March 24: Can drama can grow out of anything other than the fundamental realities of life?
John Millington Synge (*1871) died on this date in 1909 at the young age of 37 of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. An Irish playwright, poet, prose writer, travel writer and collector of folklore, his writings contributed to the Irish Literary Revival.
You’ll have heard of his The Playboy of the Western World, but unless you’ve read or seen it, may not suspect that it revolves around Christy Mahon who stumbles, on the run, into an Irish pub, Michael James Flaherty’s public house in County Mayo, and who discovers that his tale of patricide — his killing of his own father — brings him admiration, and the romantic attention of two women.
Synge, though he was a talented musician and had played in Germany and toured the continent as a member of the Dublin well-to-do, devoted his writing mainly to the rural poor of Ireland, gathering their folklore as he walked and cycled the lanes. A Protestant himself, whose reading of Darwin persuaded him of the futility of religion, he discerns beneath the peasant Catholicism a vein of deeply felt pagan faith.
For his first visit to to the Inis Mór in 1898 in the Aran Islands Synge bought a second hand camera, a Lancaster from a fellow visitor. He had the idea of using his pictures in an account of his life there, but instead drawings by Jack B. Yeats (1871 – 1957), brother of poet W. B. Yeats, were used in the first edition of Synge’s The Aran Islands (1907), to which Yeats contributed 12 pen and ink illustrations (later hand-coloured in watercolour when Yeats exhibited them). Yeats based many of his illustrations on Synge’s photographs.
Between 1898 and 1905 he made photographs also in Connemara, Wicklow and West Kerry. Of the whole series, 51 survive, collected in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin which was restored and digitised them.
Though somewhat amateur in framing and composition and sometimes marred by flare and light leaks, few are of family and friends; instead they are made with a distinct purpose, devoted to documenting the people he was writing about. Below is his camera, which replaced the more cumbersome Lancaster and appears as a frontispiece in the limited edition book My wallet of photographs: the collected photographs of J. M. Synge, arranged and introduced by Lilo Stephens (Dublin: Dolmen Editions, 1971).
In his The Aran Islands Synge writes of the effect of his photography on his subjects;
I had some photographs to show them that I took here last year, and while I was sitting on a little stool near the door of the kitchen, showing them to the family, a beautiful young woman I had spoken to a few times last year slipped in, and after a wonderfully simple and cordial speech of welcome, she sat down on the floor beside me to look on also.
The complete absence of shyness or self-consciousness in most of these people gives them a peculiar charm, and when this young and beautiful woman leaned across my knees to look nearer at some photograph that pleased her, I felt more than ever the strange simplicity of the island life.
Last year when I came here everything was new, and the people were a little strange with me, but now I am familiar with them and their way of life, so that their qualities strike me more forcibly than before.
When my photographs of this island had been examined with immense delight, and every person in them had been identified—even those who only showed a hand or a leg—I brought out some I had taken in County Wicklow. Most of them were fragments, showing fairs in Rathdrum or Aughrim, men cutting turf on the hills, or other scenes of inland life, yet they gave the greatest delight to these people who are wearied of the sea.
Synge had intended using these to illustrate his account of life on the Aran Islands. Instead, illustrations by Jack B. Yeats, including the iconic drawing of ‘An Island Man’ (below) for the frontispiece, were based on photographs taken by Synge on Inis Oirr. It is clear that the figure is rendered from an amalgamation of the two men, one young and one old, photographed standing on the shoreline, though in the drawing the horizon line is made lower for dramatic effect and some artistic licence is taken.
Yeats and Synge met in 1905 and travelled together through Mayo and Galway that summer, so Yeats had no option but to rely on the photographs. Synge, who spoke Gaelic, gathered information for his articles while Yeats sketched potential images.
Yeats who was impressed by the writer’s knowledge of and affection for the inhabitants of the West of Ireland and admiration of their hard lives. Synge had spent several summers living on Inishmore to write his book. He noted that traditional Aran Island costume suited the islanders’ life and work, and this is what the original photograph for the resultant drawing was intended to illustrate; as described by Synge this includes hat, waistcoat or bainín jacket, flannel trousers tied with a plated crios belt, and cow-skin pampooties which enabled their wearer to clamber across its rocky terrain.
