J.M. Synge: The Aran Islands

"A mirror for his bitterness among forgotten people"

J.M. Synge's The Aran Islands in the context of the Irish Literary Revival


1. Introduction

John Millington Synge, born in 1871 into an Anglo-Irish upper middle-class family, was one of the most eminent Irish writers of his time. Among other great names such as W.B. Yeats, Lady Gregory, and Sean O’Casey he will always be connected with the idea of The Irish Literary Revival.
Like many Anglo-Irish writers, however, Synge had great difficulties in finding his own identity; in fact he was looking all his life for a group of people he could belong to. This had already started early in his childhood when he was continuously “watching from the shadows” the “manoeuvres and extraordinarily passionate quarrels” of the Catholic children outside St Patrick’s Cathedral. [Watson, p.36]  His bad health and consequently his education almost entirely at home or at private schools led to an increasing isolation of the young Synge. The feeling of absolute solitude was completed when Synge came to reject Christianity at the age of 16 after he had read Darwin.

This Story is easily told, but it was a terrible experience. By it laid a chasm between my present and my past and between myself and my kindred and friends. Till I was twenty-three I never met or at least knew a man or woman who shared my opinions.[Watson, p.37]
Like Joyce and many other Irish writers, Synge left Ireland, first for Germany (to study music) then for Paris (to become a critic and a writer). His sense of not belonging to the country he had been born in and above all to the Irish people made him leaving Ireland and staying at the continent for several years.
Isolation and the permanent search for identity, then, were controlling Synge’s entire life. This essay is going to argue that exactly these two characteristics about Synge’s life made The Aran Islands such an extraordinary achievement in the context of the Irish Literary Revival. Synge found himself in the same situation as the Aran people, and in fact as all Irish people, did. Being himself an outcast he discovered an island of outcasts which was situated at the outskirts of an outcast country.
Through The Aran Islands Synge found a way to express his own identity and, moreover, an identity of the Irish people.

 2. The Irish Literary Revival

The Irish Literary Revival as a new movement in Irish literature emerged at the close of the nineteenth century. The idea behind this movement was to create a new Irish identity out of the old Celtic tradition.
The new literary movement succeeded the purely political struggle for Home Rule in the second half of the nineteenth century. After the fall of Parnell in 1890 and the defeat of the first Home Rule Bill in 1886, which caused the defeat of the Liberal Gladstone in the next elections, the matter of Home Rule was put aside under the new Conservative government. For many educated Irishmen that meant the end for Ireland’s hopes to eventually, after more than eighty years of fighting against the Act of Union of 1801, regain their own identity. What, however, was Irish identity?
Irish society had been deeply divided for so long that it was almost impossible to find something that you could call the Irish identity. There were the native Irish on the one hand and the Anglo Irish on the other, but even within those groups no clear single identity was to be found. Furthermore, both these groups were oppressed by an English ascendancy that imposed on the Irish an English way of life. Therefore a third identity was lurking somewhere in every Irish person. As G.J. Watson states,

 [In Ireland] in the period in question at least three different sets of cultural assumptions and values jostle together – English, Irish, and Anglo-Irish. Each of these is united by a common language, but in most other ways co-exist only with considerable tension and strain.[Watson, p.15]
 Whereas however, the native Irish could at least really identify with their home country because they knew that all their ancestors had been Irish as well (although even that is not quite true if one goes back as far as to the twelfth century), the Anglo-Irish had much more problems in doing so. Although having lived in Ireland for generations the Anglo-Irish were not considered to be quite as Irish as the native Irish were. Most of the Anglo-Irish families came to Ireland during the Cromwellian settlement after 1649. All of them became landowners, quite on the contrary to most Catholic Irish. There was a wide gap between these two groups and the Catholic Irish had remained suspiciously about the Anglo-Irish throughout the centuries. It was therefore not easy for the Anglo-Irish to see themselves as real Irish. They were not English either however, considering how long they had been living in Ireland.

