John Millington Synge: Commentary

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Contemporary reviews
D. J. O’Donoghue
Arthur Griffith
Lady Gregory
W. B. Yeats
George Moore
James Joyce
St. John Ervine
Francis Bickley
Ernest A. Boyd
G. B. Shaw
Thomas MacDonagh
Stephen McKenna
Daniel Corkery
Lord Dunsany
Violet Martin
Patrick Pearse
Conrad Arensberg
Edward Stephens
Greene & Stephens
[See extended citations re Synge and Joyce - infra ]
Modern Reviews
Louis MacNeice
Stephen Spender
Patrick Kavanagh
Peadar Ó Cearnaigh
Michael J. Sidnell
Robin Skelton
Robin Flower
Seán Ó Tuama
Alan Price
Frank Tuohy
Richard Ellmann
Declan Kiberd
Andrew Carpenter
George Watson
Ann Saddlemyer
Seamus Heaney
Seamus Deane
Mary C. King
Ulick OConnor
Luke Gibbons
Nicholas Grene
Robert Welch
Benedict Kiely
Richard Murphy
Conor Farrington
Stanley Sultan
David Edgar
Kevin Barry
C. L. Dallat
Terence Brown
Nicholas Grene
Rob Doggett
Nelson Ó C. Ritschel
James Pethica
Michael Billington
Roy Foster
Ronan MacDonald
J. W. Foster
Fintan O’Toole
Rebecca Stout
Alan Titley
Anne Fogarty
Colm Tóibín

Press Reviews (Older & Modern)

FREEMAN’S JOURNAL (1907) [on Playboy ] - I: ‘unmitigated, protracted libel upon Irish peasant man, and worse still upon Irish peasant girlhood’, continuing: ‘The blood boils with indignation as one recalls the incidents, expressions, ideas of this squalid, offensive production, incongruously styled a comedy in three acts [...] no adequate idea can be given of the barbarous jargon, the elaborate and incessant cursings of these repulsive creatures.’ (Quoted in David H. Greene and Edward M. Stephens, J. M. Synge 1871-1909, NY: Macmillan 1959, p.239; 1961 [London Edn.] p.242). Further, ‘calumny gone raving mad’ (quoted in Francis Bickley, 1912 [infra].

FREEMAN’S JOURNAL (1907) [on Playboy ] - II: complains that the Abbey Theatre directors “were expected to fulfill the true purpose of playing - ‘to hold as ’twere the, mirror up to Nature,’ to banish the meretricious stage, and give, for the first time, true pictures of Irish life and fulfillment of that pledge.” (Anon, Freeman’s Journal , 29 Jan. 1907; rep. in James Kilroy, ed., The Playboy Riots, Dolmen Press 1971, p.20; quoted in Gregory.)

THE IRISH TIMES (q.d. 1907): [A]lthough parts of it are, or are meant to be, extravagant comedy, still agreat deal that is in it and a great deal more that is behind it is perectly serious when locked at in a certain light [...] There are, it may be hinted, several sides to The Playboy .’ (Quoted in Stanley Sultan, ‘A Joycean Look at The Playboy of the Western World ’, in Maurice Harmon, ed., The Celtic Master, Dolmen Press 1969, p.48.)

THE SUNDAY PRESS (Letter of 1969): ‘When are [we] going to stop disgracing Ireland before the world by showing her up on such philistine light. I am thinking just at present of The Playboy of the Western World, with its murderers, semi-drunken kitchen-inhabiting cursing crowd of uneducated peasants, a cinema showing of which I witnessed last week.’ (7 Dec. 1969; quoted in Paul Levitt, J. M. Synge: Bibliography of Published Criticism, 1974, p.6.)

Winifred M. Letts, “Synge’s Grave


My grief! that they have laid you in the town
Within the moidher of its thousand wheels
And busy feet that travel up and down.

They had a right to choose a better bed
Far off among the hills where silence steals
In on the soul with comfort-bringing tread.

The curlew would have keened for you all day,
The wind across the heather cried Ochone
For sorrow of his brother gone away.

In Glenmalure, far off from town-born men,
Why would they not have let you sleep alone
At peace there in the shadow of the glen ?

To tend your grave you should have had the sun,
The fraughan and the moss, the heather brown
And gorse turned gold for joy of Spring begun.


Cont. as attached.]

Edward O’Brien - Introduction to Riders to the Sea (1911 Edn.)

It must have been on Synge’s second visit to the Aran Islands that he had the experience out of which was wrought what many believe to be his greatest play. The scene of “Riders to the Sea” is laid in a cottage on Inishmaan, the middle and most interesting island of the Aran group. While Synge was on Inishmaan, the story came to him of a man whose body had been washed up on the far away coast of Donegal, and who, by reason of certain peculiarities of dress, was suspected to be from the island. In due course, he was recognised as a native of Inishmaan, in exactly the manner described in the play, and perhaps one of the most poignantly vivid passages in Synge’s book on “The Aran Islands” relates the incident of his burial.

The other element in the story which Synge introduces into the play is equally true. Many tales of “second sight” are to be heard among Celtic races. In fact, they are so common as to arouse little or no wonder in the minds of the people. It is just such a tale, which there seems no valid reason for doubting, that Synge heard, and that gave the title, “Riders to the Sea”, to his play.

It is the dramatist’s high distinction that he has simply taken the materials which lay ready to his hand, and by the power of sympathy woven them, with little modification, into a tragedy which, for dramatic irony and noble pity, has no equal among its contemporaries. Great tragedy, it is frequently claimed with some show of justice, has perforce departed with the advance of modern life and its complicated tangle of interests and creature comforts. A highly developed civilisation, with its attendant specialisation of culture, tends ever to lose sight of those elemental forces, those primal emotions, naked to wind and sky, which are the stuff from which great drama is wrought by the artist, but which, as it would seem, are rapidly departing from us. It is only in the far places, where solitary communion may be had with the elements, that this dynamic life is still to be found continuously, and it is accordingly thither that the dramatist, who would deal with spiritual life disengaged from the environment of an intellectual maze, must go for that experience which will beget in him inspiration for his art. The Aran Islands from which Synge gained his inspiration are rapidly losing that sense of isolation and self-dependence, which has hitherto been their rare distinction, and which furnished the motivation for Synge’s masterpiece. Whether or not Synge finds a successor, it is none the less true that in English dramatic literature “Riders to the Sea” has an historic value which it would be difficult to over-estimate in its accomplishment and its possibilities. A writer in The Manchester Guardian shortly after Synge’s death phrased it rightly when he wrote that it is “the tragic masterpiece of our language in our time; wherever it has been played in Europe from Galway to Prague, it has made the word tragedy mean something more profoundly stirring and cleansing to the spirit than it did.”

The secret of the play’s power is its capacity for standing afar off, and mingling, if we may say so, sympathy with relentlessness. There is a wonderful beauty of speech in the words of every character, wherein the latent power of suggestion is almost unlimited. “In the big world the old people do be leaving things after them for their sons and children, but in this place it is the young men do be leaving things behind for them that do be old.” In the quavering rhythm of these words, there is poignantly present that quality of strangeness and remoteness in beauty which, as we are coming to realise, is the touchstone of Celtic literary art. However, the very asceticism of the play has begotten a corresponding power which lifts Synge’s work far out of the current of the Irish literary revival, and sets it high in a timeless atmosphere of universal action.

Its characters live and die. It is their virtue in life to be lonely, and none but the lonely man in tragedy may be great. He dies, and then it is the virtue in life of the women mothers and wives and sisters to be great in their loneliness, great as Maurya, the stricken mother, is great in her final word.

“Michael has a clean burial in the far north, by the grace of the Almighty God. Bartley will have a fine coffin out of the white boards, and a deep grave surely. What more can we want than that? No man at all can be living for ever, and we must be satisfied.’ The pity and the terror of it all have brought a great peace, the peace that passeth understanding, and it is because the play holds this timeless peace after the storm which has bowed down every character, that “Riders to the Sea” may rightly take its place as the greatest modern tragedy in the English tongue.

February 23, 1911.

Riders to the Sea: A Play in One Act (1911) - available at Gutenberg Project - online; accessed 23.09.2021.

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D. J. O’Donoghue: ‘The continuous ferocity of the language, the consistent shamelessness of all the characters (without exception), and the persistent allusions to sacred things make the play even more inexcusable as an extravaganza than as a serious play.’ [“The Playboy', in Freeman’s Journal, Mon., 4 Feb. 1907; quoted in Thomas Kilroy, The ‘Playboy’ Riots, p.76. [See long extract under O’Donoghue - supra.]

Note: O’Donoghue was author of Poets of Ireland: a Biographical and Bibliographical Dictionary of Irish Writers of English Verse [pamphs. 1892-93; enl. 1-vol. edn.] (Dublin: Hodges Figgis & Co. 1912) and a prominent writer in The Irish Book Lover.]

Arthur Griffith, in United Irishman, review-article on In the Shadow of the Glen: ‘Mr. Synge’s mode of attack is not one to be commended [...] Man and woman in rural Ireland, according to Mr. Synge, marry lacking love, and, as a consequence, the women proves unfaithful. Mr. Synge never found that in Irish life. Men and women in Ireland marry lacking love, and mostly live in a dull level of amity. Sometimes they do not - sometimes the woman lives in bitterness - sometimes she dies of a broken heart - but she does not go away with a tramp.’ (Griffith, in United Irishman, quoted in Rob Doggett, ‘In the Shadow of the Glen: Gender, Nationalism, and “A Woman Only”’, in ELH, Winter 2000, pp.1011-34; cited by cited in Salome Houston, PG Dip. Essay, UUC 2012.) Further: ‘Mr Synge - or oelse his play has no meaning - paces Norah Burke before us as a type - “a personification of an average” - and Norah Burke is a lie. It is not by staging a lie that we can serve Ireland or exalt Art.' (Doggett, op. cit., 2012, p.1011.)

Cf. ‘[T]his play of his [Synge’s] shows him to be as utterly a stranger to Irish character as any Englishman who has yet dissected us for the enlightenment of his countrymen ... [Some] men and women in Ireland marry lacking love, and live mostly in a dull level of amity. Sometimes they do not? Sometimes the woman lives in bitterness? Sometimes she dies of a broken heart - but she does not go away with the Tramp ... It is not by staging a lie we can serve Ireland.’ (Arthur Griffith, ‘All Ireland’ The United Irishman, 17 October 1903, p.1; quoted in Nelson Ó Ceallaigh Ritschel, ‘In the Shadow of the Glen: Synge, Ostrovsky, and Marital Separation’, in New Hibernia Review, 7, 4 (Winter 2004), pp.85-102 [available at JSTOR - online].

