Monday, April 16, 2018

John Millington Synge—Anglo-Irish Channel of the Catholic Peasantry

John Millington Synge.

John Millington Synge is best remembered as playwright,  chronicler of the peasantry of the Aran Islands and the untamed Gaeltacht of the West of Ireland, a founder of the Abbey Theater and its first important dramatist, and as a Key figure in the flowering of the Irish Literary Renaissance around the turn of the 20th Century.  But as an Anglo-Irishman from a long line of dissenting Evangelical Protestants he was often at odds with his Irish Nationalist colleagues and viciously attacked by the most visible conservative Catholic leaders of the movement including Arthur Griffith and Padraic Pearse.
Synge was born the youngest of eight children to the family of a wealthy barrister and member of the landed gentry that had mostly oppressed Catholic peasants for generations on April 16, 1871 in Newtown Villas, Rathfarnham, a comfortable semi-rural suburb of Dublin.  His father died of small pox on his first birthday and he was raised by his mother in Rathgar, County Dublin.  Although often himself sickly, he had a happy, privileged childhood that included time spent at his family’s ancestral estate Glanmore Castle in County Wicklow.
The boy took an interest in both nature, especially bird watching, and music at which he excelled.  He was educated privately at schools in Dublin and Bray, and later studied piano, flute, violin, music theory, and counterpoint at the Royal Irish Academy of Music before enrolling at Dublin’s elite Trinity College from which he graduated in 1892.  While there he studied Irish—Gaelic—introducing him to a youthful, idealistic Irish Nationalist circle.
Despite his promise as a musician and additional studies in Paris and Germany, Synge was painfully shy about public performance and doubted his ability.  He decided to abandon music and pursue literary interests. 
During this same period his exposure to Charles Darwin as a member of Dublin Naturalists’ Field Club led him first to doubt the stern religion of his family and then to cast it away entirely.  “…I had relinquished the kingdom of God…[and] began to take up a real interest in the kingdom of Ireland. My politics went round ... to a temperate Nationalism,” he later wrote.

Maude Gonne.
In 1896 he joined the Irish League when it was founded by Maude Gonne who was also Anglo-Irish, a fervent nationalist, and the object of William Butler Yeat’s unrequited love.  But a year later he resigned from the League writing Gonne, “my theory of regeneration for Ireland differs from yours ... I wish to work on my own for the cause of Ireland, and I shall never be able to do so if I get mixed up with a revolutionary and semi-military movement.”  That reluctance to take a revolutionary stance would later put him at odds with other Patriots.
Like Yeats, Synge had his own unrequited love, Cherrie Matheson.  She was a member of his family’s Plymouth Brethren faith and turned his proposals down twice because of his apostasy.  Heartbroken, he fled to Europe intent on spending as little time as possible in Ireland.  Although he spent much time abroad, he ended up returning to Dublin frequently.

William Butler Yeats, Synge's freind, mentor, defender, promoter
In 1896 he first met Yeats in Paris.  Perhaps they bonded over their mutual rejections.  At any rate, Yeats took an interest in the younger man and when he learned of Synge’s interest in Irish folklore, encouraged him to spend time in the Aran Islands where it was supposed that the true Irish culture was preserved by their wild isolation.  Yeats was ever after a mentor and often a defender of Synge when he ran afoul of certain Nationalists and Catholics.
Back in Dublin later the same year he joined Yeats, Lady Gregory, and George William Russell to form the Irish National Theatre Society, which subsequently established the Abbey Theatre, the epicenter of the Irish cultural renaissance and the place where Synge would make his greatest mark.
But in 1897 Synge suffered the first symptoms of Hodgkin’s Disease, a lymph node cancer and had an enlarged node surgically removed from his neck.  From then on his health was in slow decline.  

Synge's rented cottage on Inis Meáin, now a litterary shrine.
Synge spent most of the year in Paris and later in London, but regularly visited Dublin and beginning in 1897 spent five summers at a rustic cottage on Inis Meáin in the Aran Islands where he researched folklore, absorbed the local culture, and most importantly sort of ease dropped on the lives and conversations of the local folkstone field farmers and fishermen.
The Aran Islands, based on his journals, was completed in 1901 and published in 1907 with illustrations by Jack Butler Yeats, younger brother of William.  Although Synge had regularly published articles, including pieced based on his Island experience, his early attempts as a playwright were largely unsuccessful and his poetry mostly unpublished.  The book was his first major public success and he considered it his first important work.  But a theme that the islander’s Catholicism was a mask for underlying Gaelic paganism drew criticism.
In 1903 while living in London he completed two one-act plays based on his Aran Island stories.  Lady Gregory approved of the work, despite having rejected his first play.  The Shadow of the Glen was performed at the Molesworth Hall in Dublin October.  Riders to the Sea premiered on the same stage a few months later in 1904.  When the Abbey Theater opened in December, Riders was 1903 on the bill with Yeat’s poetic Kathleen Ni Hoolihan.