A single Irish identity, therefore, was difficult to be found. Considering that there were almost only Anglo-Irish authors taking part in the Literary Revival movement it was even more difficult.
 Synge, a product of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy class, would play a major role in the revival of interest in native Irish culture while the Catholic-educated Joyce felt so alienated from the literary movement that he had Stephen write in his diary about his fear of the Gaelic-speaking Irish peasantry. The fact is, however, that the Irish Literary Renaissance was dominated by Anglo-Irish writers like William Butler Yeats, Lady Augusta Gregory, and Synge.[McCarthy, p. 162]
What Yeats, Synge and Lady Gregory wanted to achieve, however, was the renaissance of an Irish culture in distinction to English culture, which was omnipresent in Ireland at that time. They therefore founded the Irish National Theatre in 1899, which was to become the famous Abbey Theatre five years later. It was established as a platform for Irish playwrights, which enabled them to bring special Irish topics onto stage. An Irish theatre in distinction to the English theatre was the aim of this venture.
Many nationalists, above all those who were involved in the Gaelic League, sought to revive the Irish language among the people of Ireland. Many writers who were involved in the Literary Revival, however, did not consider a revival of the Irish language to be really possible or even appropriate.

 If the hopes of the Gaelic Leaguers are fulfilled – an event that is it need hardly be said of the greatest possible unlikeliness though it is not impossible – and Ireland begin to speak and write generally in Irish several centuries must pass before the country in general can have assimilated the language perfectly enough to produce anything that has real value as literature. Meanwhile we will lose the new feeling for English they have gained after three centuries of linguistic disorder.[Quoted in Kiberd, p.219]
Synge, certainly unlike some of the other writers of the Literary Revival, wanted to establish a new Irish identity out of the old Celtic traditions rather than revive an old long ago Cuchulanoid Irishness.
Although the Irish Literary Revival covered a wide range of writers, some of them being extremely nationalist, it has to be said that those who remained famous to our days were those who like Synge managed to combine the seeking for an Irish identity with a high literary value of their work. Although Yeats and Synge also idealised many aspects of Irish life, they managed to revive Irish literary life on account of their characteristic writing. As for Synge, the only possible way he saw to achieve this was to go to the Aran Islands and live with and observe the people there.

3. The Aran Islands

The Aran Islands was published in 1907, two years before Synge’s death, and after most of his famous plays, among them Riders to the Sea and The Playboy of the Western World, had already been put on stage. The book, however, had been written much earlier, about 1901/02.
Synge first visited the Aran Islands in 1898, on the advice of W. B. Yeats[Compare Gerstenberger, pp.1-2], and returned there thrice in the following three years. According to these visits the text is divided into four parts, each beginning with his arrival on the Arans and ending with his departure. The narrative follows a straightforward chronological plan, there is nothing remarkable about form and structure of the text. One could even think that The Aran Islands is merely a travel book considering Synge’s ‘promise’ in the introduction to the text:

 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 essential.[Collected Plays, p.254]
That The Aran Islands, however, is far from being a travel book or at any rate a pure documentary will be shown in more detail in the following passage.

3.1. The Aran Islands – Just a Documentary?

To define a genre for The Aran Islands is no easy venture. As Donna Gerstenberger states,