Arthur Griffith: Griffith called The Playboy ‘a vile and inhuman story told in the foulest language we have ever listened to from a public platform [..] the production of a moral degenerate who has dishonoured the women of Ireland before all Europe’ (in Sinn Féin [?27 Jan. 1907]; quoted [in part] in Nelson Ó Ceallaigh Ritschel, op. cit., 2004). Greene and Edwards remark: ‘The Playboy’s self-liberation from parental tyranny and from the loveless marriage imposed on him by peasant custom was a symbol of their own deep-seated urge to reject the tyranny in their own lives exemplified by Pegeen’s forthcoming marriage to an oafish and spineless kinsman, dictated by her father and with the endorsement of Father Reilly’s dispensation.’ (Greene and Stephens, op. cit., 1961 Edn., p.252.) [See also remarks on Griffith’ reaction in Peadar Kearney [Ó Cearnaigh], “The Abbey Theatre” - infra.]

Lady Gregory (I): ‘I first saw J. M. Synge in the North Island of Aran. I was staying there gathering folk-lore, talking to the people, and felt quite angry when I passed another outsider walking here and there, talking also to the people. I was jealous of not being alone on the island among the fishers and seaweed gatherers. I did not speak to the stranger, nor was he inclined to speak to me; he also looked on me as an intruder, I only heard his name.’ (Our Irish Theatre, Gerards Cross: Colin Smythe 1973, p.73.) See also Synge’s admission of feeling ‘galling jealousy’ of other scholars visiting the island; quoted in James Pethica, ‘Lady Gregory and J. M. Synge, in Irish University Review, Spring/Summer 2004, p.18 [ftn.].)

Lady Gregory (II): Lady Gregory wrote to Synge on receipt of his MS of The Aran Islands calling it ‘an imaginative & at the same time convincing impression of the people, & of their life’ adding that, ‘being so solid & detailed as it is, would lose nothing but would rather gain, by the actual names of the islands, or of Galway, not being given [and would be] greatly improved by the addition of some more fairy belief.’ (See in Ann Saddlemyer, ed., Theatre Business; The Correspondence of the First Abbey Directors, Colin Smythe 1982, p.30; quoted in Pethica, op. cit., 2004, p.5.)

Lady Gregory to Synge, letter of 14 Jan. 1907: ‘I feel we are beginning the fight of our lives ... we must make no mistakes.’ (Quoted in Diarmaid Ferriter, ‘Playboy of the Western World 100 years on’, in The Irish Times, 27 Jan. 2007 - online.)

Lady Gregory (III) - letter to W. B. Yeats, on his suggesting she write something about Synge to accompany his “J. M. Synge and the Ireland of His Time”: ‘As to writing about Synge, I should not like to do it. I have nothing to say that you are not saying, we knew him together so much [...] Also, one doesn’t want a series of panegyrics, & one can’t say, & doesn’t want to say what was true, he was ungracious to his fellow workers - authors & actors - ready in accepting praise, grudging in giving it. I wonder if he ever felt a moment’s gratitude for all we went through fighting his battle over the Playboy? On tour he thought of his own plays always, gave no help to ours - if he repeated compliments sometimes, they were to his own.’ (?12 April 1910; Berg Collection; quoted in James Pethica, ‘“A Young Man’s Ghost”: Lady Gregory and J. M. Synge’, in Irish University Review, 34, 1, Spring/Summer 2004, p.17.) Pethica notes that for Lady Gregory the guardianship of Yeats’s creative output remained her principal concern (idem.).

Lady Gregory wrote of the Playboy: ‘it was a definite fight for freedom from mob censorship.’ (Our Irish Theatre: A Chapter of Autobiography, NY: PUtnam 1913, p.115; quoted in Aaron Kelly, Twentieth-Century Literature in Ireland: A Reader’s Guide to Essential Criticism, London: Palgrave Macmillan 2008, p.19.)

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W. B. Yeats (Autobiographies, 1955): ‘When a country produces a man of genius he never is what it wants or believes it wants; he is always unlike its idea of itself. In the eighteenth century Scotland believed itself religious, moral and gloomy, and its national poet Burns came not to speak of these things but to speak of lust and drink and drunken gaiety. Ireland, since the Young Irelanders, has given itself up to apologetics. Every impression of life or impulse or imagination has been examined to see if it helped or hurt the glory of Ireland or the political claim of Ireland. A sincere impression of life became at last impossible, all was apologetics. There was no longer an impartial imagination, delighting in whatever is naturally exciting. Synge was the rushing up of the buried fire, an explosion of all that had been denied or refused, a furious impariality, an indifferent turbulent sorrow. His work, like that of Burns, was to say all the people did not want to have said. He was able to do this because nature had made him incapable of a political idea.’ (“Death of Synge”; Autobiographies, p.520.)

W. B. Yeats: ‘And here’s John Synge, that rooted man, / “Forgetting human words”, a grave deep face.’ (“Municipal Gallery Revisited”, Collected Poems, NY: Macmillan Edn. 1951, p.318.)

W. B. Yeats ( Bounty of Sweden’), ‘I had met John Synge in Paris in 1896. Somebody had said, “There is an Irishman living on the top floor of your hotel; I will introduce you.’ I was very poor, but he was much poorer. He belonged to a very old Irish family and, though a simple courteous man, remembered it and was haughty and lonely[,] with just enough to keep him from starvation and not always from half-starvation, he had wandered about Europe, travelling third-class or upon foot, playing his fiddle to poor men on the road or in their cottages. He was the man that we needed, because he was the only man I have ever known incapable of a political thought or a humanitarian purpose. He could walk the roads all day with some poor man without any desire to do him good or for any reason except that he liked him. He was to do for Ireland, though more by his influence on other dramatists than by his direct influence, what Robert Burns did for Scotland. When Scotland thought herself gloomy and religious, Providence restored her imaginative spontaneity by raising up Robert Burns to commend drink and the Devil. I did not, however, see what was to come when I advised John Synge to [567] go to a wild island off the Galway coast and study its life because that life “had never been expressed in literature”. He had learned Gaelic at College and I told him that, as I would have told it to any young man who had learned Gaelic and wanted to write. When he found that wild island he became happy for the first time, escaping, as he said “from the nullity of the rich and the squalor of the poor”. He had bad health, he could not stand the island hardship long, but he would go to and fro between there and Dublin.’ (Autobiographies, pp.567-78.)

Further (W. B. Yeats - Bounty of Sweden’): ‘When your King gave me a medal and diploma, two forms should have stood, one at either side of me, an old woman sinking into the infirmity of age, and a young man’s ghost. I think when Lady Gregory and John Synge’s names are spoken by future generations, my name, if remembered, will come up in the talk, and that if my name is spoken first their names will come in their turn because of the years we worked together ...’ (J. M. Hone, W. B. Yeats 1865-1939, London: Macmillan 1942, p.356.)

W. B. Yeats once described Synge’s work as ‘that strange, violent, laughable thing’ (T. R. Henn, The Lonely Tower, 1950, p.79). Note also, Yeats: ‘Synge thought that he had reintroduced sex into Irish literature, and that the Playboy riot was occasioned by the fact that all the audience could see the sex only (Letter to Stephen MacKenna [n.d.], given in Irish Renaissance, A Gathering of Essays, Memoirs, and Letters from the ‘Massechusetts Review’, ed. Robin Skelton & David R. Clarke (1965), p.66; cited in A. N. Jeffares, W. B. Yeats, A New Biography (Macmillan 1988), p.257 & n. See also Synge’s remarks to MacKenna in a letter of 1903 - under Quotations, infra.

W. B. Yeats on the ‘Playboy riot’: ‘On the second performance of The Playboy of the Western World, about forty men who sat in the middle of the pit succeeded in making the play entirely inaudible. Some of them brought tin trumpets, and the noise began immediately upon the rise of the curtain. For days articles in the Press called for the withdrawal of the play, but we played for the seven nights we had announced; and before the week’s end opinion had turned in our favour. There were, however, nightly disturbances and a good deal of rioting in the surrounding streets. On the last night of the play there were, I believe, five hundred police keeping order in the theatre and in its neighbourhood.’ (Explorations, p.226.)

W. B. Yeats on Synge’s early work: ‘I have but a vague impression as of a man trying to look out of a window and blurring all that he sees by breathing upon the window.’ (Autobiographies, ?344.) Further, on Deirdre of the Sorrows : ‘Synge was reworking the play at the time of his death with a view to adjusting the roles of minor characters such as Lavarcham and Fergus, in order to add - as Yeats reported in a preface to the first edition (1910) - ‘a grotesque element [to] its lyrical melancholy to give contrast and create an impression of solidity.’ Further, ‘He was a drifting, silent man full of hidden passion, and loved the wild islands, because there, set out in the light of day, he saw what lay hidden in himself.’ (“J. M. Synge and the Ireland of his Time”, in Essays and Introductions, 1961 [& edns.], p.330.

W. B. Yeats on Synge’s conception of style: ‘“[I]s not style”, as Synge once said to me, “born out of the shock of new material?”’ (‘The Bounty of Sweden’, Autobiographies, 1955, p.531; quoted in Declan Kiberd, Inventing Ireland, 1995, p.120 [var. 169].) Further, on dialect in Synge: ‘[T]he first use of Irish dialect, rich, abundant, and correct, for the purpose of creative art was in J. M. Synge’s Riders to the Sea and Lady Gregory’s Spreading of the News.’ (Plays in Prose and Verse Written for an Irish Theatre, London: Macmillan 1922, p.430.)

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W. B. Yeats, Synge and the Ireland of His Time (Cuala Press 1911): ‘[I]n Ireland he loved only what was wild in its people, and in “the grey and wintry sides of many glens”. All the rest, all tha tone reasoned over, fought for, read of in leading articles, all that came from education, all that came down from Young Ireland - though for this he had not lacked a little sympathy - first wakened in him perhaps that irony which runs through all he wrote; but once awakened, he made it turn its face upon the whole world.’ (Essays and Introductions, p.320; quoted in Terence Brown, Life of W. B. Yeats, 1999 [2001 pb. edn.], p.189.)