The Abbey Theater opening poster.

Despite the scathing attacks on his work by Arthur Griffin, Padraic Pearse, and others, Synge was appointed literary advisor to the Abbey and soon was on the Board of Directors with Yeats and Lady Gregory despite his differences with her over the direction of Irish theater.  He wrote:
I do not believe in the possibility of “a purely fantastic, unmodern, ideal, breezy, spring-dayish, Cuchulainoid National Theatre” ... no drama can grow out of anything other than the fundamental realities of life, which are never fantastic, are neither modern nor unmodern and, as I see them, rarely spring-dayish, or breezy or Cuchulanoid.
In the end Synge’s earthy peasants won out over Lady Gregory’s romanticism, and plays in that style became the backbone of the famous theater’s repertoire.
Synge’s first produced full length three act play, The Well of the Saints was staged at the Abbey in 1905.  This time he mined Irish folklore for a story of two blind siblings who have always been told they were beautiful who were cured of their affliction by a saint only to bitterly discover they are ugly and old.  Heartbreak and revenge ensued.  It again drew bitter criticism from Catholics. 
Synge did not even try to stage another play,  The Tinker’s Wedding  because of a scene in which a priest is tied up in a sack.  It would “a good many of our Dublin friends,” he told his London publisher.
The original Abbey Theater.
But if he thought he had a hostile reception before, nothing compared to the premier of the play now considered his great masterpiece, The Playboy of the Western World on January 27, 1907.  The bawdy comedy about an apparent patricide was greeted with a in the theater—possibly organized in advance by Arthur Griffith’s nationalists.  Every subsequent performance in the run was met with similar disturbances.  The Freeman’s Journal denounced it as “an unmitigated, protracted libel upon Irish peasant men, and worse still upon Irish girlhood.”
With his work under attack in his homeland—only one provincial staging of Riders to the Sea was subsequently produced—Synge’s health went into decline.  He died at the Elpis Nursing Home in Dublin on March 24, 1909 at age 37, and was buried in Mount Jerome Cemetery, Harold’s Cross, Dublin.
Little of Synge’s poetry was published in his life time but Poems and Translations, with a preface by Yeats, was published by the Cuala Press just days after his death.  Yeats also helped Synge’s fiancée Molly Algood, the actress who appeared on stage as Mare O’Neil for whom he wrote The Playboy of the Western World, complete his final play, Deirdre of the Sorrows.  It was staged at the Abby in 1910 starring O’Neil.  
Synge's fiancee Mare O'Neil--Molly Allgood.
Synge may be most remembered for his plays but he was a fine poet.
Still south I went and west and south again,
Through Wicklow from the morning till the night,
And far from cities, and the sights of men,
Lived with the sunshine, and the moon's delight.

I knew the stars, the flowers, and the birds,
The grey and wintry sides of many glens,
And did but half remember human words,
In converse with the mountains, moors, and fens.
—John Millington Synge

On An Island

You’ve plucked a curlew, drawn a hen,
Washed the shirts of seven men,
You've stuffed my pillow, stretched my sheet,
And filled the pan to wash your feet,
You've cooped the pullets, wound the clock,
And rinsed the young men's drinking crock;
And now we’ll dance to jigs and reels,
Nailed boots chasing girl’s naked heels,
Until your father’ll start to snore,
And Jude, now you’re married, will stretch on the floor.

—John Millington Synge

In Kerry

We heard the thrushes by the shore and sea,
And saw the golden star's nativity,
Then round we went the lane by Thomas Flynn,
Across the church where bones lie out and in;
And there I asked beneath a lonely cloud
Of strange delight, with one bird singing loud,
What change you'd wrought in graveyard, rock and sea,
This new wild paradise to wake for me. . . .
Yet knew no more than knew those merry sins
Had built this stack of thigh-bones, jaws and shins.

—John Millington Synge

To the Oak of Glencree

My arms are round you, and I lean
Against you, while the lark
Sings over us, and golden lights, and green
Shadows are on your bark.

There’ll come a season when you'll stretch
Black boards to cover me;
Then in Mount Jerome I will lie, poor wretch,
With worms eternally.

—John Millington Synge

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