GERALDINE MILLS walks in the footsteps of John Millington Synge
on beautiful Inis Meáin
Walking into the little thatched cottage, with its green half-door and smoke curling into the sky, is like walking onto the pages of John Millington Synge’s journal Aran Islands.
The cottage is Teach Synge or Synge’s Museum, which is situated on Inis Meáin, the middle island of the Aran Islands. This is where the famous playwright and one of the key figures in the Irish Literary Revival came each summer from 1898–1902 to learn Irish.
Not quite following in his footsteps, but I too have come to learn my native tongue that has been silent for decades. A chance meeting with manager, Ciarán O Ceallaigh, who told me about the classes for adults, saw me on the ferry on a beautiful July morning to learn the cúpla focail.
The class numbers were small, my fellow students a delight, na muintoirí (teachers) patient and encouraging. Afternoon activities saw us travelling the length and breadth of the island learning its history.
As a writer, the highlight for me was visiting the place where the playwright got such inspiration for most of his plays, especially Riders to the Sea and The Playboy of the Western World.
The cottage has been carefully restored to what it must have looked like in the writer’s time by Treasa Ní Fhlatharta, the great-granddaughter of Bridín and Paidín Mac Donnchadha, who first hosted Synge in 1898 when he stepped from the curragh with his typewriter and second-hand camera.
It was their 17-year-old son, Máirtín, who became Synge’s teacher and guide around the island during his months there.
Around this time, Inis Meáin had been identified as the place where the purest Irish was being spoken. Over the years, people such as Eoin McNeill, James Joyce, Padhraig Pearse, Lady Gregory and Agnes O’ Farrelly went there to learn the language.
Such was its significance that it was given the title ‘University of Irish’ or Ollscoil na Gaeilge. While in Paris, Synge met the great poet, W.B Yeats, who advised him to go to the middle island and immerse himself in the language, the ancient culture and the way of life.
Just as Synge described in his journal, I see for myself the kitchen ‘full of beauty and distinction’ with its earthen floor and open rafters, two doors each end of the room but no windows. There is the open fire, the woollen socks drying on a flimsy line above the smoke, in a little corner shoes of raw cowhide that he refers to as pampooties.