 The Aran Islands (1907), more than any other of Synge’s works, has suffered from this myth about Synge the man, for the book has been persistently misread as a document of discovery of attitudes and themes. At best, it has been read merely as a source book for the materials of the plays and as an exercise book for Synge’s dramatic methods and language.[Gerstenberger, p.2]
The Aran Islands must be more than just a “document of discovery of attitudes and themes” if there are people like David H. Greene who claim that it ‘is the essential book for anyone who attempts to understand him [Synge] as a dramatist.’[Greene, p.20] The “myth” that Gerstenberger spoke of in the quote above is that of the young, formable Synge who went to the Aran Islands and came back as a fully grown dramatist. Synge, however, did not draw his attitudes towards life out of the Aran experience. These attitudes were, as Gerstenberger states, quite on the contrary already well formed when he went to the Arans in 1898.
 By the time Synge made his first visit to the Aran Islands on 10 May 1898, almost a year and a half after his first meeting with Yeats in Paris, he was no longer an impressionable young man. He had, in fact, undergone most of the significant formative experiences of his life, including his first operation for the disease that was to terminate his short career little more than a decade later; [...][Gerstenberger, p.2]
Before considering the question what the Aran Islands actually provided Synge with we should concentrate on the more obvious question: What kind of book is The Aran Islands?
As stated before, there are different suggestions on the actual genre of the text ranging from travel book to notebook. These suggestions, however, are certainly not appropriate and seem to lay to much emphasis in “the direct account” that Synge claims to give in the book “of his life on the islands.” It is not actually his life on the Islands that Synge gives an account of, he rather steps aside and acts merely as an observer of the life of the native Aran people. In this regard one could describe The Aran Islands as a kind of documentary.
 Synge’s primary role in presenting the life of the islands to the reader is that of an organizing intelligence, the ideal observer, the selecting eye of the camera. His relationship to his material is essentially that of the cameraman – invisible, perceiving, objective, and amoral.[Gerstenberger, p.8]
The way in which Synge puts emphasis on certain habits of the Aran people and selects what he actually wants to report is very much analogous to a TV documentary nowadays. The difference between those two is, however, that Synge uses the life on those islands as a sort of metaphor for a ‘universal pattern’, as Gerstenberger puts it. In showing what life on the Aran Islands is like he provides the reader with a view on a world, which, at the same time, is a view on the world.
Therefore, the structure of the text, which at first sight seems to be rather narrow and not very inventive, is indeed very important to understand the meaning of The Aran Islands.
Synge was obviously impressed by the utter completeness of life on the islands. Every incident and every mood was almost immediately followed by the exact opposite.
 The continual passing in this island between the misery of last night and the splendour of to-day, seems to create an affinity between the moods of these people and the moods of varying rapture and dismay that are frequent in artists, and in certain forms of alienation.[Collected Plays, p.279]
The existence of two opposite moods following on one another in a very short period of time is even more noticeable in the first keening scene, where an old woman of the island is buried:
 While the grave was being opened the women sat down among the flat tombstones, bordered with a pale fringe of early bracken, and began the wild keen, or crying for the dead. Each old woman, as she took her turn in the leading recitative, seemed possessed for the moment with a profound ecstasy of grief, [...]
 When we had all come out of the graveyard, and two men had rebuilt the hole in the wall through which the coffin had been carried in, we walked back to the village, talking of anything, and joking of anything, as if merely coming from the boat-slip, or the pier.[Collected Plays, pp.279-280]
The structure of the book itself corresponds to this idea of completeness that Synge observed in the life of the islands. Each of the four parts begins with Synge’s arrival on and ends with his departure from the islands, each of the four parts, therefore, is complete in that sense. The opposition of life and death, of arrival and departure, is one of the main themes of the book. What Synge recognises in the life of the Aran people and what he appreciates in them is that they acknowledge the inseparability of life and death. They take life as it comes, one could say. The keening scene in the first part of The Aran Islands corresponds with a similar scene in the last part of the book, where a young fisherman is buried. The completeness of the whole book is thereby established. In between those two scenes, and in between each arrival and departure, Synge draws a picture of the existence of the Aran people, and he draws indeed a picture of existence in general.
 The primary interest of the book is not in the accuracy of the portrayal of peasant life, rather, it is in the universal patterns that reveal themselves against the background of the primitive, rocky islands. Because Synge does not insist on the meaning of the material he chooses to present, the reader should not assume the absence of meaningful patterns in the book.[Gerstenberger, p.9]
The mere existence of literary patterns and moreover Synge’s use of the Aran Islands as a setting and an idiom for life in general prove that The Aran Islands is more than just a documentary, not to speak of a notebook. The book has itself literary value and is far more than a source for Synge’s later plays. Synge himself can stand proof for this in claiming: “I look upon The Aran Islands as my first serious piece of work [...].”[Quoted in Greene, p.24]
Nevertheless, it is not easy to define a genre for The Aran Islands, but then, not even Synge himself bothered about that. It is important that, besides all the practical uses of The Aran Islands for Synge’s later plays, the book itself has to be considered as literature.

