Friday, 13 November 2015

John Millington Synge

John Millington Synge – a Biography. By David M. Kiely. Gill and Macmillan, 1994.

This review was written in 2009

Bought in the second hand bookshop in Abbey Street near O’Connell Street in April 2010 where a great selection of books is available for as little as 6 or 7 Euros. This volume cost E5.99. I was perfectly aware of the important part Synge played in the development of the Abbey Theatre and of his close association with W. B. Yeats and Lady Gregory. I had not read a biography of his before but I was of course aware of his very controversial role as a playwright. His Playboy of the Western World was the first play to lead to controversy among the Catholic and Nationalist population of Dublin and it was surprising to me that Arthur Griffith was one of its most outspoken and hostile critics. It was Griffith who lead the campaign against Synge and the Abbey. Synge’s portrayal of the native people of Ireland, and particularly those in the West and in his native Co. Wicklow, caused great offence to many of Dublin’s citizens, largely because of his sublects’ earthy and picturesque English language adorned with the Irish idiom. Many of the Dublin nationalists and Catholics at the time lacked the maturity to accept Synge’s portrayal of the native Irish country people’s way of life as observed by his close contact with them.

Programme from the Abbey theatre in 1907
Synge came from a very conservative protestant family who lived in Dublin and Co. Wicklow and he was in striking contrast to the anti-Catholic and anti-nationalist members of his privileged family. He soon became an agnostic, and a thorn in his mother's side who was extremely conservative in her devotion to her religion and was part of the anti-Catholic tradition of her privileged class. Synge became absorbed by the local population and spent his time in lonely walks around the Co. Wicklow and subsequently in the Aran Islands, Connemara and the Dingle Peninsula. He was remarkable in his attachment to the native people in Ireland, to their dialect and to their conversation in English based on the Irish Idiom and full of the colourful allusions of a primitive rural class who had little intellectual contact with the outside world. In his earlier years Synge travelled widely in Germany, France, Italy and England and added German and French to English and to the Irish he learned in Inishmaan in Aran. He was a product of the limited number of landed gentry and the Protestant minority who were to become involved in the cultural Celtic Revival and who were likely to be more nationalistic and more in favour of Home Rule than most of their brethren.

John Milliton Synge
Kiel’s book was absorbing and worth reading. It is worth a more detailed review, if only because Synge's life gives a clue to the importance of the cultural revival at the turn of the century which involved some of the Protestant minority whose increasing commitment to Irish culture and identity might have played a crucial part in the emergence of Ireland as a self-ruling 32-country in happy co-existence with Catholic, Anglican and non-conformist and in a close association with our neighbouring island and the Commonwealth. All this may have happened were it not for the misfortune of 1916 and the unhappy consequence of the Civil War and the division of our country.

Synge died from Hodgkin’s disease in March 1909 after recurring illnesses in his later years. He is buried in Mount Jerome cemetery in Harold’s Cross in his family grave.

No comments:

Post a Comment