by Gary Lehmann
John Millington Synge, later author of The Playboy of the Western World, started out writing competent but prosaic works. Then he met with W.B. Yeats, who told him to go to the Aran Islands to seek inspiration. Once he followed this advice, Synge started immediately writing some of the finest dramas ever written about the traditional people of Ireland, Riders to the Sea and The Well of the Saints.
The decision to go to these remote islands off the western coast of Ireland was not an easy one. Synge came from a long line of Irish Protestants who had been landlords for many years in the west country. His family made their great wealth by managing their diverse parcels of land, which included dispossessing many of their less productive tenants. This caused great rancor and was one of the underlying causes of the Easter Rebellion. For Synge, a known landlord’s son, to even appear in the west country was a provocation to violence. Nonetheless, he went.
For me the trip to Aran was also a journey in search of inspiration. I knew the history behind the great works of literature moved me, and that I wanted to explore this territory much more deeply, but then there was this matter of making a living and getting on in life. I went to Aran for three months with a small grant of $600 in my pocket, to see if Synge’s journey could inspire me as well.
The trip from Galway out to the islands is one of the roughest I have ever experienced. The Atlantic rollers are unbroken by the coastline as yet, and the swells are large and confused by the approaching land. When I arrived in Kilronan harbor, I discovered that the shoreline was too rocky and the water too turbulent to permit a dock. So the freighter anchored off while small hide-covered boats called “currachs” rowed out to take supplies and passengers ashore. This is the same way that Synge went ashore.
One of our passengers, a visitor like me, slipped climbing down the ladder from the freighter and fell into the cold Atlantic water. The islanders moved away from her. She was saved by the deck hands of the freighter who informed us that the islanders believe that God acts through the sea and that it would be a sin to pluck anyone from the water after God has called them. This was my first exposure to the primitive life of the islands that called Synge there.
These days the Aran Islands have only three outside sources of income: a few tourists, monthly welfare checks, and lobsters. Kilronan harbor was speckled with floating boxes where the fishermen deposited the lobsters they caught in traps strung out along the Atlantic side of the island. Every couple of days a sea plane lands and buys lobsters directly from the fishermen for cash. The plane flies them directly to Paris. The odd contrast of Parisian haut cuisine and the most primitive place in Europe struck me as immensely incongruous.
On shore, I right away noticed that there were no signs and that everyone spoke in a strange tongue which sounded raw and clipped to me. They were speaking Gaelic and although I later discovered that almost all the islanders could speak English, they chose not to, and they rarely spoke to tourists so as not to encourage them too much. One man told me they had no signs because they had lived there all their lives and didn’t need them. “We don’t need to spend our efforts to encourage outsiders,” he explained.
Today, as in 1904 when Synge went to the islands, the main occupation is fishing from the currachs. The Aran fisherman is as hearty as any in the world. These tarred cow-hide crafts go out with a crew of four to six every day of the year. They run nets and they throw hand lines. When crabs get caught in their net they crush them as vermin. Aran islanders have no taste for lobster or crab meat and have traditionally shunned them. For their daring, the Atlantic claims a certain number of islanders every year.
Island life is rustic. They live without running water, electricity, cars or trucks, roads of any real dimension and any of the evils that civilization brings with it. Ruins of ninth century monks’ houses made of stone dot the landscape. Efforts at growing vegetables began centuries ago and continue today as the women of the island fight a constant battle with the elements. Each year they haul seaweed up to the stone enclosures probably built by monks for the same purpose many centuries ago. The seaweed rots into rudimentary soil which supports growing for a few years until the relentless wind blows the soil back into the sea. All these stone fences make an eerie sound as the wind whispers through them.
Here Synge found, perhaps for the first time in his life, a people in harmony with their past and at ease with subsistence. That is if the hateful landlords of Dublin did not send their goons to dispossess them and burn down their cottages. Synge must have been forced to do some soul searching. It deepened his vision and amplified his work. He met a man named Martin who acted as his guide to island customs and life.
When a man meets a lower form of life, like a small child on the path, he says in Gaelic, “God to you.” This lowest form of greeting is how I, and all visitors, were greeted. If a man meets a woman, he says, “God and Mary to you.” Higher forms of address are saved for the old, the comely, the reverent, or the venerable. These include, “God and Mary and St. Patrick and St. Augustine and all the saints and angels to you, the very host of heaven come to your door, the cherubim and serafin lead you to a seat at the right hand of God himself–to you!” That is a greeting I never received.
In Synge’s day the small boys learned the art of fishing by hanging precariously from the Atlantic cliff face. Many youths fell to their deaths hundreds of feet onto the rocky shoreline, but at least they were killing only themselves by their clumsiness. If they grew to go to sea in a currach without gaining the balance required of a fisherman, they would imperil the lives of an entire crew.
I stayed on the Aran islands for three months. It’s remoteness and tough energy was captivating and exhilarating. I could feel what Synge felt and see what charm it had for him, and me. The experience created a certain grounding.
But, when all is said and done, those of us who have been bit by the civilization bug can’t shake it. We have to return. Synge returned from his trips to the Aran Islands with the inspiration that filled his works with color and life. The island will always be with me as well. I realized that “getting on in life” is really a matter of where you think you might be going.
The wild charms of the Arans remain a place in the heart where I go frequently to recontact something basic in me. I think that is what they did for Synge as well.
Originally published in 2005