W. B. Yeats (J. M. Synge and the Ireland of his Time’ [1912]) - cont.: ‘He [Synge] was a reserved man, and wished no doubt by a vague date to hide, while still living, what he felt and thought, from those about him. I asked one of the nurses in the hospital where he died if he knew he was dying, and she said, “He may have known it for months, but he would not have spoken of it to anyone.” Even the translations of poems that he has made his own by putting them into that melancholic dialect of his, seem to express his emotion at the memory of poverty and the approach of death ...’ (Rep. in Essays & Introductions, 1961, p.307.)

W. B. Yeats (J. M. Synge and the Ireland of his Time’ [1912]): ‘[Synge] was but the more hated because he gave his country what it needed, an unmoved mind where there is a perpetual Last Day, a trumpeting, and coming up in Judgement.’ (Formerly in The Cutting of an Agate [NY 1912] London 1919, pp.130-76; rep. in Essays & Introductions, Macmillan 1961; p.310.) [Cont.]

W. B. Yeats (J. M. Synge and the Ireland of his Time’ [1912]) - cont.: Yeats speaks of Irish political oratory and J. M. Synge’s ‘capricious imagination’ as ‘the enemy of all it would have young men believe.’ (p.311); further, ‘Some spontaneous dislike had been but natural, for genius like his can but slowly, amid what it has of harsh and strange, set forth the nobility of its beauty, and the depth of its compassion; but the frenzy that would have silenced his master-work was, like most violent things, artificial, that defence of virtue by those who have but little, which is the pomp and gallantry of journalism and its right to govern the world. / As I stood there watching, knowing well that I saw the dissolution of a school of patriotism that held sway over my youth, Synge came and stood beside me, and said, “A young doctor has just told me that he can hardly keep himself from jumping on to a seat, and pointing out in that howling mob those whom he is treating for Venereal disease.”’ (Ibid., p.311-12; quoted in Barry Montgomery, ‘Yeats’s Occult Philosophy of Art’, UUC MA Diss. 2003.) ‘They speak to us that we may give them certainty, by seeing what they have seen; and so it is that enlargement of experience does not come from those oratorical thinkers, or from those decisive rhythms that move large numbers of men, but from the writers that seem by contrast as feminine as the soul when it explores in Blake’s picture the recesses of the grave, carrying its faint lamp trembling and astonished.’ (Ibid., 317.)

W. B. Yeats (J. M. Synge and the Ireland of his Time’ [1912]) - cont.: ‘Synge seemed by nature unfitted to think a political thought, and with the exception of one sentence, spoken when I first met him in Paris, that implied some sort of Nationalist conviction, I cannot remember that he spoke of politics or showed any interest, in men in the mass, or in any subject that is studied through abstractions and statistics [...] Unlike those whose habit of mind fits them to judge men in the mass, he was wise in judging individual men.’ (Ibid., 319.) ‘Not that Synge brought out of the struggle with himself any definite philosophy, for philosophy in the common meaning of the word is created out of an anxiety for sympathy or obedience, and he was that rare, that distinguished, that most noble thing, which of all things still of the world is nearest to being sufficient to itself, the pure artist.’ (Ibid., 323.) ‘As I read the Aran Islands right through for the first time since he showed it to me in manuscript, I come to understand how much knowledge of the real life of Ireland went to the creation of a world which is yet as fantastic as the Spain of Cervantes [...]’ (Ibid., p.326.)

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W. B. Yeats (J. M. Synge and the Ireland of his Time’ [1912]) - cont.: ‘I had defended the burning of Christy Mahon’s leg on the ground that an artist need but make his characters self-consistent, and yet that too was observation, for “although these people are kindly towards each other and their children, they have no sympathy for the suffering of animals, and little sympathy for pain when the person who feels it is not in danger.” I had thought it was in the wantonness of fancy Martin Doul accused the smith of plucking his living ducks, but a few lines farther on, in this book where moral indignation is unknown, I read, “Sometimes when Igo into a cottage, I find all the women of the place down on their knees plucking the feathers from live ducks and geese.” He loves all that has edge, all that is salt in the mouth, all that is rough to the hand, all that heightens the emotions by contest, all that stings into life the sense of tragedy; and in this book, unlike the plays where nearness to his audience moves him to mischief, he shows it without thought of other taste than his. It is so constant, it is all set out so simply, so naturally, that it suggests a correspondence between a a lasting mood of the soul and this life that shares the harshness of rocks and wind.’ (Ibid., p.3326-27; quoted in Barry Montgomery, ‘Yeats’s Occult Philosophy of Art’, MA Diss., UUC 2003.)

W. B. Yeats, (Autobiographies, 1955) - recalling his first encounter with Synge: ‘I met John Synge for the first time in the autumn of 1896 when I was one-and-thirty and he four-and-twenty. [..]. Some one, whose name I forget, told me there was a poor Irishman at the top of the house, and presently introduced us. Synge had come lately from Italy, and had played his fiddle to peasants in the Black Forest - six months of travel upon fifty pounds - and was now reading French literature and writing morbid and melancholy verse. / He told me that he had learned Irish at Trinity College, so I urged him to go to the Aran Islands and find a life that had never been expressed in literature, instead of a life where all had been expressed. [See Preface to Well of the Saints, infra.] I did not divine his genius, but I felt he needed something to take him out of his morbidity and melancholy. Perhaps I would have given the same advice to any young Irish writer who knew Irish, for I had been that summer upon Inishmaan and Inishmore, and was full of the subject. my friends and I had landed from a fishing-boat to find outselves among a group of islanders, one of whome said he would bring us to the oldest man upon Inishmaan. This old man, speaking very slowly, but with laughing eyes, had said, “If [343] any gentleman has done a crime, we’ll hide him. There was a gentleman that killed his father, and I had him in my own house six months till he got away to America.’ [p.343; cont.]

W. B. Yeats, (Autobiographies, 1955) ‘From that on I saw much of Synge, and brought him to Maud Gonne’s, under whose persuasion, perhaps, he joined the “Young Ireland society of Paris”, the name we gave to half a dozen Parisian Irish, but resigned after a few months because “it wanted to stir up Continental nations against England, and England will never give us freedom until she feels she is safe, the one political sentence I ever heard him speak. Over a year was to pass before he took my advice and settled for a while in an Aran cottage, and became very happy, having escaped at last, as he wrote, “from the squalor of the poor and the nullity of the rich”. I almost forget the prose and verse he showed me in Paris [...].’ Yeats goes on to place Synge in the 23rd phase of his own ‘Lunar parable.’ (Autobiographies, pp.343-44; cited in part in P. J. Kavanagh, Voices in Ireland, 1994, p.213.) Further: Yeats found Synge ‘timid, too shy for general conversation, an invalid full of moral scruple, and he was to create now some ranting braggadocio, now some tipsy hag full of poetical speech, and now some young man or girl full of the most abounding health. He never spoke an unkind word, had admirable manners, and yet his art was to fill the streets with rioters, and to bring upon his dearest friends enemies that may last their lifetime.’ (Autobiographies, p.345)

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W. B. Yeats recalls meeting Synge (Preface, The Well of the Saints): ‘Six years ago I was staying in a students’ hotel in the Latin quarter, and somebody whose name I cannot recollect introduced me to an Irishman, whot even poorer than myself, had taken a room at the top of the house. It was J. M. Synge, and I, who thought I knew the name of every Irishman who was working at literature, had never heard of him. He was a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, too, and Trinity College does not as a rule produce artistic minds. He told me that he had been living in France and Germany, reading French and German literature, and that he wished to become a writer. He had, however, nothing to show but one or two poems and impressionistic essays, full of that kind of morbidity that has its root in too much brooding over methods of expression, and ways of looking upon life, which come, not out of life but out of literature, images reflected from mirror to mirror. He had wandered among people whose life is as picturesque as the middle ages, playing his fiddle to Italian sailors, and listening to stories in Bavarian woods, but life had cast no light into his writings. He had learned Irish years ago, but had begun to forget it, for the only language that interested him was that conventional language of modern poetry which has begun to make us all weary [...]. I said, “Give up Paris, you will never create anything by reading Racine, and Arthur Symons will always be a better critic of French literature. Go to the Aran Islands. Live there as if you were one of the people themselves; express a life that has never found expression.” [cf., Autobiographies, supra.] I had just come from Arran and my imagination was full of those gray islands, where men must reap with knives because of the stones.’ (Preface to The Well of the Saints, 1905, pp.v-vii; cited in David Greene & Edward Stephens, J. M. Synge, 1959, p.61, with remarks to the effect that Yeats placed the events two years after its actual occurrence - ‘a mistake which he later corrected’ [idem]; also cited in Robin Skelton, The Writings of J. M. Synge, London: Thames & Hudson, 1971, p.24, and in Ann Saddlemyer, Collected Writings, Vol. III, OUP 1968; also in Tuohy, W. B. Yeats, 1976, p.122.) Further, on Synge’s dream vision: ‘It makes the people of his imagination a little disembodied; it gives them a kind of innocence in their anger and their cursing. It is part of its maker’s attitude towards the world, for while it makes the clash of wills among his persons indirect and dreamy, it helps him to see the subject matter of his art with wise, clear-seeing, unreflecting eyes; to preserve the integrity of art in an age of reason and purpose. [...] word and phrase dancing to a very strange rhythm [...] it perfectly fits the drifting emotion, the dreaminess, the vague, yet measureless desire, for which he would create a dramatic form.’ (Preface to The Well of the Saints ; Collected Works, IV, p.54.) Yeats also talked of Synge’s characters as passing by ‘as before an open window, murmuring strange, exciting words’ (see Collected Works, II, p.400).

W. B. Yeats (“Journal”); ‘He was no nearer when we walked and talked than now while I read these unarranged, unspeculating pages, wherein the only life he loved with his whole heart reflects itself as in the still waters of a pool. Thought comes to him slowly, and only after long seemingly unmeditative watching, and when it comes, it is spoken without hesitation and never changed.’ (Ibid., 328.)

Further, ‘Synge sought for the race, not through the eyes or in history, or even in the future, but where those monks found God, in the depths of the mind, and in all art like his, although it does not command - indeed because it does not - may lie the roots of far-branching events. Only that which does not teach, which does not cry out, which does not explain, is irresistible. It is made by men who expressed themselves to the full, and it words through the best minds.’ (Ibid., 341.) [Mostly cited in Mark Patrick Hederman, ‘The Playboy versus the Western World : Synge’s political role as artist’, in The Crane Bag Book of Irish Studies, 1982, pp.59-65.) See also remarks on Synge’s temperament: ‘a drifting silent man, full of hidden passions who loved the islands and their wild people as embodiments of his dreams.’ rep. as Memoirs, ed. Denis Donoghue, 1972, p.203.)

