Synge’s Aran Islands at the Town Hall

Stage adaptation of the great writer's classic account of the islands

Aran Islanders photographed by JM Synge.

Aran Islanders photographed by JM Synge.

JOHN MILLINGTON Synge’s classic prose work, The Aran Islands, comes to the Town Hall Theatre stage next week in a compelling adaptation by Joe O’Byrne and Co-Motion Media, and performed by Brendan Conroy, one of Ireland's finest actors.

First published in 1907, Synge’s book provides an absorbing description of life on the Aran Islands at the beginning of the 20th century, while also containing the seeds of some of his most famous plays.

“I had read the book before,” Brendan Conroy tells me over an afternoon chat. “I sometimes used parts of it in workshops and the like. It describes Synge’s first encounter with the islands, his first journey there, his first sight of the rocks, his first time in a currach, there is something extraordinarily fresh about all that. Slowly over the night of the play, and the way Joe O’Byrne has put it together, Synge moves from being an observer and a recorder into coming under the spell of this ferocious, strange world of the island, the rocks, the weather, the seas, the winds and the clouds; all these things come in on top of him.

"There is also the storytelling, the characters he met, and the seeds of the plays Riders to the Sea, Playboy, and Shadow of the Glen, they are told and discovered in different ways. Synge revisited the islands and had a great affection for the place, but he does always realise that although he can be among them, there is a line in it where he says ‘below the sympathy we feel there is still a chasm between us’.

“Synge went to the Aran Islands to learn Irish and hear the stories. He knew exactly what he was doing and where he wanted to be. When he went to Inis Mór first he wasn’t completely satisfied; even at that time – in 1899 – there wasn’t sufficient Irish on that island. So he said he’d go to Inis Meain where Irish was more generally used and the life was probably the most primitive in Europe. That’s primitive in the best sense of the word, in the sense of people being in contact with nature, he’d encountered that a lot during his walks in Wicklow and his reading of Darwin’s Origin of the Species. That was a whole break for him from the deep religious background he came from.”

Brendan outlines how Synge’s prose has been worked into the stage show: “We’re using some of the techniques of storytelling. Joe’s technique is to move it seamlessly into character and out of character. It’s quite difficult for the actor, it’s a nerve-racking process allowing the script and characters to speak for themselves! We begin with his first journey on the boat leaving Galway and on as he encounters the island, listening to people, listening to stories, going in and out through voyages, from one island to the other.

"There is an amazing scene of an eviction, there are two funeral scenes, with the keening. There is this relationship with Pandeen Derrane one of the first and most influential storytellers he met. His understanding of this life, the mist, the greyness, the sea, the clouds, and how they live it and how can he survive it and how he manages to do it. It is quite a physical show but it moves seamlessly through it all. It’s peopled by a lot of characters. The language is so amazing and that has an impact, it’s very different to how we use English now.”

Conroy describes Synge as an ‘elusive’ writer at one point, so does the show give audiences more of a handle on him? “Hopefully you will get more of a handle on him,” he replies. “You will see that he is a magnificent recorder, a magnificent receiver of what he observes, it’s like a chronicle of that time. At the beginning of the second act he says ‘no-one who has not lived among these grey clouds and sea can realise the joy with which the eye rests on the red dresses of the women’.

"He has this great yearning. He was all over Europe, searching for things; he took up music and laid it down, he took up literary criticism, he had a very active mind, he was a restless spirit. He admired this tramp who used to walk the road, do a few days work, have a bite to eat and move on in the freedom of nature, I think he was searching for something like that himself.”

The Aran Islands is at the Town Hall on Wednesday February 3 at 8pm. Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 or


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