J. M. Synge, The Aran Islands (1907) - Extracts

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‘In the pages that follow I have given a direct account of my life on the Islands, and of what I met with among them, inventing nothing and changing nothing that is essential.’

Part I:

‘[...] Every article on these islands has an almost personal character which gives this simple life, where all art is unknown, something of the artistic beauty of medieval life ... they seem to exist as a natural link between the people and the world that is about them.’ (Collected Works, II, 58-59).

‘The simplicity and unity of the dress increased in another way the local air of beauty. The women wear red petticoats and jackets of the island wool stained with madder, to which they usually add a plaid shawl twisted round their chests and tied at the back. When it rains they throw another petticoat over their heads with the waistband round their faces, or, if they are young, they use a heavy shawl like those worn in Galway. Occasionally other wraps are worn, and during the thunderstorm I arrived in I saw several girls with men’s waistcoats buttoned round their bodies. Their skirts do not come much below the knee, and show their powerful legs in the heavy indigo stockings with which they are all provided.’

The men wear three colours: the natural wool, indigo, and grey flannel that is woven of alternate threads of indigo and the natural wool. In Arranmor many of the younger men have adopted the usual fisherman’s jersey but I have only seen one on this island.’ (CW, II, p.59).

‘The courtesy of the old woman of the house is singularly attractive, and though I could not understand much of what she said - she has no English - I could see with how much grace she motioned each visitor to a chair, or stool, according to his age, and said a few words to him until he drifted into our English conversation.’ (Ibid., p.59; ...).

‘A few of the men have a curiously full vocabulary; others know only the commonest words in English, and are driven to ingenious devices to express their meaning. Of all the subjects we can talk of war seems their favourite, and the conflict between America and Spain is causing a great deal of excitement. Nearly all the families have relations who have crossed the Atlantic, and all eat the flour and bacon that is brought from the United States, so they have a vague fear that “if anything happened to America” their own island would ceased to be habitable.’

‘[...] Foreign languages are another favourite topic ...’

‘“I have seen Frenchmen, and Danes, and Germans”, said one man, “and there does be a power of Irish books along with them, and they reading them better than ourselves. Believe me there are few rich men in the world who are not studying the Gaelic.”’ (Ibid., p.60.)

‘[the Aran Islands] where life is perhaps the most primitive that is left in Europe ... I have seen nothing so desolate’ (Ibid.., p.64.)

‘Their way of life has never been acted on by anything more artificial than the nests and burrows of the creatures that live round them, and they seem in a certain sense to approach more nearly to the finer type of our aristocracies - who are bred artificially to a natural idea - than to the labourer or citizen.’ (Ibid., p.66.)

‘Pat [Dirane] told me a story of an unfaithful wife, which I will give further down, and then broke into a moral dispute with the visitor, which caused immense delight to some young men who had come down to listen to the story. Unfortunately it was carried on so rapidly in Gaelic that I lost most of the points.’

‘This old man usually talks in a mournful tone about his ill-health, and his death, which he feels to be approaching, yet he has occasional touches of humour that remind me of old Mourteen on the north island. To-day a grotesque twopenny doll was lying on the floor near the old woman. he picked it up and examined it as if comparing it with her. Then he held it up: “is it you is after bringing that thing into the world, woman of the house?”’ (Ibid., p.70)

[Proceeds to recount Dirane’s story on which is based The Shadow of the Glen, ending:] “the dead man hit him a blow with the tick so that the blood out of him leapt up and hit the gallery.”’ (Ibid., 72; for a copy of the story - see attached.)

‘In Inishmaan one is forced to believe in a sympathy between man and nature.’ (Ibid., p.75).

‘This grief of the keen is no personal complaint for the death of one woman over eighty years, but seems to contain the whole passionate rage that lurks somewhere in every native of the island. In this cry of pain the inner consciousness of the people seems to lay itself bare for an instant, and to reveal the mood of beings who feel their isolation in the face of a universe that wars on them with winds and seas. They are usually silent, but in the presence of death all outward show of indifference or patience is forgotten, and they shriek with pitiable despair before the horror of the fate to which they are all doomed.’ (Ibid., p.75).

