Author, Book review, History, Ireland, J. M. Synge, Non-fiction, Penguin Classic, Publisher, Setting, travel

‘The Aran Islands’ by J. M. Synge


Non fiction – paperback; Penguin Classics; 208 pages; 1992.

At the turn of the 19th century, Irish poet and playwright John Millington Synge made numerous visits to the Aran Islands, off the west coast of Ireland. He had been encouraged to make his first visit in 1897 by his friend, William Butler Yeats, who told him: “Go to the Aran Islands. Live there as one of the people themselves; express a life that has never found expression.”

I wanted to read this book, because I had imagined it to be one of those oh-so authentic travelogues that would tell me what it was like to live in a remote place at a time when tourism was not commonplace. And that, my friends, is pretty much exactly what I got, along with a healthy dose of fairy stories and some wonderful descriptions of breath-taking scenery.

As Tim Robinson points out in the introduction, the book is completely self-sufficient in the sense that Synge never explains why he went to the Aran Islands nor what impact it was to have on the rest of his life. But we know now that he spent his first summer there shortly after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease (then completely untreatable) and that after his final visit, some five years later, he achieved extraordinary success with his play The Playboy of the Western World first published in 1907, the same year as The Aran Islands was published. He died just two years later.

The Aran Islands records the day-to-day lives of Irish peasants living in small fishing communities on one of the most rugged and windswept islands in the world. Here’s Synge’s first impression of the island as he wanders along its “one good roadway”:

I have seen nothing so desolate. Grey floods of water were sweeping everywhere upon the limestone, making at times a wild torrent of the road, which twined continually over low hills and cavities in the rock or passed between a few small fields of potatoes or grass hidden away in corners that had shelter. Whenever the cloud lifted I could see the edge of the sea below me on the right, and the naked ridge of the island above me on the other side. Occasionally I passed a lonely chapel or schoolhouse, or a line of stone pillars with crosses above them and inscriptions asking a prayer for the soul of the person they commemorated.

But while a great deal of this book is about the landscape and the terrain and the ever-present roaring sea, it is also about the people whom he befriends along the way. And here, huddled around turf fires, he not only perfects his Irish but collects stories and folklore from local residents. On his first visit he meets a blind man who believes in the “superiority of his stories over all other stories in the world”.

Afterward he told me how one of his children had been taken by the fairies.
One day a neighbour was a passing, and she said, when she saw it on the road, ‘That’s a fine child.’
Its mother tried to say, ‘God bless it,’ but something choked the words in her throat.
A while later they found a wound on its neck, and for three nights the house was filled with noises.
‘I never wear a shirt at night,’ he said, ‘but I got up out of my bed, all naked as I was, when I heard the noises in the house, and lighted a light, but there was nothing in it.’
Then a dummy came and made signs of hammering nails in a coffin.
The next day the seed potatoes were full of blood, and the child told his mother that he was going to America.
‘That night it died, and believe me,’ said the old man, ‘the fairies were in it.’

Synge also records the harsh conditions in which the island’s tiny population lives and the difficulties that confront them in terms of feeding and clothing themselves adequately. His description of poverty-stricken villagers is, at times, heartbreaking.

But he also enjoys experiencing the primitiveness of the culture, such as sailing on the ocean in a curagh — “a rude canvas canoe of a model that has served primitive races since men first went on the sea” — and using handmade articles from natural materials — cradles, churns, baskets and the like — which “seem to exist as a natural link between the people and the world that is about them”. I particularly loved his descriptions of the island’s fashions:

The simplicity and unity of the dress increases 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 around their chests and tied at the back. When it rains they throw another petticoat over their heads with the waistband around 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 around 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.

Because Synge makes several visits over a five-year period he is able to notice small changes to the culture with each visit he makes. Take this example, written during his fifth and final visit, in which he realises that progress has made its mark, and not necessarily in a good way:

I am in the north island again, looking out with a singular sensation to the cliffs across the sound. It is hard to believe that those 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 them 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 flowers has 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 even the children here seem to have an indefinable modern quality that is absent from the men of Inishman.

The Aran Islands is a fascinating account of another culture in another time confronted by development, or, as the blurb on the back of my Penguin edition so eloquently puts it, “the passionate exploration of an island community still embedded in its ancestral ways but solicited by modernism”. Not necessarily an easy read, but an enjoyable one nonetheless.

If you’re interested in reading the book for yourself, a free version is available online at Google Books.