Once upon a time on the Arann Islands
Writings from John Millington Synge
John Millington Synge gained fame as a playwright and the Playboy of the Western World was met with riots in Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. Bringing the life of the countryside to the audiences in Dublin, Synge contributed to the development of Ireland’s national cultural consciousness at the beginning of the last century. The Aran Islands by John Millington Synge (1871-1909) was first published in 1907. It is a four-part series of essays on the geography and people of these islands with whom the playwright and author became intimate with over several summers in the late 1890s.
“There has been a storm for the last twenty-four hours, and I have been wandering on the cliffs till my hair is stiff with salt. Immense masses of spray were flying up from the base of the cliff, and were caught at times by the wind and whirled away to fall at some distance from the shore. When one of these happened to fall on me, I had to crouch down for an instant wrapped and blinded by a white hail of foam.
The waves were so enormous that when I saw one more then usually large coming towards me, I turned instinctively to hide myself, as one blinks when struck upon the eyes.
After a few hours the mind grows bewildered with the endless change and struggle of the sea, and an utter despondency replaces the first moment of exhilaration. At the south-west corner of the island I came upon a number of people gathering the seaweed that is now thick on the rocks. It was raked from the surf by the men, and then carried up to the crow of the cliff by a party of young girls.
In addition to their ordinary clothing these girls wore a raw sheepskin on their shoulders to catch the oozing sea-water, and they looked strangely wild and seal-like with the salt caked upon their lips and wreaths of seaweed in their hair. For the rest of my walk I saw no living think but one flock of curlews, and a few pipits hiding among the stones.
About the sunset the clouds broke and the storm turned to a hurricane.
Bards of purple cloud stretched across the sound where immense waves were rolling from the west, wreathed with snowy phantasies of spray. Then there was the by full of green delirium and the Twelve Pins touched with mauve and scarlet in the east.
The suggestion from this world of inarticulate power was immense, and now at midnight when the wind is abating, I am still trembling and flushed with exultation. I have been walking through the wet lanes in my pampooties in spite of the rain, and I have brought on a feverish cold. The wind is terrific. If anything serious should happen to me I might die here and be nailed in my box, and shoved down into a wet crevice in the graveyard before anyone could know on the mainland. “
An excerpt from J.M Synge’s Aran Islands and Connemara, Mercier Press, 2008.
Synge wrote of the seaboard from Spiddal to Clifden on his travels west. These writings offer a precious insight into the lives of Ireland’s people at the turn of the last century:
“On each side of the road, one sees small square fields of oats, or potatoes, or pasture divided by loose stone walls that are built up without mortar. Wherever there are a few cottages near the road one sees bare-footed women hurrying backwards and forwards, with hampers of turf or grass slung over their backs, and generally a few children running after them , and if it is a market day as was the case on the day of which I am about to write, one overtakes long strings of country people driving home from Galway in low carts drawn by ass or pony. As a rule, one or two men sit in front of the cart driving and smoking, with a couple of women behind them stretched out at their ease among sacks of flour or young pigs, and nearly always talking continuously in Gaelic. These men are all dressed in homespuns of the grey natural wool, and the women in deep madder-dyed petticoats and bodices, with brown shawls over their heads. One’s first feeling as one comes back among these people and takes a place, so to speak, in this noisy procession of fishermen, farmers and women, where nearly everyone is interesting and attractive, is a dream of any reform that would tend to lessen their individuality rather than any real hope of improving their well-being. One feels then perhaps a little later, that it is part of the misfortune of Ireland that nearly all the characteristics which give colour and attractiveness to Irish life are bound up with a social condition that is near to penury.
The horses have been coming back for the last few days from their summer’s grazing in Connemara. They are landed at the sandy beach where the cattle were shipped last year, and I went down early this morning to watch their arrival through the waves. The hooker was anchored at some distance from the shore, but I could see a horse standing at the gunnel surrounded by men shouting and flipping at it with bits of rope. In a moment it jumped over into the sea, and some men, who were waiting for it in a Curragh, caught it by the halter and towed it to within twenty yards of the surf. Then the Curragh turned back to the hooker, and the horse was left to make its own way to the land.”