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George Moore - “Mr. Synge’s New Play”: ‘Mr. Synge has discovered great literature in barbarous idiom as gold is discovered in quartz, and to do such a thing is a great literary achievement.’ (letter to The Irish Times, 27 Feb. 1904, p.6.)

George Moore (Hail and Farewell ): ‘[...] a few days later Synge wrote that he had been fortunate enough to fall in with a band of tinkers. He had heard a tall lean man cry after a screaming girl: Black hell to your soul! You’ve followed me to far, you’ll follow me to the end! And driving their shaggy ponies and lean horses up a hillside, the tinkers made for their annual assemblages, exchanging their wives and arranging the roads they were to take, the signs to be left at the cross roads, the fairs they were to attend and the meeting places for the following year. But this was not all the good news. Synge had gained the good-will of a certain tinker and his wife, and was learning their life and language as they trolled along the lanes, cadging and stealing as they went, squatting at eventide on the side of a dry ditch. Like a hare in a gap he listened, and when he had mastered every turn of their speech he left the tinker joining a little later another group of tinkers accompanied by a servant-girl who had suddenly wearied of scrubbing and mangling, boiling for pigs, cooking, and working dough and making beds in the evening. It would be better, she had thought, to lie under the hedgerow; and in telling me of this girl, Synge seemed to be telling me his own story. He, too, disliked the regular life of his mother’s house, and preferred to wander with the tinkers, and when tired of them to lie abed smoking with a peasant, and awake amid the smells of shag and potato-skins in the sieve in the room. In answer to an enquiry how the day passed in the cottage, he told me that after breakfast he scrambled over a low wall out of which grew a single blackthorn, and looked round for a place where he might loosen his strap, and when that job was done he kept on walking ahead thinking out the dialogue of his plays, modifying it at every style after a gossip with some herdsman or pig-jobber, whomever he might meet, returning through the cold spring evening, when the stars shine brightly through the naked trees, licking his lips, appreciating the fine flavour of some drunkard’s oath or blasphemy.’ (Vale, pp.134-35.)

Further [Moore, Hail and Farewell]: ‘As I write this line I can see Synge, whom I shall never see again with my physical eyes, sitting thick and straight in my armchair, his large uncouth head, and flat, ashen-coloured face with two brown eyes looking at me, not unsympathetically. A thick stubbly growth of hair starts out of a strip of forehead like black twigs out of the head of a broom. I see a ragged moustache, and he sits bolt upright in my chair, his legs crossed, his great country shoe spreading over the carpet. The conversation about us is of literature, but he looks as bored as Jack Yeats does in the National Gallery [...] Synge and Jack Yeats are like each other in this, neither takes the slightest interest in anything except life, and in their own deductions from life; educated men, both of them, but without aesthetics, and Yeats’s stories that Synge read the classics and was a close student of Racine is a piece of Yeat’s own academic mind [...].’ (Vale, 140-41.)

Further, Moore called Synge ‘a man of genius ... born unto Ireland’, and ‘a man inspired by Ireland, a country that had not inspired any art since the tenth or twelfth century, a county to which is it fatal to return.’ (Hail and Farewell, III, pp.202, pp.203; quoted in Ronald Schleifer, ‘George Moore’s Turning Mind: Digression and Autobiographical Art in Hail and Farewell ’, in The Genres of Irish Literary Revival, ed. Schleifer, Dublin: Wolfhound 1980, p.73.)

St. John Ervine: ‘[Synge] has shot his bolt when he wrote The Playboy of the Western World, the chief value of which lay in the fact that it ripped up the smugness of the Irish People, than whom there are no other people in the world so pleased with themselves on such slender grounds.’ (Impressions of my Elders, 1922; previous in North American Review, CCXI (May 1920), pp.669-81. [See under Irvine for longer extract.]

Francis Bickley, J. M. Synge and the Irish Dramatic Movement (London: Constable; NY: Houghton Mifflin 1912), Chap. I - “Synge’s Career”: Synge’s entry of the theatrical world of Dublin was by no means triumphant. Even the superb Riders to the Sea failed at first to attract audiences. The Shadow of the Glen, his first play to be acted (October 1903), was received not with indifference, but with hostility. Satires on Irish life, such as Mr. George Moore’s The Bending of the Bough, could be tolerated, but satire on the Irish peasantry - the time-honoured idol of sentimentalists [15] was in no wise to be borne. The favourable comparison between Irish women and the women of England or Scotland in the matter of chastity, was a trump card in the hands of the Nationalists. Here was a writer who seemed to call it in question; such a thing was impolitic, if no worse. It goes without saying that Synge had no desire to lower his compatriots in the eyes of the world. But if he had only found one unchaste woman in the four provinces and had thought her the right stuff for drama he would have dramatised her; or if he had found none, he would have invented one had his purpose required it. For he was an artist before he was a Nationalist, and a very long way before. The political question did not exist for the dramatist. But to the majority of Irishmen art still means a political pamphlet. / This prompt enmity to Synge’s work persisted. It was manifested against The Well of the Saints, first performed in February 1905, and culminated just two years later in the demonstration against The Playboy of the Western World, in which [16] a man who is supposed to have killed his father is admired as a hero. The ethics of this play will be briefly discussed anon. According to The Freeman’s Journal it was “calumny gone raving mad”. That active body of extreme Nationalists, Sinn Féin, declared war, and at the second performance there was an organised interruption. A number of men in the pit, some of whom were provided with trumpets, raised such a shindy that the actors were reduced to dumb show. Outside the Abbey Theatre also the police were kept busy, and the press demanded the play’s withdrawal. But the players went doggedly through the seven performances billed, and by the end of the week opinion had veered considerably in their favour. Opposition was not at an end, however; there were demonstrations when the play was produced in London and America, and there were domestic dissensions which resulted in at least one able dramatist’s temporary withdrawal from the National Theatre Society. / But the leaders, concerned only for good drama, stood by Synge. The supreme importance of their discovery had at once dawned on them, and from the opening of the Abbey Theatre until his death, Synge was coequal with Mr. Yeats and Lady Gregory in the responsibility of choosing the plays to be performed.’ (pp.145-48; for longer extract, go to RICORSO Library, “Criticism” via index or direct.)

Ernest A. Boyd, Irelands Literary Renaissance (Dublin: Maunsel 1916) - “J. M. Synge” [sect. in Chap. XIII]
J. M. Synge brought an equipment to his collaboration in the Irish Theatre very different from that of his fellow-workers. With the exception of Yeats, none of the new dramatists had come into direct contact with foreign peoples and culture, and Yeats’s experiences of London and Paris were those of literature rather than of life. Synge, on the other hand, cared little for literature, and fled to the continent as soon as his university career was terminated, in order to satisfy that instinct of vagabondage which impels those who search for adventures, not among books, but among men. A sonnet in Kottabos, in 1893, the year of his departure from Trinity College, Dublin, was all that he left as evidence of his literary proclivities, before beginning those wander-years which culminated in his meeting with Yeats in Paris about 1898. When he returned, at the latter’s suggestion, to the Aran islands, he had already a sharpened sense of the realities of life as felt by those living in more direct contact with nature. Instinctively he had sought out the humbler companionships of the roadside, while his linguistic attainments permitted him to penetrate the exterior aspects of the foreign scenes through which he moved.  His ears, trained [318] by the sounds of several European languages in addition to English and Gaelic, were well fitted to catch the rhythms and music of that idiom which he brought into literature from the Western seashore and the Wicklow hills.


 As if he had foreseen from the beginning what misapplied ingenuity would be brought to prove him an “alien” and a “decadent,” Synge prepared to leave some tangible evidence of the sources whence his dramatic material was obtained. Although not published until 1907, The Aran Islands belongs to the period of his return to Ireland, and his repeated sojourns in that Western World which supplied him with the substance, and even the form, of his most notable contributions to the Irish Theatre. Read in conjunction with the notebooks compiled from his Wicklow experiences, this volume is a complete record of the dramatist and his work. These intensely interesting pictures of life in the Aran islands have a charm independent of that which they derive from their relation to the plays. They reveal the personality of Synge almost as vividly as they evoke the colour, the tragedy and the comedy of a corner of the world unspoiled by industrial civilisation. The “drifting, silent man, full of hidden passion,” as Yeats describes him, surrenders himself to the primitive yet highly sensitive race whose joys and sorrows we feel to be his own. There is a peculiar note of intimate understanding and sympathy in Synge’s account of the islanders which disposes at once of the accusation that he went there as a “literary” stranger bent upon securing “copy.” His sensations are not those of an idle spectator; they are the response of the mind and soul of the race to the least corrupted manifestations of our national life and spirit. This response is all the more remarkable because of its sincerity. Synge is utterly unconscious of the extent to which the atmosphere and voice of Aran have penetrated his consciousness. A more self-conscious amateur d’ames would never have confessed, like Synge, that he felt a stranger, [321] so modestly did he estimate his capacity to assimilate those elements which fascinated his imagination.

By a strange irony, the geneses of the plays most obnoxious to Gaelic puritanism are so indicated in Synge’s notebooks as to leave no doubt as to their native origin.

The charm of The Playboy lies uniquely in its verbal and imaginative qualities.  To enquire what are its moral intentions, to proclaim it libellous, to discuss its basis in reality, is to confess a complete understanding of the spirit in which such masterpieces are conceived. The fable of Christy Mahon’s hour of triumph, when the belief that he has killed his father  [327] makes him at last conscious of his own identity, by reaction to the effect of his exploit upon the hearers of his narrative,—this is clearly no treatise on morals, to be refuted by reference to the well-known purity of Irish life. Were all the evidence absent, which proves the Irish peasantry’s very natural weakness for the fugitive from justice, the value of Synge’s conception would be undiminished. If Pegeen Mike were a grotesque exaggeration, instead of a wonderfully human personality, her admiration for the alleged parricide would still be one of those profound intuitions of which genius alone is capable. The play is a pure creation of the imagination, and its language responds to the intensity of the emotion in which it was conceived. The singular beauty of the love-scenes between Christy and Pegeen Mike, the two characters in whom the exaltation of the dramatist’s mood is most heightened, is the beauty of poetry in its essence. It is poetry untrammelled by the mechanism of verse, as befits the natural simplicity of the speaker. The rhythm and accent are there, coloured and emphasised by the Gaelic-English idiom, which has now become for the author a perfect instrument of poetic speech. His knowledge of Gaelic, his work of selection on the Aran islands, and the suggestions gleaned from Hyde’s Love Songs of Connacht, have all formed in Synge’s mind a well of literary strength, from which he derives the most diversely magnificent effects. The amorous raptures of Christy, the angry interchanges of the women, the discourses of the publican - to every breath of passion there is a corresponding heightening of the key in which the language is pitched. It is evident that Anglo-Irish is to Synge a medium in which he has obtained absolute freedom, he uses it with the same effect as the Elizabethans used [328] English. The savour and freshness of a language that is still unexploited, the wealth of imagery and the verbal magnificence of the Elizabethan tongue are felt and heard again in The Playboy of the Western World.