‘A little beyond the grave I saw a line of old women who had recited in the keen sitting in the shadow of the wall beside the roofless shell of the church. They were still sobbing and shaken with grief, yet they were beginning to talk again of the daily trifles that veil them from the terror of the world.’ (Ibid., p.75.)

‘I cannot say too often that the supreme interest of the island lies in the strange concord that exists between the people and the impersonal limited but powerful impulses of the nature that is round them.’ (Note 1, p.75; cited in Thornton, 1979; and taken from a notebook entry omitted from the final text.)

‘The water for washing is also short, and as I walk round the edges of the sea, I often come on a girl with her petticoats rucked up round her, standing in a pool left by the tide and washing her flannels among the sea-anemones and crabs. their red bodices and white tapering legs make them as beautiful as tropical sea-birds, as they stand in a frame of seaweeds against the brink of the Atlantic. Michael, however, is a little uneasy when they are in sight, and I cannot pause to watch them. This habit of using the sea water for washing causes a good deal of the rheumatism on the island ...’ (Ibid., p.76.)

[Pat Dirane’s remedy for fairies:] ‘”Take a sharp needle”, he said, “and stick it under the collar of your coat, and not one of them will be able to have power on you.” [Synge remarks:] ‘Iron is a common talisman with barbarians, but in this case the idea of exquisite sharpness was probably present also, and perhaps some feeling for the sanctity of the instrument of toil, a folk-belief that is common in Brittany. The fairies are more numerous in Mayo than in any other country, though they are fond of certain districts in Galway ...’ (Ibid., p.80.)

‘They told me that an evicting party is coming to the island to-morrow morning, and gave me a long account of what they make and spend in the year, and of their trouble with the rent. ... I asked afterwards who the island belonged to.’
 ‘“Bedad”, they said, “we’ve always heard it belonged to Miss -, and she is dead.”’ (Ibid., p.84).

‘The outrage to a tomb in China probably gives no greater shock to the Chinese than the outrage to a hearth in Inishmaan gives to the people.’ (Ibid., p.89.)

‘At the slip there was a good deal of bargaining, which ended in all the cattle being given back to their owners. It was plainly of no use to take them away, as they were worth nothing.’ (Ibid., p.91.)

‘Till this year no one on the island would consent to act as bailiff, so that it was impossible to identify the cattle of the defaulters. Now, however, a man of the name of Patrick has sold his honour, and the effort of concealment is practically futile. The falling away form the ancient loyalty of the island has caused great indignation ... [recounts a death threat nailed to the chapel]’ (Ibid., p.88).

‘He often tells me about a Connaught man who killed his father with the blow of a spade when he was in passion, and then fled to this island and threw himself on the mercy of some of the natives with whom he was said to be related. They hid him in a hole - which the old man has shown me - and kept him safe for weeks, though the police came and searched for him and he could hear their boots grinding on the stones over his head. In spite of a reward which was offered, the island was incorruptible, and after much trouble the man was safely shipped to America.
 This impulse to protect the criminal is universal in the west. It seems partly due to the association between justice and the hated English jurisdiction, but more directly to the primitive feeling of these people, who are never criminals yet always capable of crime, that a man will not do wrong unless he is under the influence of a passion which is as irresponsible as a storm on the sea. If a man has killed his father, and is already sick and broken with remorse, they can see no reason why he should be dragged away and killed by the law. Such a man, they say, will be quiet all the rest of his life, and if you suggest that punishment is needed as an example, they ask, “would anyone kill his father if he was able to help it?”’ (Ibid., p.95.)

‘It seems absurd to apply the same laws to these people and to the criminal classes of a city. The most intelligent man on Inishmaan has often spoken to me of his contempt of the law, and of the increase of crime the police have brought to Aranmor ... In Kilronan there is a band of men paid to make out cases for themselves; the moment a blow is struck they come down and arrest the man who gave it [...]’ (Ibid., p.96.)