 3.2. The Outcast among Outcasts

Before we consider what the Aran Islands provided Synge with, we should have a closer look on the things he actually brought to the islands; for there were certain characteristics in Synge and in his life which made him the ideal observer of the Aran people.
As already mentioned in the introduction, Synge had always been a very isolated child and young man. He actually cultivated his solitude for his entire life. There are only two people who really knew Synge well, John Masefield and Stephen MacKenna; and even Masefield wrote: “I do not know what Synge thought. I don’t believe anybody knew, or thinks he knows.”[Greene, p.15]
The Aran people, similarly, were leading a life completely isolated from the rest of the Irish people. It was not even that easy to get to the islands and from there back to the mainland. As Synge reports the steamer which goes from the mainland to the Aran Islands sailed according to the tide and was also dependent on the weather, which was, however, regarded as a great improvement by the Aran people.

 Till recently there was no communication with the mainland except by hookers, which were usually slow, and could only make the voyage in tolerably fine weather, so that if an islander went to a fair it was often three weeks before he could return. Now, however, the steamer comes here twice a week, and the voyage is made in three or four hours.[Collected Plays, p.296]
Nevertheless, the Aran people were still virtually cut off from life on the Irish mainland. Only younger people, especially the men, went to the mainland relatively often to attend the fairs; women, however, especially the older ones, spent their entire life on the islands. I quite agree with Donna Gerstenberger, therefore, in stating that Synge was the ideal person to observe and understand the people on the Aran Islands.
 Synge had acquired before his journey to the islands the habit of isolation – Physical, spiritual, and social – that enabled him to record and evaluate the lives of a people physically isolated from the rest of the world, spiritually and socially cut off from the world beyond the separating sea, a separation that Synge was ideally equipped to observe and understand.[Gerstenberger, p.3]
Being in the same situation as the Aran people were, though, Synge remained an outsider on the islands as well. He was still the “watcher from the shadows” that he had been in his childhood.
 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.[Collected Plays, p.312]
Synge’s isolation also on the islands, of course, made him an even better observer and enabled him to give a complete record of the life the Aran people led, he always maintained his view on the whole.
Synge in The Aran Islands always showed both sides of the coin of the way of life he found there. He was fascinated by the primitiveness of the Aran society, by the lack of class distinction, and by the way in which the Aran people led their life according to the natural circumstances. At the same time, however, he was well aware of the fact that the same primitiveness and dependence on the natural circumstances caused many dangers that would not have existed if otherwise life had been more civilised on the islands.
 The water for washing is also coming short, and as I walk round the edges of the sea, I often come on a girl with her petticoats tucked 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 rheumatism on the island, for the salt lies in the clothes and keep them continually moist.[Collected Plays, p.281]
Synge found, however, on the Aran Islands the only functional community. The absence of many features of civilisation such as class and labour division made those inhabitants of the Arans, in Synge’s eyes, an ideal community. Quite on the contrary, he was rather alienated from all other communities he knew and constantly satirised them in his plays. It is, after all, rather conspicuous that the only play which does not satirise the idea of the community is also the only play which is actually situated on the Aran Islands – that is Riders to the Sea. The concept of the coherent community, then, that was so important for many other writers of the Irish Literary Revival movement, was no important aspect in Synge’s work. He knew that the archaic society of the Aran Islands could not be revived in the rest of Ireland.
 To the extent that the recovery of a coherent community is associated with the desire to resurrect the sense of national cultural identity, this emphasis on the stability and coherence of the past, and on the importance of a model of community based on the heroic tales, is one of the most salient features of the Irish Renaissance. It is not, however, an important aspect of Synge’s work: the only model of a coherent community to be found in the plays is the one in Riders to the Sea, a contemporary (although highly archaic) society in which people are bound together through their common struggle against the destructive forces of Nature.[McCarthy, p.168]
Synge considered the conformity of civilised societies as dangerous. Being himself an outcast he constantly sided with the outcasts in his plays. The tramp-figure, the outsider, is in Synge’s eyes, like the artist, always the one who struggles against the existing authorities within a society; and, as McCarthy points out:
 [...] the revolt against authority figures – a significant factor in every play except Riders to the Sea, and a minor factor even there, through Maurya’s recognition of the limitations of priestly knowledge – has a good deal to do with the demand for Irish cultural self determination; and the struggle of the lonely artist-figure against his or her imaginative inferiors suggests the parochialism against which Synge and the other Literary Revivalists believed they were doomed to struggle.[McCarthy, p.169]
There were no outcasts within the Aran community, but the Aran people themselves were outcasts in Irish society. They had to struggle against the authority of a civilised society that was permanently threatening their archaic way of life. What the Aran people regarded as improvements Synge regarded as highly dangerous for the life on the Aran Islands. Leading the life of an outcast himself, he realised that the Aran community was in a similar situation. His own attitudes towards life then made him describing life on the Aran Islands the way he did – essentially different from the way in which most other people would have done.