[ Boyd here discusses Synge's initial reaction to the riots when he was “stampeded” into calling his play an “extravanza”. ]

We have seen in The Well of the Saints an example [329] of Synge’s realistic treatment of a theme usually approached from the opposite direction. The Playboy, it may be said, is a further instance of the same kind. The scene of the play, the characterisation of the peasant types and the exteriorisation of the drama seem to indicate realism. Consequently, with the protests of the moralists and politicians in our ears, and the propagandist associations of dramatic realism to mislead us, we have attributed to Synge intentions which were never his, and to whose expression he vainly tried, at first, to adapt himself. Neither in The Playboy nor elsewhere did Synge attempt to contribute to the so-called theatre of ideas: “The drama,” he says, “like the symphony, does not teach or prove anything.” it is made serious “by the degree in which it gives the nourishment, not very easy to define, on which our imaginations live.”

This sentence defines exactly the serious purport of The Playboy, which is to nourish the imagination. The realism of the play is no more nor less than the realism of the language in which it is written. Both are the synthetic re-creation of very real elements in our life. Synge boasted that there was not a phrase of his dramatic speech but had its counterpart in the stories and conversations he heard in Gaelic Ireland, yet nobody pretends that Christy Mahon’s talk is a literal transcription from life. The same is true of the play as a whole. It is a work of imaginative reconstruction, in which the moral and psychological elements are transfigured until they take on a universal significance. The Playboy stands in the same relation to the world of the Celtic imagination as Don Quixote did to the Spain of his day. In both cases the central figures have an existence which is at once personal, national and human. [330]
pp.316-335; here 317-18, 320-21, & 326-29; see full copy in Library > “Critical Classics” - as attached.

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James Joyce

Herbert Gorman: In James Joyce, 1940) Gorman writes that, when Joyce was in Paris in 1902, he met with Synge on several occasions ‘in the hmuble bistro-restaurant in the Rue Saint-Andre-des-Arts [...] Synge would thrust his dark crude face across the table and talk volubly, his subject always being literature. He was dogmatic in his convictions, argumentative to the point of rudeness and inclined to lose his temper.’ (Gorman, op. cit., p.101; Sam Slote, ed. & annot. Ulysses, Alma Books Edn. 2015, p.146, p.1.)

Synge in Ulysses (1922)

Synge arrived in Paris in early March 1903, apparently to dispose of his apartment on rue d’Assass, and stayed on a week at the Corneille passing time with Joyce on various occasions including picnic trips to Clamart and Charenton prior to his own departure for London on the 13 March. Those days together were reported in several letters on both sides but also commemorated by a gorgeous epiphany in Ulysses examined later in this paper. At some point in the week Synge lent Joyce a typescript of Riders to the Sea to which the recipient responded with damning observations about the absence of the Aristotelian unities—a verdict which induced his biography Richard Ellmann to write that no manuscript was ever read with less sympathy than Synge’s early masterpiece in the hands of the untried genius. (See Ellmann, James Joyce [1959] Oxford 1983, p.124.)

This might seem like an isolated piece of intellectual disdain on Joyce’s side but it was really a thread in the tapestry of his relationship with the members of the Anglo-Irish group in the Irish Literary Revival of whom the chief was W. B. Yeats, poet and ‘manager of men’ (in his own phrase) was the chief—and who played such a large part in both Synge’s and Joyce’s careers in different ways (See my paper ‘“Very Very Bug-house’: The Visionary Writings of W. B. Yeats and James Joyce’ [unpub.].

—The tramper Synge is looking for you, he said, to murder you. he heard you pissed on his doorway in Glasthule. He’s out in his pampooties to murder you.
—Me! Stephen exclaimed. That was your contribution to literature.
—Murder you! he laughed.

And then:

Harsh gargoyle face that warred against me over our mess of hash of lights in rue Saint-André-des-Arts. In words of words for words, palabras. Oisin with Patrick. Faunman he met in Clamart woods, brandishing a winebottle, C’est vendredi saint! Murthering Irish. His image, wandering, he met. I mine. I met a fool i’ the forest’ (Ulysses [1922] Bodley Head 1960, p.256; Gabler ed., Ulysses [Corr. Edn.] 1984, U9.576.)

The Clamart outing is recalled here when Mulligan/Gogarty unjustly berates Stephen/Joyce for pissing on Synge’s doorstep in Glasthule [a railway station in DunLaoghaire]. In fact Synge was not living at his family address on Crosswaithe Tce. at the date of Ulysses’ events in 1904 but the reference probably alludes to a very real moment when some such outrage was committed by Gogarty. Stephen now reverts to an earlier and more pertinent memory of his own connection with Synge in the form of a memory of the occasion when first met, calling him a ‘a faunman’ to suggest his essentially Dionysian character.

The short epiphany triggered by Mulligan’s allusion to Synge here in “Scylla and Charybdis” is really Joyce’s literary memorial to the playwright—who was dead by the time the chapter was written. It can be compared with the facetious usse of Synge’s stage-dialect in the first chapter of the novel where, once again, Buck Mulligan is the scoffing speaker. (Clamart is a commune [town] south-east of Paris where Synge took Joyce on picnics.)St André des Arts is the street where Synge took Joyce to eat at a cheap bistroon the Ile de Paris where Notre Dame — and hence the gargoyles — are also to be found.

Cf. the later moment in “Scylla and Charybdis”:

—O, the night in the Camden hall when the daughters of Erin had to lift their skirts to step over you as you lay in your mulberrycoloured, multicoloured, multitudinous vomit! (Ulysses, Wordsworth Edn. 2010 [rep. of 1932 Odyssey Press Edn. [Hamburg], p.195; Gabler, ed., Corr. Edn. 1984, U9.1192 [Slote, AnnotatedEdn. 2015].

Here the allusion is to a night when Joyce got drunk while attending a rehearsal of Synge’s Well of the Saints in Dublin on 20 June 1904 when Joyce blocked the passage-way to the small theatre with his prostrate form—“Joyce gets drunk in the legs”, remarked Padraic Colum. Drunken was Joyce’s failing in 1904 supposedly because Gogarty taught him how to do it which, with his depressed nutritional regime, was bound to lead to catastrophe. It is unknown if Synge was present or if he noticed Joyce’s collapse. In Ulysses the same is, of course, played out in the Nighttown episode - though by Stephen’s side on that occasion is not his disloyal friend Mulligan but a Samaritan stranger in the person of Leopold Bloom.

It has apparently become customary with Mulligan to accuse Stephen of drunkenness as when he says, in relation to Joyce’s real-life review of Lady Gregory's book Poets and Dreamers (1903): ‘Longworth is awfully sick, he said, after what you wrote about that old hake Gregory. O you inquisitional drunken jew jesuit! She gets you a job on the paper and then you go and slate her drivel to Jaysus. Couldn’t you do the Yeats touch?’ (Ulysses [1922] (London: Bodley Head 1960), pp.277-78. The episode is, of course, based in reality as referring to Joyce’s review of the book in question which he described as Celtic and geriatric - a dismissive account of the sources of myth and folklore for the literary revivalists such as Lady Gregory who ‘gathered’ it among the older people in Irish countryside dwellings. (See Joyce, “The Soul of Ireland”, in Occasional ... Writings, ed. Kevin Barry, OUP 2000, p.74-75.)

[BS: 10.02.2022.]

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Joyce’s remarks on Synge, in Selected Letters, ed. Richard Ellmann (London: Faber & Faber 1975), var. pages.

Letter to Stanislaus Joyce (9 March 1903): ‘[...] Synge is here for a few selling out - he can’t get on either and is going back to Ireland. He says the “Speaker” is always slow but once you get proof the article is sure to appear. He has written four plays - one of which is Riders to the Sea. Arthur Symons and W. B Yeats admire very much - Yeats told me it was quite Greek: I suppose Synge will be boomed now by the Irish Theatre - the plays are all in one act. Synge gave me the MS of Riders to the Sea and I have read it: it is a play of Aran in peasant dialect. I am glad to say that ever since I read it I have been riddling it mentally till it has [not] a sound spot. It is tragic about all the men that are drowned in the islands: but thanks be to God Synge is not an Aristotelian. I told him part of my esthetic: he said I have a mind like Spinosa. I cannot write a long letter as I am running for the post. [...]’ (Sel. Letters, p.17; quoted [in part] in Ronan MacDonald, ‘“A Gallous Story or a Dirty Deed?: J. M. Synge and the Tragedy of Evasion’, in Tragedy and Irish Literature: Synge, O’Casey, Beckett, London: Palgrave 2002, pp.42-84, p.42.)

Note: MacDonald (op. cit., 2002) remarks, ‘Citing Aristotle’s Poetics, Joyce insisted that the play, with its one-act brevity and emphasis on natural disaster, was just a tragic poem, not a tragedy. It was, he claimed, merely a “dwarf drama”’ [cited in Saddlemyer, “James Joyce and the Irish Dramatic Movement”, 1982, n.30 - viz.: ‘“The dwarf-drama (if one may use that term) is a form of art which is improper and ineffectual’ [Joyce’s review of Lady Gregory’s Poetry and Dreamers , in The Early Joyce: The Book Reviews 1902-03, ed. Stanislaus Joyce & Ellsworth Mason, Colorado Springs: Mamalujo Press 1955, p.21 - see Saddlemyer, op. cit., 1982 - as attached.)