[On curragh fishing:] ‘The men seemed excited and uneasy, and I though for a moment that we were likely to be swamped. In a little while, however, I realised the capacity of the curagh [sic] to raise its head among the waves, and the motion became strangely exhilarating. Even, I thought, if we were dropped into the blue chasm of the waves, this death, with fresh saltness in one’s teeth, would be better than most deaths one is likely to meet.’ (Ibid., p.97.) [One of Synge’s ‘island friends’ writes to him:] ’Write soon and let you write in Irish, if you don’t I won’t look on it.’ (Ibid., p.104.)

Part II

‘[...] The complete absence of shyness or self-consciousness in most of these people gives them a peculiar charm, and when this young and beautiful woman leaned across my knees to look nearer at some photography that pleased her, I felt more than ever the strange simplicity of the island life.’ (Ibid., p.106).

‘This year I see a darker side of the islands [...] there is a vague depression over the family this year, because of the two sons who have gone away [...]’ (Ibid., p.107.)

‘The material feeling is so powerful on these islands that it gives a life of torment to the women, Their sons grow up to be banished as soon as they are of age, or to live here in continual danger on the sea; their daughters go away also, or are worn out in their youth with bearing children that grow up to harass them in their own turn a little later.’ (Ibdi., p.108.)

‘As a rule there is little illness, and the women often manage their confinements among themselves without any trained assistance. In most cases all goes well, but at times a curagh is sent off in desperate haste for the Priest and the Doctor when it is too late.’ (Ibid., p.111.)

‘This young man had come up to bring me a copy of the Love Songs of Connaught [Connacht] which he possesses, and I persuaded him to read, or rather chant me some of them. When he had read a couple I found that the old woman kn[e]w many of them from her childhood, though her version was often not the same as what was in the book.’ (Ibid., p.112.)

‘In some ways these men and women seem strangely far away from me. They have the same emotions that I have, and the animals have, yet I cannot talk to them when there is much to say, more than to the dog that whines beside me in a mountain fog.’

There is hardly an hour when I do not feel the shock of some inconceivable idea, and then again the shock of some vague emotion that is familiar to them and to me. On some days I feel this island as a perfect home and resting place; on other says I feel that I am a waif among the people’ (Ibid., p.113.) [Ftn. 1 gives excised text: ’In moments of loneliness I am drawn to the girls of the island, for even in remote sympathy with women there is an interchange of emotion that is independent of ideas’; ibid., p.113.]

‘A branch of the Gaelic League has been started here since my last visit ... the women are the great conservative force in this matter of the language. They learn a little English in school and from their parents, but rarely have occasion to speak [it]’ (Ibid., p.115.)

‘I am in the north island again ... It is hard to believe that these hovels I can just see in the south are filled with people whose lives have the strange quality that is found in the oldest poetry and legend. Compared with the falling off that has come with the increased prosperity of this island is full of discouragement. The charm which the people over there share with the birds and the flowers have been replaced here by the anxiety of men who are eager for gain. The eyes and expression are different, though the faces are the same, and event he children here seem to have an indefinable modern quality that is absent form the men of Inishmaan.’ (Ibid., p.116.)

‘It was the eve of the Parnell celebration in Dublin ... The whole spirit of the west of Ireland, with its strange wildness and reserve, seemed moving in this single train to pay a last homage to the dead statesman of the east.’ (Ibid., pp.123-24; End Part II.]

Part III

‘My intercourse with these people has made me realise that miracles must abound whenever the new conception of law is not understood. On these Islands alone miracles enough happen every year to equip a divine emissary. Rye is turned into oats, storms are raised to keep evictors from the shore, cows that are isolated on lonely rocks bring forth calves, and other things of the same kind are common. [...] The wonder is a rare expected event, like the thunderstorm or the rainbow, except that it is a little rarer and a little more wonderful.’ (Ibid., p.128-29.)

