John Millington Synge was a great Playwright who died too early, at age 38, of Hodgkin’s disease. Synge was also a poet and a musician. W.B. Yeats was a bit of a mentor to him, and Yeats told Synge that, in order to be a fine writer, he needed to expand his understanding of the world around him and then write about the experience. That advice is what led Synge to Galway Bay and the Aran Islands. That travelogue, written in 1901 and published in 1907, still sings with a Gaelic heart that murmurs with life and mesmerizes today.
Here is how Synge sets up the geographical context of his book:
The geography of the Aran Islands is very simple, yet it may need a word to itself. There are three islands: Aranmor, the north island, about nine miles long; Inishmaan, the middle island, about three miles and a half across, and nearly round in form; and the south island, Inishere—in Irish, east island,—like the middle island but slightly smaller. They lie about thirty miles from Galway, up the centre of the bay, but they are not far from the cliffs of County Clare, on the south, or the corner of Connemara on the north.
When you read The Aran Islands, you are immediately propelled — not back in time, but — in the moment. Synge writes with a human timelessness that shows his mastery of the word in a specific, but universal, context.
Here’s an example of suffering that is so well-written you almost turn your eyes away from the pain of the witnessed experience:
When the coffin had been laid down, near the grave that was to be opened, two long switches were cut out from the brambles among the rocks, and the length and breadth of the coffin were marked on them. Then the men began their work, clearing off stones and thin layers of earth, and breaking up an old coffin that was in the place into which the new one had to be lowered. When a number of blackened boards and pieces of bone had been thrown up with the clay, a skull was lifted out, and placed upon a gravestone. Immediately the old woman, the mother of the dead man, took it up in her hands, and carried it away by herself. Then she sat down and put it in her lap—it was the skull of her own mother—and began keening and shrieking over it with the wildest lamentation.
As the pile of mouldering clay got higher beside the grave a heavy smell began to rise from it, and the men hurried with their work, measuring the hole repeatedly with the two rods of bramble. When it was nearly deep enough the old woman got up and came back to the coffin, and began to beat on it, holding the skull in her left hand. This last moment of grief was the most terrible of all. The young women were nearly lying among the stones, worn out with their passion of grief, yet raising themselves every few moments to beat with magnificent gestures on the boards of the coffin. The young men were worn out also, and their voices cracked continually in the wail of the keen.
Now that is stunning writing. You’re right there in the brambles. You have Irish dirt between your fingernails. You wail in the wind, too.
Reading humanizes us. We share experiences through the word. Synge teaches us that writing is not just about placing words next to each other to create cohesion — he urges us to know there is also a requirement to expand the experience and record the new — and he does that in The Aran Islands.
What’s new to Synge is eternal for us — and that is the mark of great master writer who inspires more direct imitation in execution, if not experience.