All great books begin with an arresting sentence. I remember as a boy being captivated by JM Synge’s opening sentence in what I consider his greatest work The Aran Islands, first published in 1907, two years before his death. It has not been out of print since:
‘I am in Aranmore, sitting over a turf fire, listening to a murmur of Gaelic that is rising from a little public-house under my room.’
A meeting between the poet WB Yeats in the Hotel Corneille, Paris, in 1896 proved fateful. Yeats had just left Inis Mór, the largest of the Aran Islands, where his attempt to gather material for his projected novel The Speckled Bird had foundered due to his total lack of Irish. In Synge he felt he had found the man who could ‘go to the Aran Islands and express a life that had never found expression’.
At the time Synge had not a word of Irish either. As he listened that night in May 1898 he had no idea what they were saying. But for his first few days, once the Islanders knew he had no Irish, they spoke to him in English. Synge, who would become one of Ireland’s greatest writers, and co-instigator of the nation’s great literary movement of the early 20th century, was enchanted by the islanders way of speaking English. They translated directly from the Gaelic syntax; and no - it was not ‘stage Oirish’.
Discussing the weather and the sea Synge was told “ A man who is not afraid of the sea will soon be drownded,” he added, “ For he will be going out on a day he shouldn’t. But we do be afraid of the sea, and we do only be drownded now and again.”*
Synge was staying in the Atlantic Hotel, a two-storeyed public house in Kilronan. When people heard that he was a writer he was introduced to Máirtín Ó Conghaile, a half-blind man who had been a guide to Sir William Wilde, and others, in the mid-century. He told Synge surely the strangest, and most disturbing story ever: ‘ One day a neighbour was a passing, and she said, when she saw it (the child ) on the road, “That’s a fine child.”
Its mother tried to say, “ God bless it,” but something choked the words in her throat. A while later they found a wound on its neck, and for three nights the house was filled with noises.
“ I never wear a shirt at night,” he said, “ But I got up out of my bed, all naked as I was, when I heard the noises in the house, and lighted a light, but there was nothing in it.”
Then a dummy came, and made signs of hammering nails in a coffin. The next day the seed potatoes were full of blood, and the child told his mother that he was going to America. “ That night he died, and believe me,” said the old man, “ the fairies were in it.”’
It was the beginning of his book. But his initial quest was to learn Irish. After two weeks in Kilronan he was whisked away in a curragh, on a brilliant May morning, across the sea to Inish Meáin, where his real adventures began.**
In Synge’s luggage was a camera, and he began taking photographs which were eventually published by Dolmen Press, Dublin, as ‘My Wallet of Photographs’ as recently as 1971.** Synge was an artist, and a close observer of nature. He was an accomplished musician. When he raised his fiddle the islanders gathered and watched. He entertained them. He noticed details of island dress, ‘ the local air of beauty’, the flannel trousers, the vests or báiníns, the pampooties, cowhide shoes and, of course, the red petticoats and indigo stockings ‘ on the powerful legs’ of the women. The island women were fascinated by him.
Once as he watched the men pull out in their currachs from the pier, he was left with a band of women and children, ‘ and one old boar who sat looking out over the sea’.
‘The women were over excited, and when I tried to talk to them they crowded round me and began jeering and shrieking at me because I am not married. A dozen screamed at a time, and so rapidly that I could not understand all they were saying, yet I was able to make out that they were taking advantage of the absence of their husbands to give me the full volume of their contempt. Some little boys who were listening threw themselves down, writhing with laughter among the seaweed, and the young girls grew red with embarrassment and stared down into the surf.
‘For a moment I was in confusion. I tried to speak to them, but I could not make myself heard, so I sat down on the slip and drew out my wallet of photographs. In an instant I had the whole band clambering around me...’
When a young and beautiful woman leaned across his knees the better to see some photographs, Synge felt more than ever, the strange simplicity of island life. His pictures were scrutinised until everyone was identified, ‘ even those who only showed a hand or a leg.’
Next Week : I was reminded of Synge’s Wallet of Photographs looking at John Carlos Glynn’s new book on his photographs of Aran and other islands (Ireland’s Western Islands ), which I will write about next week.
NOTES: *Synge adopted this Hiberno-English superbly in his plays notably The Playboy of the Western World, and Riders to the Sea. Synge’s language, writes Declan Kiberd (Dictionary of Irish Biography ) ‘ was both utterly real and wildly beautiful. It was also an answer (of sorts ) to purists who asked how could the Abbey Theatre claim to be ‘National’ when all its productions were in the language of the coloniser. Synge may have written in English, but he made the English as Irish as it is possible for that language to be.’
**Edited by Lilo Stephens, whose husband Edward M Stephens was a nephew of Synge. Synge’s camera, incidentally, was a British made, plate-changing Klito.
Synge retained his rooms in Paris for a while where at the beginning of the 20th century the city was a magnet for artists, writers and poets. It was the city of experimental painting notably by Picasso and George Braques, the music of Stravinsky, James Joyce, and mad discussions on the ideas of Freud, and lots more. Synge returned to the Aran Islands in the summers of 1899, 1900, 1901, and 1902. What a contrast Aran must have been to Paris!
Even during his first visit, however, he was sadly developing syntoms of Hodgkin’s disease which would eventually kill him. The Aran Islands is, understandably, melancholy in places.