The playwright, poet, writer, collector of folklore, and a key figure in the Irish Literary Revival is remembered by Paddy Ryan


Although dead a month before his thirty-eighty birthday, John Millington Synge left the world a much richer place. ‘The Playboy of the Western World’, completed less than two years earlier, is among the most exuberant dramas in the English language.

Considering how most dramas of that vintage have long faded from public interest, the Playboy appears regularly and each performance is as fresh as when the ink was drying on it. Few Irish theatre festivals have been without a production of it and several amateur actors have received awards for their interpretations of its larger-than-life characters.

This is some turnabout from the first production, in April 1907, at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, when the police had to be called to quell the outrage that turned into a riot.
John Millington Synge, had travelled a long road to bring his lively characters from a fictional Mayo village to the Dublin stage. Considering his background, the creation of these characters was a remarkable feat for a young man whose background was light years removed from them.

Born in 1871 into a wealthy family, Synge’s childhood was spent in the upper middle-class suburbs of south Dublin. Although his father died before his second birthday, the future playwright’s happiest childhood memories were of holidays in County Wicklow.

Because of ill-health, most of his early education was from private tutors. However, at the age of seventeen, he entered Trinity College to study Hebrew, French, German and Irish. His love of language was matched by his love of music and, in 1893, he went to Germany for further studies in that field.

Abandoning music and Germany, within a year, he headed for Paris. There he met poet, William Butler Yeats, who advised him to forget studying French literature and, instead, to head for the Aran Islands.

A few years later, spending over a month in Inishmaan, he found the voices and the language that became the hallmark of his plays. He joined forces with Lady Gregory, Edward Martyn and WB Yeats to become the drivers of the new Irish literary movement.

Synge’s first play, ‘In the Shadow of the Glen’, based on a story heard on the Aran Islands, was first performed in 1903. Set in a Wicklow glen, its heroine, young Norah Burke, is married to an older man. She elopes with a tramp, rather than spend her life watching ‘‘the mists rolling down the bog, and the mists again as they rolled up the bog.”

Continue reading in this week’s Ireland’s Own