3.3. A Means to Expression

There must be a reason, however, why The Aran Islands are generally considered as the making of Synge as a dramatist. What did the Aran Islands provide Synge with that he could not find anywhere else?
As stated before, The Aran Islands has been, in Gerstenberger’s words, “persistently misread as a document of discovery of attitudes and themes.”[Gerstenberger, p.2] What the Aran Islands provided Synge with, however, were not his attitudes towards life – they had been already well formed before he went to the islands. In 1897, at the Sorbonne, Synge began to study Irish literature and Celtic languages after having abandoned medieval and modern French literature.[Casey,Life Apart, p.7]

His interest in Ireland and Irish culture, however, had been very strong since his early youth and was by no means a recent development. Synge himself said:

 Soon after I had relinquished the Kingdom of God I began to take a real interest in the Kingdom of Ireland. My politics went round from a vigorous and unreasoning loyalty to a temperate Nationalism.[Quoted in Watson, p.37]
Also, as mentioned before, Synge’s attitude of the chosen solitude was already well developed when he decided to go to the Aran Islands. Synge, throughout his entire life, never really belonged to a group of people or a movement; and that was not because he had not got the chance to do so but because he decided otherwise to trust only his own judgement of certain circumstances. It was for that reason that he resigned from the Irish League shortly after he had entered it: “I wish to work in my own way for the cause of Ireland, and I shall never be able to do so if I get mixed up with a revolutionary or semi-revolutionary movement.”[Casey, Life Apart, p.7]
Synge’s idea of life in general and his own situation in particular then was already well organised before he went to the Arans.
What the islands did provide him with was, as Gerstenberger puts it, “a means to expression”. Synge found on the islands for the first time in his life an outside world that was so similar to his own situation that he was able to use it as a means to express himself and the attitudes towards life that were already formed inside him. He found on the islands, as W.B. Yeats said, “among forgotten people a mirror for his bitterness.”[Gerstenberger, p.2]
Along with this first and most important aspect Synge found on the Arans something that became characteristic for his plays. He found on the islands the language to express his attitudes and the attitudes of the Irish people. The language he discovered there was an English spoken by native Irish speakers, which resembled Irish intonation, syntax, and in parts also vocabulary.
 Thomas Davis had argued that a truly national tradition could exist in two languages, Irish and English. But Synge went one better and exploited the very clash between the two cultures. He forged an art of surpassing beauty out of the very fusion of these languages and thereby achieved his aim of a bilingual style. [Kiberd, p.202]
Synge, by using this bilingual style, avoided the problem that many of the other writers within the Irish Literary Revival had; most of them were no native Irish speakers, their Irish was indeed very poor. Therefore they either wrote in English or they used a very artificial Irish,
 which in Synge’s and also Yeats’ view was even worse than using no Irish at all. Writing in ‘ordinary’ English, however,  was considered to be inappropriate as well because the ‘English point of view’ would thereby be maintained and an Irish cultural identity in opposition to the English identity that had been imposed on the Irish could not be achieved. One could go as far, therefore, as to state that Synge provided the Irish with their own literary language. He first used this new language in The Aran Islands recording conversations among the Aran people, the fairy tales that he was told by the old men from the island, and of course Martin’s letters, which he translated word for word from the Irish.
The Aran Islands then provided Synge with a setting, an idiom, and a language to express his attitudes towards life in general and Irish life in particular. It was therefore not least a source for almost all of his plays.

3.4. The Aran Islands as a Sourcebook

The use of The Aran Islands as a sourcebook for almost all of Synge’s plays, often even included that the entire plot of the play was based on a tale he had first heard on the Aran Islands and written down there; sometimes his Aran experience provided Synge with a setting for his plays; in all cases it gave him the language he used.