‘Each man can speak two languages. He is a skilled fisherman, and can manage a curagh with extraordinary nerve and dexterity. He can farm simply, burn kelp, cut tout pampooties, mend nets, build and thatch a house, and make a cradle or a coffin [...]. The danger of his life on the sea gives him the alertness of a primitive hunter, and the long nights he spends fishing in his curagh bring him some of the emotions that are thought peculiar to men who have lived with the arts.’ (Ibid., pp.132-33.)

‘[T]he women were over-excited, and when I tried to talk to them they crowded round me because I am not married ... For a moment I was in confusion [...]’; (Ibid., p.137.)

‘The black curagh working slowly through this world of grey, and the soft hissing of the rain gave me one of the moods in which we realise with immense distress the short moment we have left us to experience all the wonder and beauty of the world.’ (Ibid., p.139.)

‘Rain was now falling heavily, and as we looked out through the fog there was something nearly appalling in the shrieks of laughter that was kept up by one of these individuals, a man of extraordinary ugliness and wit ...’

‘There is quaint humour, and sometimes wild humour on the middle island, but never this half-sensual ecstasy of laughter. Perhaps the man must have a sense of intimate misery, not known there, before he can set himself to jeer and mock at the world. These strange men with receding foreheads, high cheek-bones, and ungovernable eyes seem to represent some old type found on these few acres at the extreme border of Europe, where it is only in wild jests and laughter that they can express their loneliness and desolation.’ (Ibid., p.140.)

‘The women of this island are before conventionality, and share some of the liberal features that are thought peculiar to the women of Paris and New York.’ (Ibid., p.143.)

[The sequel of a knife fight in which five men died:] ‘They buried them the day after, and when they were coming home, what did they see but the boy who began the work playing about with the son of another man, and their two fathers down in their graves.’ (Ibid., p.156.)

‘As they talked to me and gave me a little poteen and a little bread when they thought I was hungry, I could not help feeling that I was talking with men who were under a judgement of death. I knew that every one of them would be drowned in the sea in a few years and battered naked on the rocks, or would die in his own cottage and be buried with another fearful scene in the graveyard I had come from.’ (Ibid., p.162.)

‘Although they are kindly towards each other and to children, they have no feeling for the suffering of animals, and little sympathy for pain when the person who feels it is not in danger. I have seen a girl writhing and howling with toothache while her mother sat at the other side of the fireplace pointing at her and laughing at her as if amused by the sight.’ (Ibid., p.163).

‘When the people are in pain themselves they make no attempt to hide or control their feelings. An old man who was ill in the winter took me the other day to show me how far down the road they could hear him yelling “the time he had a pain in his head”.’ (Idem.) [Synge writes out 12 stanza of a patriotic ballad, “The White Horse” - here augmented to 29 by the editor in a ‘complete version’; pp.168-71; “Rucard More” and “Phelim and the Eagle” follow, to p.178].

[An old man speaks to Synge:] ‘“He was something to do with the lighthouse or the coastguards, one of them Protestants who don’t believe in any of these things and do be making fun of us.’ (Ibid., p.180.)

[‘A Dream’; cf. remarks of Yeats.] ‘I lay in the grass in a sort of dream with a near feeling of a number of scenes I have been in. I saw the wet roads in Wicklow with sky and sunshine in the ruts, and corners of old woods [...] I saw Kerry with bright bays and many scattered people cutting patches of oats or driving their donkeys. Then I came to the cottage with my throat dry thinking in what a little while I would be in my grave and the whole world lost to me.’ (p.350).

Further [q.pps.]: ‘The thought that this island will gradually yield to the ruthlessness of “progress” is as the certainty that decaying age is moving always nearer the cheeks it is your ecstasy to kiss. How much of Ireland was formerly like this and how much of Ireland is today Anglicised and civilised and brutalised ...’ (q.p. [?p.103].)

‘These people make no distinction between the natural and the supernatural [...]’ (q.p.)

‘Their way of life has never been acted upon by anything much more artificial than the nests and burrows of the creatures that live round them.’ (q.p.)


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