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The Aran Islands by John M. Synge

by ExperiencePlus! - Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Aran Islands by John M. Synge

The Aran Islands by John Millington Synge

The Aran Islands by John Millington SyngeAt the very end of the 18th century, when the potato famines were still a living memory and an independent Ireland was decades in the future, John Millington Synge took the advice of W.B. Yeats and left Paris for the Aran Islands. What he found there was a refreshing contrast to the life he’d known in fin de siecle Paris: the people of the islands lived with simple and infectious grace in a dangerous, inhospitable environment. Synge returned frequently over the next several years to improve his Gaelic, collect the local folktales and soak up the primitive way of life on the islands. He chronicled his time there in the book "The Aran Islands," and the cadences and colloquialisms of the local speech colored the dialogue in his several plays set in Western Ireland, including "Playboy of the Western World" and "Riders to the Sea."

Anyone hoping to understand the recent history of these islands will find "The Aran Islands" extremely helpful, as Synge explains the social structure, architecture, commerce, agriculture and climate he encounters in detail. Synge was an acute, and, by all accounts, an accurate observer of the islands. His record of a now-vanished way of life is fascinating – the thatching parties, the manufacture of soil from sand and seaweed, the tumultuous market days, the occasional fisherman lost at sea….

It’s worth noting just how vanished that way of life is, now. Modern visitors to the Aran Islands will find not only roads, bicycles and cars, but even airports; outboard motors have replaced the almost-bladeless oars of the few remaining curraghs (the indigenous working boats). The red petticoats worn by the girls in Synge’s time are nowhere to be seen; ruined stone cottages stand naked and roofless alongside newer buildings. One can hardly fault the islanders for giving up the brutal lives of subsistence farmers and fishermen that they lived in Synge’s day, but a modern reader preparing for a trip to the islands must realize that this book tells of how life on the islands was, not at all how it is now.

The various ruins of the Aran Islands represent a mind-boggling 3000+ years of history. Anyone visiting Inishmore on our Cycling the Emerald Isle tour will have the chance to explore the roughly 2500-year-old hilltop ring-fort of Dun Aenghus, and sleep that evening within view of a tiny 1500-year-old Christian church. But how the people answered their daily needs, how they entertained themselves, how they lived: these human details disappear much more quickly than the stones. In this respect, J.M. Synge’s "The Aran Islands" is a valuable record that preserves the memory of how life used to be on these islands, and provides historical context for the modern visitor.