays.
Yet with all the glamour of romance that Synge and others have cast over these islands, the people who have come to America express no desire to return permanently to their fatherland. "I'd like to be going back and seeing the old lady, and the islands, too, especially after reading this book. But I'm thinking two or three weeks would be enough, unless I was a rich man, and then maybe I'd like to stay for a year." Such is the feeling they express, and indeed it is a hard life they have escaped. "The wet is our glory," one man said. "We are in it all day, and then at night we can tumble into a feather bed so deep you can't see yourself." Doctors are scorned as is natural by a people whose life is one of continual struggle and danger. 'We send for the priest before the doctor if a man has a pain in his heart."
And yet though this life of theirs has begot a stern tradition, so stern that the tale told in "Riders to the Sea" seems no strange or unusual happening to them, none the less, for all that, the family tie is deep and tender. When I told of my wish to go to these islands and to bring from America the messages of all who had left their homes in the old country so many years before, one said in a tone of simple beauty, "I'm thinking when the old lady hears that you come from her son, she sure will have a kiss of you first of all."
And perhaps the pleasantest outcome of all that Synge has written in this little book about the Aran Islands is to rekindle in the hearts ot those who have left their homes the old memories of pleasant though arduous years amid their kin in the far-off isles of Aran, those isles from which on a clear and sunny morning, you may see, as it was given to Synge to see, far off on the horizon the Land of Heart's Desire.
Edward J. O'Brien.

Next: Author's Foreword