Synge does not stop short at an objective ethnography in his writing or his photographs; both convey his keenly felt sympathy with the islanders and their way of life, an introduction to which is evident in the illustration in which the man is presented as dignified and confident.
In his essays In Wicklow and West Kerry, published posthumously in 1912 his description in the section ‘The Vagrants of Wicklow’, he treats the tramps with similar affection and respect;
The healthiness of this life, again, often causes people to live to a great age, though it is not always easy to test the stories that are told of their longevity. One man, however, who died not long ago, claimed to have reached one hundred and two with a show of likelihood; for several old people remember his first appearance in a certain district as a man of middle age, about the year of the Famine, in 1847 or 1848. This man could hardly be classed with ordinary tramps, for he was married several times in different parts of the world, and reared children of whom he seemed to have forgotten, in his old age, even the names and sex. In his early life he spent thirty years at sea, where he sailed with some one he spoke of afterwards as ‘Il mio capitane,’ visiting India and Japan, and gaining odd words and intonations that gave colour to his language. When he was too old to wander in the world, he learned all the paths of Wicklow, and till the end of his life he could go the thirty miles from Dublin to the Seven Churches without, as he said, ‘putting out his foot on a white road, or seeing any Christian but the hares and moon.’ When he was over ninety he married an old woman of eighty-five. Before many days, however, they quarrelled so fiercely that he beat her with his stick, and came out again on the roads. In a few hours he was arrested at her complaint, and sentenced to a month in Kuilmainham. He cared nothing for the plank-bed and uncomfortable diet; but he always gathered himself together, and cursed with extraordinary rage, as he told how they had cut off the white hair which had grown down upon his shoulders. All his pride and his half-conscious feeling for the dignity of his age seemed to have set themselves on this long hair, which marked him out from the other people of his district; and I have often heard him saying to himself, as he sat beside me under a ditch: ‘What use is an old man without his hair? A man has only his bloom like the trees; and what use is an old man without his white hair?’
Synge’s portrayal of a Wicklow tramp (above) who wears an ill-fitting coat, felt hat and roughly re-cuffed trousers and stands on the roadside against a gorse-covered bank shouldering a sack and carrying a stout stick, could easily, but for his apparent age, be the old sailor of the essay. The photograph bespeaks of a meeting on the road, perhaps of two men familiar with each other, given the ease of his pose as the old tramp squints from under his hat. Synge photographs with the sun over his shoulder in order to get the best detail of costume and physique, and in the process projects his own be-hatted shadow into the corner of the frame.
Others of his photographs show labouring country folk; here some haymakers, women and men, building a haycock near Annamoe, county Wicklow where Synge rented Castlekevin House with his family for several summers in the 1890s. Both of these scenes of farmwork were photographed within a short distance from his accommodation.
Several of the photographs are picturesque such as this scene of two boys in a donkey cart at Wicklow Harbour with boats and bridge and Wicklow town in the background, in which Synge has taken advantage of atmospheric contra-jour lighting.
This is one of several pre-1970s copies made for his book of Synge’s existing prints for which the negatives have been lost, hence the loss of the fine detail found in the Library’s scans directly from the plates and celluloid film. Fine scans of the whole collection can be viewed on their website where I urge you, if you are a lover of Ireland or curious about the everyday details of life a century ago, to spend some rewarding time.
The charm of these hundred-year-old photographs is that they are the pictorial equivalent of Synge’s visually evocative writings of an Ireland long gone, by a man whose heartfelt affection for his countrymen thrived and inspired his art, despite his time spent away from the country and the poor reception of his work by the Irish League and the Nationalists.
His conviction, with reference the Irish theatre that “no drama can grow out of anything other than the fundamental realities of life, which are never fantastic,” is a sentiment supported by his photography.