 The playwright shifted Dirane’s tale to the Harney cottage, a familiar place in the Wicklow hills, and made The Shadow of the Glen of it. He removed the ancient’s tale of the patricide from Achill Island and the Arans to a shebeen in Mayo and there created The Playboy of the Western World. Although he adapted the plot of The Well of the Saints from a medieval French farce, he also remembered his Irish teacher’s miraculous well at Teampall an Ceattrair Alainn (The Church of the Four Comely Persons), where blindness and epilepsy were cured. Riders to the Sea had the urgency of place, however; it was set on Aran, and it was worked directly from the materials at hand.[Casey, Life Apart, p.8]
Two of Synge’s plays, in fact the two masterpieces he had produced during his short career, shall stand as examples for Synge’s use of The Aran Islands as a sourcebook, first Riders to the Sea, and second The Playboy of the Western World.

 3.4.1. Riders to the Sea

As Edward A. Kopper states, “The Aran Islands is a storehouse of information crucial to an understanding of Riders, and any serious attempt to interpret the play must take the book into account.”[Kopper, p.44] Certainly, Riders to the Sea is the one of Synge’s plays which is most directly related to his experiences on the islands. This is already revealed through the fact that the action is placed on  “an island off the West of Ireland”, this island being Inishmaan, the middle island of the Arans.[Casey, Aran Requiem, p.90] It is, moreover, the only one of his plays which is actually set on the Aran Islands. Casey points out that there is an important reason why this is the case:
 Inishmaan, where more Irish is spoken, and where “the life is perhaps the most primitive that is left in Europe,” provided more than an atmosphere, it provided the reason for the drama itself.[Casey, Aran Requiem, p.90]
The reason that Casey speaks of are the deaths of three Aran people that happened while Synge was staying on the island, which made him aware of the Aran people’s primitive response to death, a response which he recognised as the only possible way to cope with the omnipotence of Nature. The Aran people are more obviously than most other human beings “engaged in the most elemental struggle – the struggle for survival in nature.”[Casey, Aran Requiem, p.93] Their response is acceptance of the inevitable; and it is this response that made Synge write Riders to the Sea.
The basis for the play then are three occasions in which Synge witnessed the islanders’ response to the death of a person. The first of these three scenes he witnessed during his first visit on the island. An old woman from the island had died. In The Aran Islands Synge describes the burial and the keening of the old women in great detail. He recalls those details in the keening scene of the play: the old women with red petticoats drawn over their heads, their rhythmical swaying and crying.
The second scene occurred during his third stay on the island. “Now a man has been washed ashore in Donegal with one pampooty on him, and a striped shirt with a purse in one of the pockets, and a box of tobacco.”[Collected Plays, p.332]   For several days the people from the island were trying to identify the dead man until his sister recognised him:

 She pieced together all she could remember; about his clothes, and what his purse was like, and where he had got it, and the same for his tobacco box, and his stockings. In the end there seemed little doubt that it was her brother.
 ‘Ah!’ she said, ‘it’s Mike sure enough, and please God they’ll give him a decent burial.’[Collected Plays, p.332]
This scene bears a clear resemblance to the plot of the play: Michael is also washed ashore in Donegal and his identity is confirmed by his sister Nora, who recognises his stocking by counting the stitches. Also the purse and the tobacco box occur again in the play, Bartley takes them with him when he leaves the house. Not least, Nora uses almost the same words as Mike’s sister in The Aran Islands: “’If it’s Michael’s they are,’ says he, ‘you can tell herself he’s got a clean burial, by the grace of God [...]’”.
The third scene, which happened during Synge’s fourth visit to the islands, is again a burial, this time of a young man who got washed ashore, headless. Some of the details are drawn from this third death experience and put into the play: the borrowing of the boards for the coffin, the holy water that is sprinkled around and the whole ceremony of kneeling around the coffin.
These three scenes put together form the basis for Riders to the Sea. There are other details from The Aran Islands, however, that Synge used for his play. The red mare ridden by Bartley followed by the grey pony with the dead Michael on it is actually drawn from a story an old man tells Synge. Many features of folk believe are also from The Aran Islands: not to answer a blessing is considered a death sign – Maurya did not give Bartley her blessing when he left the house. Other such foreshadowing are in the play that Synge knew of from the Aran people.
Last but not least the whole setting resembles the atmosphere on the Aran islands; the cottage of the play is actually the cottage on Inishmaan where Synge used to stay during his visits. It was very important for Synge that the scenery would be as realistic as possible. He even demanded an original western Irish peasant  spinning wheel as a requisite for the stage. His actresses were taught keening by an old woman from Galway, and he himself taught one of the actresses how to spin.
 Synge’s demand for realism centered, first, on the chanting of the caoine, the funeral lament at the end of Riders. Lady Gregory finally located an old peasant woman originally from Galway and then living in a tenement near Dublin who promised to teach the actresses how to keen. Unfortunately, she could not practice her art without a corpse, and George Roberts, who had played the part of the “dead” Dan Burke in The Shadow of the Glen, Filled the role perfectly. Synge insisted, too, that Sara Allgood, who played Cathleen in Riders, be taught to spin in order to add realism to the opening of the play, and he did the instructing himself.[Kopper, p.41]
The whole play then is strongly based on the discoveries that Synge had made on the Aran Islands and written down there. Incidents and moods he had merely observed and reported in The Aran Islands are aesthetically presented in Riders to the Sea. One could therefore say that Synge used The Aran Islands as a sourcebook and selected and organised certain themes from it.

3.4.2. The Playboy of the Western World

Synge’s use of The Aran Islands as a sourcebook for his play The Playboy of the Western World is not as obvious as it is for Riders to the Sea. Nevertheless, there are certain things Synge draw from his experiences on the Arans.
First of all, the story that forms the basis the plot of the play is built upon is actually a story Synge was told by an old man from the islands.

 He often tells me about a Connaught man who killed his father with a 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 to me – and kept him save 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.[Collected Plays, p.297]
Synge transplants this story to Mayo, a county on the Irish west coast. Christy Mahone, a young lad from Munster arrives at a public house in Mayo after a fortnight walking. He tells the people there that he has killed his father with a spade and buried him in the potato field.
 CHRISTY: [...] I just riz the loy and let fall the edge of it on the ridge of his skull, and he went down at my feet like an empty sack, and never let a grunt or groan from him at all.
 CHRISTY: [...] I buried him then. Wasn’t I digging spuds in the field.[Collected Plays, pp.121/122]
What obviously fascinated Synge about that story, was the way in which the people on the Aran Islands were dealing with serious crimes like murder. He reflects on this in The Aran Islands:
 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.[Collected Plays, p.298]
Synge satirises this astonishing reaction on someone who has murdered his own father in The Playboy of the Western World. By transplanting the story from the Aran context into a much more civilised area, the reaction of the peasant community to Christy’s murder seems highly inappropriate and is therefore comical. Christy is treated as the “hero of the western world” as long as the peasants believe that he really killed his father.
Synge draw from The Aran Islands, then, the basic idea for the play’s plot. Again, however, there are other things in the play which are related to Synge’s Aran experience. Most of them already occur in Riders to the Sea, as the red petticoats, and the continuous blessing of people. Also, some of the characters’ names bear resemblance to what Synge had recognised on the Aran Islands. Michael James Flaherty is called Michael James, James being probably the first name of his father. Margaret Flaherty, his daughter, is called Pegeen Mike, Mike being a short form of Michael, her father’s first name. On the Arans, Synge reported, people were usually called by their first names plus the first names of their fathers.
 When  a child begins to wander about the island, the neighbours speak of it by its Christian name, followed by the Christian name of its father. If this is not enough to identify it, the father’s epithet – whether it is a nickname or the name of his own father – is added.[Collected Plays, p.330] ">
Even a woman called Pegeen is mentioned in The Aran Islands. Last but not least, a number of phrases that Synge uses in the Playboy are actually written down in The Aran Islands for the first time. Here is only one example: Michael says in the Playboy: “What’s a single man, I ask you, eating a bit in one house and drinking a sup in the other, and he with no place of his own, like an old braying jackass strayed upon the rocks?”[Collected Plays, p.159] This is almost the same thing that Synge heard old Mourteen say on the Aran Islands: “[...] a man who is not married is no better than an old jackass. He goes into his sister’s house, and into his brother’s house; he eats a bit in this place and a bit in another place, but he has no home for himself; like an old jackass straying on the rocks.”[Collected Plays, p.318]

Although, then, the similarities between Synge’s experiences on the Aran Islands and his play The Playboy of the Western World are not as obvious as in the case of Riders to the Sea, they are nevertheless existing. By the time Synge wrote the Playboy his own imagination was already that vivid with the folk believe he first came across on the Aran Islands that he used it in a very natural way, which is sometimes difficult to spot.