To Mrs John Stanislaus Joyce (20 March 1903): ‘Synge was over here selling out and gave me his play to read - a play which is to be produced by the Irish Literary Theatre. I criticised it. Synge says I have a mind like Spinoza! (Spinoza was a great Hebrew philosopher). I am at present up to the neck in Aristotle’s Metaphysics, and read only him and Ben Jonson (a writer of songs and plays). Gogarty wrote to me a day or two [ago] and tells me that “John Eglinton” said the other day (Stannie will tell you who he is) “There is something sublime in Joyce’s standing alone.” My book of songs will be published in the spring of 1907. My first comedy about five years later. My “Esthetic” about five years later again.’ (This must interest you!) Yeats (who is impressionable) said he knew me only a little time and in that time I had roared laughing at the mention of Balzac, Swinburne &c. I have more than once upset a whole restaurant by laughing. An old woman shook her umbrella in my face on day in Dublin - I was laughing so loudly. Come what may I will lunch tomorrow. You will oblige me very much if you will write to me and tell what you think of me. I shall read your letter with great anxiety. JIM’; (Selected Letters, 1975, p.19.)

To Stanislaus Joyce (?1 Feb. 1907; Via Monte Brianzo 51, IV°, Rome): ‘Dear Stannie - I read in the D.M. [?Daily Mail] under the heading “Riot in a Dublin theatre” that a “clerk” named Patrick Columb and someone else were put up at the Police Courts for disorderly conduct in the Abbey Theatre at a performance of Synge’s new play The Playboy of the Western World [27 Jan. 1907]. The story, I believe, is of a self-accused parracide with whom all the girls of a district FALL IN LOVE. The clerk P.C. said (he was fined 40s. or 14 days) that nothing would deter him from protesting against such a slander on Ireland. There was also booing at certain strong expressions in the play. The evening ended in confusion. A [143] Trinity college youth created another row by singing “God Save the King.” W. B. Y. gave evidence and said he could not hear one word of the play. They had decided, on account of the organised opposition, to run the play for a week longer than they had first intended. He would send free tickets to any who had been prevented from hearing the play. It was Synge’s masterpiece, he said: an example of the exaggeration of art (I am glad he has got a phrase to add to that priceless one of Saint Boooooof about style) [...] Synge was interviewed and said he claimed the right as an artist, to choose whatever subject he wished! I am waiting for the Dublin papers. Columb must either have been forsaken by Kelly or have returned to his office since he is called a clerk. I suspect Synge’s naggin is on the increase. I knew, before now, that there was a schism in the theatre: as all of Columb’s plays have been given by the “Irish Theatre” and the reviews of Yeats and Lady Gregory and Miss Hornyman’s [sic; caps] productions which have appeared lately in Sinn Féin have been hostile. Yeats says the Irish obeyed great leaders in the past but now they obey ignorant committees. I believe Columb and the Irish Theatre will beat Y and L.G. and Miss H; which will please me greatly, as Yeats cannot well hawk his theatre over to London. However I am sure that many of the hermetists don’t know which to choose. It is lucky for O.G. that his mourning allows him to wait a little longer. Synge will probably be condemned from the pulpit, as a heretic: which would be dreadful: so that Stiffbreeches [Eglinton] and Ryan really ought to start another paper in defence of free thought, just for a week or so. I’m sure Ryan is the man for it. I suppose Sinn Féin and The Leader will find out all about Synge’s life in Paris: which will be nice for Lady G and Miss H. And as for pore old A.E. I suppose he is nibbling cabbages up in Rathgar in quite an excited frame of mind at the amount of heresy which is rife in Dublin. Starkie writes a poem in Sinn Féin about the world-fruit withering on the tree and there being none to pluck it. But enough now of the mummers. That Southern X [for Cross; 144] chap, Señor Bulfin, who is I am assured an Irishman, has a letter in Sinn Féin, ridiculing the Union Jack regatta at Galway. Two columns are consumed by his account of the talk of the classes. Ex: “Nice weather” “O, chawming” “Chawming regatta” “O, rawtha” “Funny how little interest the country takes in these things” “Quite to awfally funny, doncherknow!” He makes great fun of the shake-hands over the five-bar-gate and the’ [breaks off]. (Selected Letters, ed. Richard Ellmann, Faber 1975, pp.140-43.) [Note: Ellmann explains in a footnote that Joyce mistook the father of the writer for his son; see under Padraic Colum - supra.]

To Stanislaus Joyce (11 Feb. 1907; Via Monte Brianzo 51, IV°, Rome): ‘Dear Stannie - I sent you yesterday copies of the F[reeman’s] J[ournal]. containing fuller [146] accounts of the Abbey Riots. The debates [at the Abbey Th. on 4 Feb.] must have been very funny. Our old friends Skeff. and Dick Sheehy seem to have just been taking a walk round themselves since October 1904. I read Sheehan’s with pleasure and surprise. I would like, however, to hear the phrases which drove out the ladies with expressions of pain on their facers The pulpit Irishman is a good fellow to the stage Irishman [quoting Sheehan as reported in FJ; Ellmann ftn. 4]. I see that Synge uses the word “bloody” frequently, and the great phrase was “if all the girls in Mayo were standing before me in their shifts”, wonderful vision. Yeats is a tiresome idiot; he is quite out of touch with the Irish people, to whom he appeals as the author of “Countess Cathleen”. Synge is better at least he can set them by the ears. One writer speaks of Synge and his master Zola(!) so I suppose when Dubliners appears they will speak of me and my master Synge. Of course just the very week I wanted it most Aunt J[osephine] did not send Sinn Féin. As I told you before I think the Abbey Theatre is ruined. It is supported by the stalls, that is to say, Stephen Gwynn, Lord X, Lady Gregory etc who are dying to relieve the monotony of Dublin life. About Synge himself I cannot speak. I have read only one play of his Riders to the Sea, which made Yeats first think of the Greeks (who are always with us) and then of the early plays of the most Belgian of Shakespeares [viz., Maeterlinck]. Synge asked me to read it in Paris and when I [147] told him what I thought of it and expounded a long critical attack on the catastrophe as he used it he did not pay the least attention to what I said. So perhaps his later work has merit. If Synge really knows and understands the Irish peasant, the backbone of the nation, he might make a duodecimo Björnsen. Colum is out of the question and Russell and Coosins [sic]. Sheehan seems to be a little different from the other young men with ideas in Ireland. I suspect he must have got a high place in all his exams and so can afford to treat the church on equal terms. This whole affair has upset me. I feel like a man in a house who hears a row in the street and voices he knows shouting but can’t get out to see what the hell is going on. It has put me off the story I was “going to write” - to wit, The Dead [“The Dead”]. / I am reading at present some of the old Italian story-tellers, such as Sermini, Doni &c. and also Anatole France. I wonder how he got his name. Crainquebille [i.e., L’affaire Crainquebille, 1903] of course, is very fine and parts or rather phrases of his of his other books. However I mustn’t complain since he suggested Ivy Day in the Committee Room, and has now suggested another story The Dead. It is strange where you get ideas for stories. Stupid little Woodman gave me The Boarding House, Ferrero The Two Gallants. Others I though of myself or heard of. I have some kind of thing stirring in my head at present, but winter is my close season. [...]’ (Selected Letters, ed. Richard Ellmann, Faber 1975, pp.147-48.)

To Stanislaus Joyce (16 Feb. 1907): ‘[...] Synge is a storm centre: but I have done nothing.’ (Sel. Letters, p.150.)

To Stanislaus Joyce (21 Aug. 1909) [44 Fontenoy St.]: ‘[...] I have written to Synge’s brother to know definitely about the play. I also went to the Abbey Theatre and they showed me the costumes used and are giving me the music for the Keen.’ (Sel. Letters, 1975, p.162.)

To Nora Barnacle [Joyce] (22 Aug. 1912): ‘When we go back to Trieste will you read if I give you books? Then we could speak together. Nobody love you as I do and I should love to read the different poets and dramatists and novelists with you as your guide. I will give you only what is finest and best in writing. Poor Jim! He is always planning and planning!
 I hope I shall have good news tomorrow. If only my book is published then I will plunge into my novel and finish it. [310]
 The Abbey Theatre [sic] will be open and they will give plays of Yeats and Synge. You have a right to be there because you are my bride: and I am one of the writers of this generation who are perhaps creating at last a conscience for the soul of this wretched race. Addio!’ (Letters, II, 1966, pp.310-11; Sel. Letters, 1975, p.204.)

To Harriet Shaw Weaver (8 Nov. 1916) - listing his literary CV: ‘[...] Irish Literary Theatre: I refused to sign the letter of protest against Countess Cathleen when I was an undergraduate. I was the only student who refused his signature. Some years later I made the acquaintance of Mr. Yeats. He invited me to write a play for his theatre and I promised to do so in ten years. I met Synge in Paris in 1902 (where I went to study medicine). He gave me Riders to the Sea to read and after his death I translated it into Italian (for Mr Sainati?). I also translated the first version and Mr. Yeats did not wish that version to be offered to the Italian publisher.’ (Sel. Letters, 1975, p.223.)

Further records:

Arthur Power, in Conversations with James Joyce (1974): ‘Joyce knew him when he was living in rue d’Assas and found him very difficult to get on with. / - He was so excitable, Joyce told me.’ [...] ‘I do not care for it [...] for I think that he wrote a kind of fabricated language as unreal as his characters were unreal. Also in my experience the peasants of Ireland are a very different people from what he made them to be, a hard, crafty and matter-of-fact lot, and I never heard any of them using the language which Synge puts into their mouths. [...] One of the things I could never get accustomed to in my youth was the difference I found between life and literature. I remember a friend of mine going down to stay in the west, who, when he came back, was bitterly disappointed - “I did not hear one phrase of Synge all the time I was done there”, he told me. Those characters only exist on the Abbey stage. But take a man like Ibsen - there is a fine playwright for you. He wrote serious plays about the problems that concern our generation.’ (Power, op. cit., London: Millington Ltd. 1974, pp.33-34.) Note that Power holds a contrary opinion and cites remarks from an Irish peasant that strikes him as ‘pure Synge’. ((Selected Letters, ed. Richard Ellmann, Faber 1975 pp.140-43.)

