Synge’s The Aran Islands: Civilisation as a Negative Influence

I’m reading a book by JM Synge about his travels in the west of Ireland. Synge is known for Playboy of the Western World. I can’t name any of his other works, although obviously I know that he was involved in the Abbey Theatre. I’d not read or seen any of his work so I came to this book without preconceptions. The back of the book says that Yeats told Synge he should go to the Aran Islands. He spent time going back and forth and he corresponded with the friends he’d made there. The people treat him in a friendly and engaging manner and he treats them as friends. They are quite willing to tell him stories about the island, be they folk tales or anecdotes. Never does he give the impression that he was treated with any amount of suspicion.

He sees the islands as an idealised place to which he has a strong emotional attachment but he doesn’t avoid the difficulty of life on the islands. He includes stories of death at sea, of murders and of common disputes. Most of those arriving on the island aside from Synge are returning emigrants, to the mainland and abroad, who return to visit home. He describes several occasions where the priest and the doctor are brought ashore to tend the sick by curagh.

The largest group to visit the island is an eviction party. The weather, usually an inconvenience or threat to the islanders, prevents two attempts to land but once the skies clear, they come ashore in earnest. Their arrival is akin to an invasion.

“Once on shore, the men were formed in close marching order, a word was given, and the heavy rhythm of their boots came up under the rocks. We were collected in two straggling bands on either side of the roadway, and a few moments later the body of magnificent armed men passed close to us, followed by a low rabble, who had been brought to act as drivers for the sheriff” (56).

He presents the authorities as intruders come to ruin the community, in contrast to the pleasant and engaging way the islanders treat him. What follows is a harrowing description of an eviction witnessed at first hand. Everything is removed from the house, the door is closed up with rocks and its inhabitants left outside. I know evictions of this sort happened constantly under the union but I’d not read a description of one before.

“After my weeks spent among primitive men this glimpse of the newer types of humanity was not reassuring. Yet these mechanical police, with the commonplace agents and sheriffs, and the rabble they had hired, represented aptly enough the civilisation for which the homes of the island were to be desecrated. ” (56)

I was interested in how Synge uses the words primitive and civilised. He tends to use primitive to refer to the people’s level of poverty. The woman in the first eviction belongs to “one of the most primitive families on the island” (57). The intrusion of civilising forces is destructive, as we can see from Synge’s bitter account of both the official forces and the civilian crowd they bring with them to carry out their labour.

Synge’s presence on the island is an agent of cultural exchange. He includes detailed accounts of various stories he hears from the islanders and he, in turn, brings over his fiddle and plays for them. He also brings news from the world; in particular they ask him if there are any wars happening. He shows them photographs too. He lives within the community, not outside of it. He leaves the island no worse than how he found it. He is not interested in civilising the islands or forcing change but just to live there, observe and allow it to change him.

Synge, J.M. The Aran Islands and Connemara. Cork: Mercier, 2008.

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