Synge: Elective Vagrant, and Writer

A Book Review by Frances Devlin-Glass

Giulia Bruna: J.M.Synge and Travel Writing of the Irish Revival, Syracuse University Press, New York, 2017
ISBN: 0780815635338
RRP: US $29.95 (pb)

Synge, as well as being a great writer, was a nomad with a huge appetite for the remote parts of Ireland. Giulia Bruna’s often delightful book analyses Synge’s travel writing. It’s an academic work, of the sort that will send its readers back to the work being discussed with renewed interest. Giulia Bruna compares  Synge’s forms of participant observation with that of other Revivalist writers, to his advantage. She also contrasts his work with that of orientalising Imperial travelogue-makers, a generative approach in its own right. Given his Ascendancy upbringing, Synge’s might have been the eye of the colonialist, but it wasn’t, nor was he, in this analysis, doggedly following Revivalist dogma.

Bruna believes Synge often subverted Revivalist stereotypes, and is careful to demonstrate how lacking in patronisation his commentary was. Synge avoids  idealising the peasant, and imperialist denigration of him/her. One of the main strategies she sees Synge as using to avoid objectifying and trivialising his subjects, and treating them as victims, was to deploy their voices, and when she does quote passages, they are frequently moving. A case in point is the elderly poverty-stricken widower, a ferryman’s lament:

‘If it wasn’t for them [his children] I’d be off this evening, and I’d earn my living easy on the sea, for I’m only fifty-seven of age, and I have good health; but how can I leave my young children? And I don’t know what way I’m going to go on living in this place that the Lord created last, I thinking, in the end of time; and it’s often when I sit down and look around on it I do begin cursing and damning, and asking myself how poor people can go on in executing their religion at all.’ For a while he said nothing and we could see tears in his eyes.

It is the multi-layeredness of this lament and its refusal of easy conventional comfort,  its rationality and high emotion, that draw one’s feelings towards him and his. I could have done with a lot more such direct testimony and quotations, for the insight they give into the privations suffered by those in the more remote parts of Ireland. Bruna promises such quotations, but delivers too few.

What is most intriguing about this book is the way the writer demonstrates that Synge, like many of the leading Revival littérateurs, was critical of the Revival even as it was unfolding around him. Bruna sees as problematic many of the ways in which the Irish peasantry is idealised by such as Lady Gregory, Yeats and AE (Arthur Symons), and to see Synge in a class apart as a more self- and culturally-are and critical commentator. This is to take a fresh look at not only at Synge, but the ideologies and internal critique that the vivid Rising generation created. It is an original angle, and it brings Synge’s journalism into perspective as a reading project in its own right, and not just background for the plays, which I confess had been my take on it until I read this book.

What emerges from this study is a tale of a man who approaches his subjects with humility, empathy, speaking their language and wearing homespun  that does not mark him apart. He is also a travel-writer who does not content himself with finding the easy access route – for example, the English-speaking carman (more likely to know his own class and those above him than those below him in the social hierarchy) – but someone who really does engage with peasants of a variety of occupations and his dialogue with them often affords insight into their ways of life. Another useful strategy is Bruan’s commitment to comparing Synge’s travel-writing with other Revivalists’ and visitors’ accounts.

As every reader of Synge knows, he learnt Irish by eavesdropping on conversations in the kitchen of his Ascendancy home, and by wandering Wicklow as a boy and an adult, and later the Aran Islands and the so-called Congested Districts. Not only did he write about the people he met, but he often photographed them in sensitive and revealing ways. Bruna analyses four such photos, and creates a vivid account of the collaboration between Jack Yeats and Synge on the articles written for the Manchester Guardian, and the highly pressurised conditions and short timetable under which the articles were produced. Jack Yeats’s portrait of Synge in a walled garden in Carna in 1905, only four years before his death, displays some of the weariness of the young man. Most revealing of the photographs taken by Synge is the one showing rope-making by hand on Innis Óirr and the accompanying narrative on multi-skilling: how the ropes were made, in some physical detail; the concurrent narratives exchanged between older shanachie and young boy; and the clothes worn by the young boy. The photo also frames up the environment in a way suggestive of a theatre-set: Bruna demonstrates that such photos circulated to construct the west for city-based revivalists and also fed Abbey set-makers’ needs. I find moving too that several of these photos give their subjects privacy while at the same time revealing eloquently a way of life. Faces are often averted and are not the main subject. Way of life is.

This is a book that would make a good Christmas gift for anyone keen on Synge, Jack Yeats or the West of Ireland. There’s also a wonderful chapter on the multivalent pleasures/terrors of the Wicklow Hills. The writer’s approach is innovative and stimulating, and it comes at its subject from many well-informed directions.

Frances Devlin-Glass

Frances is a member of the Tinteán editorial collective.