POETIC DRAMATIST A leading figure in the Irish literary renaissance, Synge portrayed the harsh rural conditions of the western Irish seaboard in the early 20th century.
Fr Kevin Hegarty
Friday, April 16, was the 150th anniversary of the birth of John Millington Synge. His best-known drama, ‘The Playboy of the Western World’, is set in Erris. The anniversary is an opportunity to recall his connection with Mayo.
When Synge lived in Paris in the late 1890s, William Butler Yeats advised him to leave the cultural centre of Europe and go to the west of Ireland and ‘express a life that has never found expression’.
Synge took the advice. It began a love affair that lasted for the rest of his short life. The landscape of the west of Ireland entered his blood. Haunted by Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the disease that caused his early death at just 37 years old in 1909, he set out on several journeys from Kerry to Mayo.
Through his immersion in the traditional lives of ordinary people, through sharing their passions and their poetry, he freed himself from the narrow confines of the Protestant evangelical upbringing of his Dublin childhood.
His first visit to Mayo was in September 1904. He took the boat that then sailed from Sligo to Belmullet and explored the region on his bike. In his notebook he wrote of ‘the evening coming down over Blacksod Bay filled with searching loveliness with low mists from the bogs and rose and purple colours on the sea’.
He has left us a sketch of Belmullet on an autumn evening: “Belmullet in the evening is squalid and noisy, lonely and crowded at the same time and without any appeal to the imagination […] When one has passed six times up and down hearing a gramophone in one house, a fiddle in the next, then an accordion and a fragment of some traditional lullaby with many crying babies, pigs and donkeys and noisy girls and young men jostling in the darkness, the effect is not indistinct.”
He returned to Erris the following June with the artist Jack B Yeats. The Manchester Guardian has commissioned them to write and illustrate a series of articles on life in the ‘congested districts’. The Congested Districts Board has been established in 1891 to develop cottage industries, to enlarge small holdings by breaking up large estates and to improve communications along the western seaboard. It was part of the British government’s policy to ‘Kill Home Rule by Kindness’.
They spent a week in Erris before travelling to Swinford. Synge reckoned Erris was the poorest region in Ireland. People were crowded on small and infertile holdings. Despite the reforms of the Land Acts, a few landlords still held oppressive sway over their tenants. The weather was often hostile. Emigration had become a way of life and escape.
Poverty sometimes wore an exotic mask. Near Geesala he noted ‘a group of dark brown asses with panniers, and women standing among them in red dresses, with white or coloured handkerchiefs over their heads; and the whole scene had a strangely foreign, almost Eastern look’.
Amidst the gloom there were glimpses of excitement and joy. On St John’s Eve ‘bonfires – a relic of Druidical rites – were lighted all over the country, the largest of all being placed in the town square of Belmullet, where a crowd of small boys shrieked and cheered and threw up firebrands for hours together’.
Market day was also colourful: “There was a large market in the square where a number of country people, with their horses and donkeys, stood about bargaining for young pigs, heather brooms, homespun flannels, second-hand clothing, blacking brushes, tinkers’ good and many other articles. Once when I looked out the blacking brush man and the card-trick man were getting up a fight in the corner of the square. A little later there was another stir, and I saw a Chinaman wandering about, followed by a wondering crowd.”
Synge’s articles in the Manchester Guardian lack the literary and anthropological depth of his marvellous book on the Aran Islands where he spent several months.
They do, however provide an interesting insight into life on the western periphery in the early years of the 20th century.
CP Scott, the editor of the Manchester Guardian was pleased with them. He wrote to Synge that ‘you have done capitally for us, and with Mr Yeats have helped to bring home to people here the life of these remote districts as it can hardly have been done before’.