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The Aran Islands (Penguin Modern Classics) Paperback – 15 Jun 1992
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In 1907, J. M. Synge achieved both notoriety and lasting fame with "The Playboy of the Western World". "The Aran Islands", published in the same year, records his visits to the islands in 1898-1901, when he was gathering the folklore and anecdotes out of which he forged "The Playboy" and his other major dramas. Yet, this book is much more than a stage in the evolution of Synge the dramatist.As Tim Robinson explains in his introduction, 'If Ireland is intriguing as being an island off the west of Europe, then Aran, as an island off the west of Ireland, is still more so; it is Ireland raised to the power of two.' Towards the end of the last century Irish nationalists came to identify the area as the country's uncorrupted heart, the repository of its ancient language, culture and spiritual values. It was for these reasons that Yeats suggested Synge visit the islands to record their way of life.The result is a passionate exploration of a triangle of contradictory relationships - between an island community still embedded in its ancestral ways but solicited by modernism, a physical environment of ascetic loveliness and savagely unpredictable moods, and Synge himself, formed by modern European thought but in love with the primitive.
About the Author
A native of Yorkshire, Tim Robinson studied maths at Cambridge and then worked for many years as a visual artist in Istanbul, Vienna and London, among other places. In 1972 he moved to the Aran Islands and commenced a multi-decade project of mapping and writing about Aran and Connemara. He is the author of the two-volume Stones of Aran and the Connemara trilogy, each published to great acclaim.
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The book was first completed in 1901, but was not published until 1907. Synge considered it as "my first serious piece of work". In the book, Synge describes in some detail the harsh lives of these islanders, and recounts the stories, often imbued with deep superstitions that they told over the turf fires. Amongst the Aran's population were many gifted oral storytellers. They were the last in a long history of passed down oral traditions, that had its origins in the likes of Homer, and even further back into the earlier mists of mans origins. The Gaelic storytelling over the turf fire is not so far removed from the hunter gatherers who spun tales over the campfire. Synge brings all these people to life and paints a vivid picture of their austere lives. Death was not an unusual occurrence in the dangerous seas around the islands, and Synge paints a vivid picture of the funeral of one such victim. Synge caught the people at a time when they were just becoming aware of the value of their Gaelic language, and the possibilities it held for tourism. He describes everyday tasks like the burning of the kelp, and the frenetic loading and unloading of livestock off of the boats. It is a life that has now vanished. Synge would still recognise the rugged geography of the islanders, but the people would be strangers to him. Time has moved on. But he has left us an important little picture of the daily battle for existence on the beautiful but often inhospitable Aran Islands.
I would also thoroughly recommend the wonderful little book "Twenty Years a Growin", written by Maurice O'Sullivan a native islander of the Blasket Islands off the Dingle peninsular. He was a native of the islands, and as such his work has a beautiful and natural Gaelic flow to it. If anything, it is an even greater work than Synge's. Another fine read is Robin Flower's "The Western Island", which recounts the author's experiences living amongst the inhabitants of the Blasket's. Also worth watching is Robert Flaherty's fine documentary "Man of Aran". This gives a fine account of the islander's life, although not strictly historically accurate. If you happen to visit the Aran Islands, it is worth visiting the cottage on Inishmaan that Synge stayed in, which is open to visitors. I wish you happy reading!
Synge was enjoying "La Belle Epoque" in Paris, determined to be an authority on contemporary French literature when he met William Butler Yeats, who was from Ireland's west coast, near Sligo. Yeats urged him, essentially, to "get back to your roots," with the ultimate Gallic experience being available as far away from Britain as possible. And these islands fit that specification. At the time, Britain was directly ruling Ireland.
Robinson lived on the largest island in the chain, Aranmor. Synge sought out life on the middle island, Inishmann, under the idea that life there would be less "corrupted" by modern influences. There was no "steamer" service to this lesser island; transport was by a small rowboat, called a curagh. Picturesque in calm seas, but often perilous, as Synge recounts, in the stormy Atlantic. Synge states that life on Inishmann was the most primitive in Europe, and underscores that with a startling fact: there were no wheeled vehicles on any of the islands.
Synge has an ethnographer's ear for native folk tales which he faithfully records, but does not particularly analyze. One of the longest concerns the killing of giants in order to win the hand of the daughter of the King. He also relates the story about a person who promises a "pound of flesh" as a debt, but does not mention that Shakespeare incorporated this into one of his most famous plays, The Merchant of Venice (Wordsworth Classics) (Wordsworth Classics - Shakespeare). Synge also carefully describes the clothing of these "natives." He is less strong on the economic basis of the society, but does describe the process whereby kelp is collected, and iodine extracted. He also has a memorable section concerning when the landlords, via the police, evict various residents from their hovels for non-payment of the rents. He says: "The land is so poor that a field hardly produces more grain than is needed for seed the following year, so the rye-growing is carried on merely for the straw, which is used for thatching."
Synge anticipates Paul Goodman's Growing Up Absurd by 60 years: "It is likely that much of the intelligence and charm of these people is due to the absence of any division of labour, and to the correspondingly wide development of each individual, whose varied knowledge and skill necessitates a considerable activity of mind." He also focuses on the language abilities of the residents, and even on these remote islands, English has largely penetrated. The descriptions of the natural world are sparser, but he can wax lyrical at times: "Looking back there was a golden haze behind the sharp edges of the rock, and a long wake from the sun, which was making jewels of the bubbling left by the oars."
Robinson is, by far, the polymath; his account is much longer and more comprehensive. If I was going to Aran (as I hope to do), and could read only one author, I'd choose Robinson. But Synge's account rings authentic; he also is a keen observer of the islands, more than 70 years before Robinson's arrival. Fortunately I've now been able to read both accounts; would recommend them both. Now all I have to do is get to Aran. 5-stars.
this inis oirr
it casts its spell
and lures you
into its grasp
of loving it
loging for it
i can certainly understand why people have returned from all corners of the world to live in the place of their ancestors.