Adrian Frazier, ‘J. M. Synge: Synge’s travel writings fascinate, as do tributes to him by some of Ireland’s best writers’, in The Irish Times (3 Sept. 2005), Weekend.

[Review of Travels in Wicklow, West Kerry, and Connemara, with drawings by Jack B Yeats, Serif, 224pp. £9.99; Synge: A Celebration, ed. Colm Tóibín, Carysfort Press, 163pp. €18.]

In 1905, J. M. Synge was offered £25 by the Manchester Guardian (more money than he’d ever earned) to travel through Connemara and write articles on what he saw, to be illustrated by Jack Yeats. ’

Crossing to the last island on the north side of Galway Bay, Synge discovered that the ferryman had been a seafarer. “What is it that brought you back,” Synge asked, “if you were doing well beyond in the world?”

“I had to come back because I was the eldest son, and I got married then, and I after holding out till I was 40. I have a young family now growing up, for I was snug for a while; and then bad times came and I lost my wife, and the potatoes went bad, and three cows I had were taken in the night with some disease of the brain and they swam out and were drowned in the sea.” He loved his children, but it was hard work keeping them alive “in this place the Lord created last, I’m thinking, in the end of time. It’s often when I sit down and look around on it [I ask] myself how poor people can go executing their religion at all.”

Synge then asked again, a question perhaps always on his own mind, dying as he was - how was it that the ferryman lived from one day to another. He replies in a scene that remarkably recreates Resolution and Independence, in which Wordsworth finds “apt admonishment” about how to live through the courteous and stately speech of an old leech-gatherer.

We know so little of Synge’s mind that his travel writings are particularly fascinating. Now Paddy Woodworth, expert on Spain, former arts editor of The Irish Times, and resident of Glenmalure, Co Wicklow, has done a foreword for an attractive paperback reissue, with Yeats’s drawings, of Travels in Wicklow, West Kerry, and Connemara. Woodworth honours Synge as a hillwalker, reporter of country speech, artist of descriptive prose, and journalism “shot through with literary qualities”. But he also praises Synge’s awareness that “solutions to local problems require local knowledge”, a knowledge Synge obtained - as a journalist does - first-hand.

Don’t, as the Congested Districts Board does, tear down thatched cottages and build new houses with concrete floors and tin roofs. Instead, Synge says, provide general prosperity so that people can improve the houses along their own lines. Make tenants masters of their own ground. Where there is one shop in a town doing all the buying and selling, introduce mechanisms for fair pricing through competition.

In short, the point of view is that of the good landlord, just what his class, he recognised, had gone to the wall for not being. Synge himself, however, was hardly a scion of the ascendancy.

His grandfather had lost the mock castle and Wicklow estate. His father, a barrister, died when Synge was one. One brother emigrated to South America, one became a missionary in China, and the third served as a land agent for families that had not yet lost everything.

Synge’s family didn’t know at all what to make of its youngest member. If only father had not died, one brother remarked, Johnny would have got a decent job and never embarrassed the family by writing plays. They were Plymouth Brethren, breaking bread on the Sabbath in their homes, without clergy or churches; all necessary inspiration was in the Bible. At age 14 Synge read Darwin, lost his faith, and remained thereafter “wonderfully separate”, spiritually speaking. He was never long away from his mother’s household, reading all the time, silent, apparently unhappy. Joining Mrs Synge on her summer Wicklow holidays in 1902 he wrote out three plays: The Shadow of the Glen, Riders to the Sea, and The Tinkers’ Wedding. Masterpieces, Yeats declared, but Synge’s mother could not care less. One summer when he had brightened in the company of visiting girls, his mother complained that he made himself nice for strangers but not for her. Thus arrived the theme for The Playboy of the Western World, Colm Tóibín suggests.

In a collection of tributes by some of Ireland’s best writers, Synge: A Celebration, the facts of the playwright’s life are captured in Tóibín’s essay, New Ways to Kill Your Mother, and Tóibín has a ventriloquistic talent for making facts speak.

Molly Allgood must have lent something to the character of Pegeen Mike in that play, besides playing the role on stage. Joseph O’Connor invents a brilliant chapter for a novel about Synge, set one year into the affair, as he goes to meet Molly for a picnic in the hills above Bray. He is depicted as old enough to be her father, schoolmasterly, a relentless walker and bird-watcher, always putting off the wedding date, hung up on his mother, thinking about how to put his feelings into words and never feeling for the body of his girl, who wonders why he doesn’t, because he could. Maybe Synge was like that. He’s a mystery, but these writers have insight into what writers are like.

The respect all the contributors have for Synge as a writer is generous and, judging by their quotations, deserved. Hugo Hamilton is a prose artist of piercing integrity and lucidity, but when in his memoir of Gaelscoil visits to Aran he interweaves sentences from The Aran Islands, the older writer’s simple word structures gleam like silver threads. What contemporary writer goes for more gorgeous rotundities than Sebastian Barry? But in his prose ramble about a drive through Wicklow with the widow of Synge’s nephew, the echoes from Synge’s plays leap out, unforgotten and unforgettable.

Of lasting value is the diary by Vincent Woods of his weeks in Paris retracing Synge’s steps and putting the final touches to his own Deirdre play, A Cry from Heaven, soon to open, soon not to be a hit. The immense hope, endeavour, and toil leading up to an opening night is captured, and the total exposure to the judgment of a sometimes blind public. It reminds one that during his lifetime Synge never had a single play succeed on the Abbey stage.

Anne Enright tackles one of the great objections to Synge, his calumny on Irish women, who “all of us know”, Arthur Griffith wrote, “are the most virtuous in the world”. With terrific intelligence and humour (her essay is even funnier than Roddy Doyle’s account of teaching The Playboy to Dublin teenagers), Enright romps through the history of “the lovely Irish girl” as prostitute. In an afterthought, she traces to Riders to the Sea the origin of the ever-popular Irish dead baby play: a child never seen on stage over whom the mother, often in a slip, grieves for the duration.

Poet Mary O’Malley, being a Connemara fisherman’s daughter, cannot get over the sense that Synge failed to see that the teasing country girls were not so free as they seemed to be, and teased him because he obviously did not know what he was about. In the end, he served them a bad turn by making the outside world think they were something they weren’t, and spoke in a fashion that they wouldn’t. With his characters in their way, they could only learn to make themselves heard with great difficulty, by tapping back into Irish and the female secrets of village life.

The great director of amateur theatricals in the west, Joe O’Donoghue (who died just last month), used to talk of this Synge problem. Halfway through rehearsals of The Playboy, local actors would begin to feel the audience, their own families and townspeople, would just laugh at them once they took the stage. So they’d change the programme once again to Arthur Miller, as if it were easier authentically to act like Jews from New Jersey. Synge’s great wavy mirror has entranced and unsettled everyone, insiders and outsiders alike.

That makes it all the more wonderful that it was in the west that one genius greeted another across the century, when Garry Hynes and Druid produced new truths again and again from the often traduced and traducing plays, and the finest Irish theatricality.

[Adrian Frasier’s most recent book is Playboys of the Western World: Production Histories (Carysfort Press, 2004)]