Herbert Gorman, James Joyce (Bodley Head 1941) Joyce described Synge as ‘a dark tramper of a man’ (p.101; quoted in Anne Gallagher, ‘Tramps, Tinkers and Beggars in the Plays of J. M. Synge’, UUC UG Diss., 2010.) See also Patrick Kavanagh's verdict on Synge’s and Joyce's renderings of Irish speech - infra.
Stanislaus Joyce - Dublin Diary (1972)
Stanislaus wrote of The Shadow of the Glen (Oct. 1903): ‘The play is a very good comedy and, with another play also by Synge, is the best thing the Irish National Theatre Society has produced. [...] The position may be somewhat unusual, is unusual in as much as it is interesting, but the characters are Irish all of them - the woman, the young farmer, the old man, and the tramp; the humour is Irish and the treatment quite original.’ (The Dublin Diary of Stanislaus Joyce, ed. George Harris Healey (London: Faber 1962), pp.74-75; quoted in Ann Saddlemyer, ‘James Joyce and the Irish Dramatic Movement’, in James Joyce: A JoSayce International Perspective, ed. Suheil Bushrui & Benstock, Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe 1982), pp.190-212 [copied in RICORSO > Library > Criticism > Major Writers > James Joyce - as attached.]
Stanislaus Joyce, Triestine Book of Days (5 May 1907)

‘Jim found something in Synge’s mind akin to his own. The heroics and heroic poetry, that the Irish clique might delight in, had no more significance for Synge than for him. “The Playboy,’ with it talk of cleaning people down to their breeches belt, was a study in heroics, just as “Grace’ was a study in Theology, “Two Gallants’ in gallantry, or “Ivy Day in the Committee Room’ in politics, but he thought Synge’s art more original than his own.’ (Quoted in Eric Bulson, Introduction to James Joyce, Cambridge 2006, p.26.)

Ann Saddlemyer writes:

[...] During the week of March 6 to 13, 1903, Synge was also in Paris; after a lengthy flirtation he had thrown his lot in with the Irish literary movement and was selling up the few belongings which had furnished his small apartment on the rue d’Assas. On his return to Dublin he also dutifully reported to Lady Gregory his impressions of Joyce:

He seems to be pretty badly off, and is wandering about Paris rather unbrushed and rather indolent, spending his studious moments in the National Library reading Ben Jonson. French literature I understand is beneath him! Still he interested me a good deal and as he is being gradually won over by the charm of French life his time in Paris is not wasted. He talks of coming back to Dublin in the summer to live there on journalism while he does his serious work at his leisure. I cannot think that he will ever be a poet of importance, but his intellect is extraordinarily keen and if he keeps fairly sane he ought to do excellent essay-writing. (Theatre Business, ed. Ann Saddlemyer, Gerrards Cross, Colin Smythe, 1982, p.36; Saddlemyer, 1982, p.209; n.33.)

Later Joyce would recall their meetings in Ulysses: ‘Harsh gargoyle face that warred against me over our mess of hash of lights in rue Saint-André-des-Arts. In words of words for words, palabras.’ (Ulysses, Bodley Head 1960, p.) Joyce’s portrayal is more accurate than Synge’s deliberately off-hand report to Lady Gregory. He and Joyce met frequently, and Stanislaus writes that the two ‘had many quarrelsome discussions [197] ... about language, style, poetry, the drama, and literature in general. ... He was inclined to take the Irish language revival seriously, and when he was at a loss for an argument, was inclined to lose his temper, too. When that happened Synge’s angry face and wagging beard used to send my brother into kinks of laughter that made Synge still angrier.’ Joyce later described Synge as ‘a great lump of a man who could not be argued with. It is said that he was a silent man, but he was not.’ They disagreed over how to spend their time together: when Joyce suggested picknicking in the Parc de St. Cloud, Synge objected to spending the holiday ‘like any bourgeois’. They argued over style, Synge dismissing Joyce’s carefully culled solecisms. Joyce told him of his aesthetic theories: Synge responded that he had a mind like Spinoza. Finally, Synge showed him Riders to the Sea, which Joyce had already heard praised by Yeats and Symons. ‘I am glad to say that ever since I read it I have been riddling it mentally till it has not a sound spot’, he wrote with anxious relief to Stanislaus, adding, ‘thanks be to God Synge isn’t an Aristotelian’. He objected to the catastrophe being brought about by an animal rather than by the sea, and criticized it, as he had Hyde’s plays, for being ‘dwarf-drama’. Synge, naturally, disagreed, but may well have had Joyce’s Aristotelian strictures in mind when he defended The Playboy four years later with the argument, ‘the story - in its essence - is probable given the psychic state of the locality’. But Joyce was sufficiently impressed by Riders to the Sea to quote Maurya’s speeches as examples of the musicality of language, and to translate the play into Italian, even visiting the Abbey Theatre in 1909 to gain the original music for the keen. Nora Joyce performed the part of Maurya in the English Players production in Zurich in 1918, and Joyce’s programme notes relented slightly with the admission, ‘Whether a brief tragedy be possible or not (a point on which Aristotle had some doubts) the ear and the heart mislead one gravely if this brief scene from “poor Aran” be not the work of a tragic poet’. Synge noted in his dairy an appointment with Joyce in Dublin in September 1903, but it was perhaps inevitable that the two never became friends.

By the time Joyce and Synge returned to Dublin in 1903, Synge to the comfort of his mother’s orderly home in Kingstown, Joyce to his dying mother’s bedside, the metamorphosis of Irish Literary Theatre into The Irish National Theatre Society was complete. The company had established a rehearsal hall in a back street next to a butcher’s shop, which became the centre of literary activity for [198] many poets and would-be playwrights. A visit to London in May 1903 under the auspices of the Irish Literary Society had reaped high praise for both plays and players from some of the most influential critics, including a lengthy rave review by A.B. Walkley in The Times Literary Supplement. In October 1903 Synge’s one-act comedy The Shadow of the Glen -was produced midst some notoriety; the following February saw the production at long last of - Riders to the Sea. When the company made a second visit to London in March 1904, Synge’s two plays earned even greater praise from Joyce’s former adviser, William Archer. Despite his disdain for the ‘mummers’, Joyce and his new pal, the poet, wit and medical student Oliver St. John Gogarty, were frequent visitors at rehearsals and first readings, including that of Synge’s next play - The Well of the Saints. It was at a rehearsal of one of Synge’s plays that Joyce disgraced himself by arriving so drunk that he collapsed in front of the narrow entrance door and horrified some of the actresses. Even the discreet Synge recalled the incident in a history of the movement prepared for the Manchester Guardian, and this is obviously the basis for the exchange between Buck Mulligan and Stephen in Ulysses:

- The tramper Synge is looking for you, he said, to murder you. He heard you pissed on his halldoor in Glasthule. He’s out in pampooties to murder you.
- Me! Stephen exclaimed. That was your contribution to literature.

But Joyce was watching closer auxiliaries-in-rebellion succumb to the new dramatic movement. Stanislaus recorded in his diary of The Shadow of the Glen,

The play is a very good comedy and, with another play also by Synge, is the best thing the Irish National Theatre Society has produced. ... The position may be somewhat unusual, is unusual in as much as it is interesting, but the characters are Irish all of them - the woman, the young farmer, the old man, and the tramp; the humour is Irish and the treatment quite original.

Bibl. - Ann Saddlemyer, ‘James Joyce and the Irish Dramatic Movement’, in James Joyce: A Joyce International Perspective, ed. Suheil Bushrui & Benstock (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe 1982), pp.190-212; footnotes included in the longer copy - in this frame or in a new window.
Joyce’s programme note for the English Players in Zurich has been published in the Occasional Writings (ed. Kevin Barry, 2000) and shows a significant shift in opinion, while retaining his earlier reservations about the Aristotelian norms of tragedy - viz.,


Synge’s first play, written in Paris in 1902 out of his memories of Aran. The play shows a mother and her dead son, her last, the [Greek characters] [3] being the inexorable sea which claims all her sons. Seamus and Patch and Stephen and Shaun. Whether a brief tragedy be possible or not (a point on which Aristotle had some doubts) the ear and the heart mislead one gravely if this brief scene from ‘poor Aran’ be not the work of a tragic poet. [4]

—James Joyce, Occasional, Critical, and Political Writings, ed. Kevin Barry (Oxford: OUP 2000), p.[209].

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Violet Martin (of “Somerville & Ross”), to Lady Gregory, on reading script of The Well of the Saints: ‘This is cast in a form so simple as to be at times too simple as far as mere reading goes. I suppose the dialect is of the nature of a literal translation of Irish, but it seems to me to lack fire and spontaneity - you know, and no one better, what the power of repartee and argument is among such as these. It is inimitable in my opinion, I mean that no one who is not one of them themselves can invent it - and it is so much a part of themselves that to present them without it makes an artificial and unreal picture [...]’ (Quoted in Gifford, Somerville and Ross, 1987, p.104; cited in Declan Kiberd, Inventing Ireland, 1995, p.70.)

Patrick Pearse: ‘Ireland, in our day as in the past, has excommunicated some of those who have served her best, and has canonised some of those who have served her worst [...] When a man like Synge, a man in whose sad heart there glowed a true love of Ireland, one of the two or three men who have in our time made Ireland considerable in the eyes of the world, uses strange symbols which we do not understand, we cry out that he has blasphemed and we proceed to crucify him. When a sleek lawyer, rising step by step through the most ignoble of all professions, attains to a Lord Chancellorship or an Attorney General, we confer upon him the freedom of our cities. This is really a very terrible symptom of contemporary Ireland.’ (“From a Hermitage”, 1913; Political Writings and Speeches, Dublin 1924, pp.145-6; Kiberd, pp.167-68.)

Patrick Pearse: ‘The Playboy of the Western World was not a play to be howled down by a little mob. It was a play to be left severely alone by all who did not care to listen to it. [...] The Anglo-Irish [Literary revival] has now been in existence for ten years. Its net result has been the spoiling of a noble poet in Mr. Yeats, and the generation of a sort of Evil Spirit in the shape of Mr. Synge. “By the fruits ye shall know them.”’ (Quoted in Irwin Thompson, The Imagination of an Insurrection, 1967, p.71; quoted in Neil Campbell, ‘The Abbey Theatre: The Plays and Politics’, UG Diss., UUC [2001]).

Thomas MacDonagh, Literature in Ireland: Studies in Irish and Anglo-Irish [1916] (Nenagh: Relay Books 1996), ‘One of the most powerful writers of recent years, the late J,. M. Synge, was very often merely “Celtic” in his phraseology, though far more rich and right. His fault in the matter was that he crammed his language too full of rich phrases. He said that he used no form of words that he had not actually heard. But this probably means that he took note only of the striking things, neglecting the common stuff of speech. / In another matter Synge compares very favourably with his Irish contemporaries, his respect for the Irish language. not so many of the best known Anglo-Irish writers, who treat Irish words as W. S. Gilbert and such writers for comic purposes used to treat French. [... &c.]’. (p.34; see further under Mahaffy, q.v.)

