Why not celebrate this St. Patrick’s Day with something enlightening instead of inebriating—an Irish classic, The Aran Islands by John M. Synge?
The Aran Islands, off the coast of Galway in the west of Ireland, are the cultural heart and soul of Ireland. The area is known as the Gaeltacht; translated into English it means “Irish land.” And Irish or Gaelic is still spoken here.
Three islands make up Aran: Inish Mor, Inish Mean and Inis Oirr. Inish is Irish for island. The old culture survives behind the many stone walls that enclose small, green fields and cottages.
Landing at the dock on Inish Mor, one is met by donkey carts for tourists. When asked in English if I wanted a tour. I answered, in Irish, “nil seifoid” —”no part of that nonsense.” The men laughed and whispered in Irish to his friend that I was not a stranger.
More than a hundred years ago, a real stranger arrived in the person of John Millington Synge. Both Synge and his friend the poet William Butler Yeats were members of the Anglo-Irish Protestant ruling class.
Synge was living in France, studying French literature, in 1895 when he met Yeats. Synge found himself wandering about Europe looking for a purpose and meaning in the enclosing modern world. In that bleak era of oppressive scientific materialism and deterministic science, Synge lost his Protestant faith.
Yeats urged him to go to Aran Islands, and a bit patronizingly urged him to “express a life that has never found expression.” Taking Yeat’s advice, he arrived in 1898. For a period of over four years, he would stay weeks on the island at a time studying the language and making observations. In the primitive existence of this fishing and farming community, Synge sought consolation. He found the people and their way of life a balm to his own despair about modernity. He wrote that they were “a spiritual treasure whose presence is a great magnet to my soul.”
Synge later famously dramatized Aran life in two plays that would become cornerstones of Anglo-Irish literature: Riders to the Sea and The Playboy of the Western World. Though the plays made him a rising star among members of the Anglo-Irish literary set, they present a more accurate picture of Synge’s search for meaning than they do the actual lives of the native Irish.
His dramas created an artificial stage Irish language that turns the islanders for the most part into stoics with little trace of their then deep Roman Catholic faith. The most interesting thing about Synge is the tragic drama going on within himself, and best expressed in his great unappreciated masterpiece, The Aran Islands, published in 1907 and recently reprinted by Penguin books.
Synge was a displaced modern. The days of his class, the Anglo-Irish governing establishment, were numbered. Not exactly English, yet not exactly Irish, the Anglo-Irish lived in a kind of parenthesis. These patricians were being rapidly being replaced by the more vulgar capitalist business class.
The Anglo-Irish remind one of the people that the American artist John Singer Sargent painted—an aristocracy in decline. They were overrun in an age of democratic dullness. Searching for a belief the Anglo-lrish—Synge, Lady Gregory, Yeats, and others—solaced themselves in creating a substitute religion of literature in which the Irish were often mythologized and falsely represented. Poet Patrick Kavnangh declared their Anglo-Irish literary revival to be a “thoroughgoing English bred lie.”
Yet there is much poignant beauty in Synge’s great book, and in his search for a creed that he seemed to capture in prose. “I have come to lie on the rocks where I have the black edge of the north island in front of me, Galway Bay, too blue almost to look at, on my right, the Atlantic on my left, a perpendicular cliff under my ankles, and over me innumerable gulls that chase each other in a white cirrus of wings … I, became indescribably mournful, for I felt this little corner on the face of the world, and the people who live in it, have a peace and dignity from which we are shut forever.”
On Aran, Synge did not express what Yeats had urged, but wrote his own spiritual autobiography and that of his own people.