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!
"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.