4. The Aran Islands in the Context of the Irish Literary Revival

After having analysed some major aspects of The Aran Islands itself – in what way Synge’s personality influenced the book and in what way the Aran Islands influenced Synge – I want to draw the attention back to the main purpose of this essay, namely, to define the significance of The Aran Islands in the context of the Irish Literary Revival.
As mentioned before, the aim of the Irish Literary Revival was the creation of an Irish cultural identity, an identity which was to built upon the old Celtic tradition. That old tradition was still very vivid in some western parts of Ireland. On the Aran Islands, however, something else was to be found – the Aran people still led the life that they had been leading for hundreds of years. For Synge, therefore, the journey to the Aran Islands was something like a journey back in time. Synge did not go to the Arans just to learn Irish as many other people had done before him. He wanted to live with the people there and express their life as no one else had done before. That was the reason why he wrote The Aran Islands, it was not to be a travel book or any such sort of thing. Synge wanted to create a literary work, expressing something that has never been expressed before. With The Aran Islands he achieved this, he draws a most vivid picture of the life on the islands, of the folk believe and fairy tales, of a people that had used to live forgotten off the west coast of Ireland.
The Aran Islands, although only published in 1907, was the starting point of Synge’s career within the Literary Revival movement. As I described above, the Aran Islands provided Synge with everything he needed to become the great dramatist he was – an outside world through which he was able to express his inner self, and a language to put this newly found identity into words. Himself being an outcast, he was more aware than anybody else of the Aran people’s outcast existence, a theme which was to become relevant in almost all of his plays. Through The Aran Islands, however, Synge found a way to express this outcast existence in the first place.

I fully agree therefore with David Green in stating:

 The Aran Islands is the essential book for anyone who attempts to understand him [Synge] as a dramatist. The Aran experience was crucial.[Greene, p.20]
Synge, if he had not gone to the Aran Islands, would never have become the writer of genius he was. Above all, through The Aran Islands Synge found a way to express Irish identity, he found a way to close the gap between native Irish and Anglo-Irish by fusing two languages together to a new form of the Anglo-Irish dialect. Irish identity meant for Synge peasant identity, and his first expression of the peasant life he gave in The Aran Islands. Afterwards he continuously used The Aran Islands as a source for the expression of peasant life in his plays. Although some of his plays caused much tension among the contemporary Irish audience, Synge’s peasant drama became an important part of the Irish Literary Revival. This, however, was, above all, due to the foundation Synge laid for his later work by The Aran Islands.



Primary Sources

J.M. Synge, Collected Plays and Poems and The Aran Islands, Alison Smith (ed.), London: Everyman, 1996.

Secondary Sources

Daniel J. Casey, A Life Apart. In: Edward A. Kopper, Jr. (ed.), A J.M. Synge Literary Companion, Connecticut, 1988.

Daniel J. Casey, An Aran Requiem In: Daniel J. Casey (ed.), Critical Essays on John Millington Synge, New York, 1994.

Donna Gerstenberger, John Millington Synge, revised edition, Boston 1990.

David H. Greene, J.M. Synge: A Reappraisal. In: Daniel J. Casey (ed.), Critical Essays on John Millington Synge, New York, 1994.

Declan Kiberd, Synge and the Irish Language, Dublin 1993.

Patrick A. McCarthy, Synge and the Irish Literary Renaissance. In: Edward A. Kopper, Jr. (ed.), A J.M. Synge Literary Companion, Connecticut, 1988.

G.J. Watson, Irish Identity and the Literary Revival: Synge Yeats, Joyce and O’Casey, London 1979.