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John Millington Synge was well qualified to write a book about the customs and folklore of the people who inhabited the wild and windswept Aran Islands, situated off the west coast of Ireland. After suffering a bout of severe illness from Hodgkin's disease, which was to cause his early death in 1909, he went to the Aran Islands in 1898 and spent five summers collecting stories, folklore and perfecting his Gaelic. The Aran's were still a stronghold for the rich native Irish Gaelic language. In time he was accepted by the people, and gained their confidence, although always remaining a "Duine Uasal", a noble person. Synge was born of landed gentry, and this was a divide that could never be bridged between the impoverished islanders and their wealthy well educated guest. He was treated with the greatest of respect, but could never be one of them. He had the handy knack of playing a mean fiddle, which made him a popular figure with the islanders. He was also familiar with conjuring tricks, and could perform feats of athleticism, which helped pass the boredom with these simple peasant folk.

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!
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on 21 December 2015
A long third of this classic book are explanatory pages. Contain easy to read and wonderfully useful historical background, people and cultural background and explanation why this book was controversial with Ulster populations and some South of the border republicans when published. Maybe Synge would not have liked any explanatory notes but I found them very useful and in some cases gave information new to me. This book as a whole enriches my experience of visiting the Aran Islands some years ago.
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"The Aran Islands" is a delightful rendition of the experiences of J. M. Synge during his visits to the Aran Islands just over a century ago. Synge's journey had been encouraged by William Butler Yeats. "Go to the Aran Islands. Live there as one of the people themselves; express a life that has never found expression." Here Synge gained an insight into the Irish character which would enrich his later works.
The Aran Islands are a chain of islands off the coasts of Connemara and Clare. Isolated by the sea, the Arans, like the Galapagos in the natural world, preserve the language and customs of traditional Ireland.
The book is a narrative of what Synge saw and the stories he heard during his stays in the Arans, told by a master storyteller in the finest Irish tradition. The language is delightful, the stories are entertaining and the insight into the Irish soul is profound. A must read for any lover of the Irish.
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...at least the far western end, if you exclude Iceland, as is generally done. The Aran Islands are a chain of islands, composed of three principal ones, which are just off the western Irish coast, from Galway bay. I learned of this book from Tim Robinson's excellent accounts of the totality of life on these islands, in his Stones of Aran: Labyrinth (New York Review Books Classics) and Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage. Robinson published his accounts in 1986, based on his life on the islands, commencing in 1972. In both of Robinson's books, he references Synge's account of life on Aran around the turn of the century (nowadays, we need to specify that is the beginning of the 20th century). I made that proverbial mental note to read Synge, which I was finally able to fulfill, stumbling on this 1993 version in a used book store in nearby Santa Fe.

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.
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