George Bernard Shaw: ‘The truth is that all the Nationalist inventions that catch on now are not Irish at all. For instance, the admirable comedies of Synge, who, having escaped from Ireland to France, drew mankind in the manner of Molière, and, discreetly asured the public that this was merely the human nature of the Blasket Islands, and that, of course, civilised people never admired boastful criminals nor esteemed them according to the atrocities they pretended to commit. The Playboy ’s real name was Synge; and the famous libel on Ireland (and who is Ireland that she should not be libelled as other countries by their great comedians?) was the truth about the world.’ ( from Stanley Weintraub, ed., [Composite] Autobiography of G. B. Shaw, 1969; rep. in Field Day anthology of Irish Writing, 199, Vol. , 499[?].)

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Daniel Corkery, Synge & Anglo-Irish Literature (1931): ‘[I]t is necessary to state, that he, an Ascendancy man, went into the huts of the people and lived with them.’ (Mercier Edn. 1966, p.27.) ‘His [Synge’s] whole life long he despised cleverness. Would that his mantle had fallen on a school of writers that since his death has arisen in Dublin’ (p.34.; ‘In the years to come, nothing else was to befall him so significant as this skipping over London.’ (p.34; q. critical source.) Further, ‘It was contact with Europe kept open the channels through which both Synge and Goldsmith conveyed to us the beatings of their impuslive [35] hearts. In Goldsmith’s case, as has been said, it permitted him to use up the memories of his youthful Irish days. In Synge’s case it acted differently, for he had not had the good, fortune to be born and reared in rural Ireland - land of homeliness and freedom - and so could not draw, in the same way, on his boyish recollections. Yet that which contact with Europe did for him may have been greater: to a large degree it purged his eyes of Ascendancy prejudices; it taught him that rural Ireland, strange and unruly land as it was, derided, despised, impoverished, unkempt, ignorant, was not, for all that, abnormal, was instead, a natural sort of place, with many features in it that compensated for the regulated comfortableness of English life, the ideal of all his class. There was then no reason for thinking that hearts that beat in the Irish way were not as sterling as those other hearts that beat in another way. It is not that there are not many differences between Irish life and European life, but these differences are not unexpected in places so far apart, places speaking different languages and living under different suns. What stultifies the Protestant Ascendancy man who for the first time leaves Ireland for England is that the two schemes of life should be at once so similar and dissimilar. He has been always taught that one was the norm: and on acquaintance he confesses that such indeed it is for him. What can he do with his youthful perceptions of life? He had better forget them! What wonder then if people, like Mr. St. John Ervine become so much more British than the British themselves? [Rems. here on St. John Ervine - as infra.] He who goes to Europe is as conscious of change; but, as [36] hinted, he expects it; and then if he travel off the Europe he begins to discover, beneath the fundamental resemblances, which fact sets in a new way on Irish history. Not Ireland itself, under its alien Ascenciancy, has been more war ravaged than parts of of Europe: indeed there is hardly a spot of Eurupean ground that has not in this regard more resemblance to Ireland than to England - England fattening and refattening its haunts of ancient peace, century after century, while its soldiers campaigned abroad. We recollect that in the early stages of the Great War a writer in an English review mentioned how struck he was with the resemblance he noted between the small towns and villages of Poland and those of Ireland: he did not, however, bethink himself of untoward circumstances that had brought the similarity about.’ [Cont.]

Daniel Corkery (Synge & Anglo-Irish Literature, 1931) - cont.: ‘In Europe, then, the Ascendancy man may come on such instruction as enables him to read the map of Ireland anew. If that map show unkemptness in the landscape, that unkemptness is not without cause, nor does it prove the people freakish or inept; for those other countries whose stories are similar are not different. There is also, of course, the vast teaching he may come upon in the Catholic portions of Europe. He may note many differences between Euro[eam and Irish Catholicism. The probability is, of course, that has never been in an Irish Catholic church in his life, however great the differences he must at least be led question which of the two religions he knows of in Ireland is the more European. If he plunge, as Synge did, not or into the literature, the art, the music, but also into the life of the common people in such countries, his instruction will of course be bettered immensely. It is unthinkable thereafter that an Ascendancy man after coming thus in liberal conto with European life would not come back to a reading of Irish life with clearer vision. Yet we find M. Bourgeois writi this extraordinary sentence: “His (Synge’s) Europe learning did not hamper his perceptions of Aran life, or of [37] Irish life at large.” But M. Bourgeois [J. M. Synge ], though learned in Ireland and its ways, is for all that a foreigner, and so is to be forgiven. Of course it was Synge’s European learning enabled him to look at Irish life without the prejudices of the Ascendancy class in his way. [...] It was Europea cleared his eyes of the fogs of prejudice, not entirely of course. It was Natinalism however that lit the flame of love within them; and the second change could never have taken place only for the first.’ (Mercier Edn. 1966, pp.35-38.) [Cont.]

Daniel Corkery (Synge and Anglo-Irish Literature, 1931) - cont.: ‘Now conversion to nationalism in Ireland is a very different thing from conversion to nationalism elsewhere. [52; ...] Such a force therefore is not to be reckoned according to the extent of territory after which it is named; it is of course a quasi-spiritual essence. Now, the conversion of one of Synge’s type to Irish nationalism means really the winning over of one who would in the natural way of things hate everything really Gaelic so bitterly as to be ready and eager to debauch the national tradition, the very pulse of which is the desire for freedom, wherever and whenever opportunity offered. For Synge would certainly have had affinities with that class of which Standish O’Grady - himself one of them - wrote such bitter words: “At Ireland and all things Irish you girded till, like the doomed suitors, you are forced to laugh with foreign jaws as this beggar nation, ragged and mendicant, whose substance you devoured and whose house dishonoured, springs like the revealed demi-god of yore upon the threshold and twangs the new-strung bow.” [Ftn. ref., Ireland and the Hour: To the Landlords of Ireland, &c., by Standish O’Grady.] I [We] do not know how Englishmen, Frenchmen, or Germans can intimately understand such words: they lack the local instance. No Englishman knows what it is to be so actively anti-English as to be ready to debauch the national tradition that others too may be brought to disrespect it. He may deem himself a citizen of the world; even so, he is not more set against English nationalism than against any other. He can never understand how provincial, how protestant a creed the Ascendancy folk in Ireland developed in themselves after the Union. / Enough has perhaps been said to give the outsider to understand that conversion to nationalism in the case of an Ascendancy man in Ireland means far more than the giving of one set of opinions for another. It becomes a change more of heart than of head. It is a rebirth. A nation with its memories is a fount of inspiration; to come ot drink of the waters of tha fountain is an experience little less than mystical. We do not say that any outsider, such as Synge was, every succeeds incoming into perfect communion with the race mind: this he suspectd himself; it was a trouble to him. We do say, however, tha Synge came at moments into surprisingly intimate communion with it; of this his play Riders to the Sea makes us certain.’ (Synge and Anglo-Irish Literature, 1931; Mercier Edn., 1996, pp.53-54.)

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Lord Dunsany (My Ireland, London: Jerrold’s 1937): ‘His material was the talk of the Irish peasantry, and one does not have to examine his plays very closely to find three prominent ingredients; poetry, humour, rather grim, and satire. The first two of these are so inherent in the diction of the Irish people that one cannot at once distinguish between raw material and workmanship, as sometimes in jewellery the curve of a large pearl will be used untouched, by a jeweller, for the shape of a figure of which it forms apart. As for the satire, when first a Dublin audience saw Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, instead of regarding satire as one of the spices in a work of art, they concentrated their attention on it and booed the play. It was rather as though you offered a plate of roast beef, with all necessary vegetables and condiments, to someone not quite familiar with them, and as though he started his meal on the mustard, and were sick. But in course of time Irish audiences got over the bitter taste, and came to enjoy the play. This play was followed by Riders to the Sea, The Shadow of the Glen, and others; and, when we lost Synge in 1908, he had left dramatic work that blew fresh on the theatre, as though someone in a scene in a drawing-room comedy had opened the window to air blowing fresh over cornfields. This breeze affected to some extent the whole contemporary theatre, and, for the Abbey theatre, remained an inspiration; but too soon the inspiration wore a groove, and the grim mood of Synge turned towards sordidness, when his pen was in other hands; and many subsequent plays were written, not only for the Abbey, with Synge’s material but without his inspiration. This was forced on my attention some ten years after Synge’s death, when I saw a play in a theatre in Londonderry and was introduced afterwards to the manager; and, being more critical than tactful [261], said something about the play being “Synge and water”, to which the manager answered, “Who is Synge?” (pp.261-62; note that his version of the chronology of Synge’s plays is erroneous.)]

Conrad M. Arensberg, The Irish Countryman: An Anthropological Study (Macmillan 1937): Yet within a system of values in which the old represent the nexus of kinship and bear honour within the community, the young people do not see the issue so clearly. There is as much respect as there is antagonism in their verbal assessment of the old people. In the non-verbal behaviour of daily conduct, deference is uppermost. This fact sobers their group egocentricity. In their position there is a necessary balance between subordination and compensatory vauntings and distates. If you remember Synge’s Playboy, you remember how reality broke in upon the playboy when the community say his father still very much alive. / So, within this framework [viz., ‘a system of values about age status’] the young men can recognise themselves as a distinct group - an age grade, to use the technical language. They have [177] their own interests and sentiments, opposed in the scheme of rural life to those of their elders. Various places, pursuits and forms of activity are their own preserve. They greet the suggestion that they should take their place in the gatherings of the old men with something of a derision they reserve for women. But the ambivalence of their attitude makes general expression difficult. Their position imposes silence, except among themselves.’ (p.119.)

Stephen MacKenna: ‘I judged Synge intensely, though not practically, national. He couldn’t endure the lies that gathered round all the political movement, flamed or rather turned a filthy yellow with rage over them, gently hated Miss Gonne for those she launched or tolerated, loathed the Gaelic League for ever on the score of one pamphlet in which someone, speaking really a half truth, had urged the youth of Ireland to learn modern Irish because it would give them access to the grand old saga literature: I have never forgotten the bale in his eyes when he read this and told me, “That’s a bloody lie: long after they know modern Irish, which they’ll never know, they’ll still be miles and years from any power over the saga.”’ (Quoted in R. F. Foster, ‘Thinking from Hand to Mouth: Anglo-Irish Liteature, Gaelic Nationalism and Irish Politics in the 1890s’ [Chap. 13], in Paddy and Mr. Punch: Connections in Irish and English History Allen Lane 1993, Notes, p.367.


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