Whether you're dipping in and out, or reading straight through, there is always something to delight and entertain in the writings of John Millington Synge.
A collection of poetry, plays, and travel writing might seem like an odd book to grab off a shelf, but the content within is what makes reading the complete works so engaging. Synge may be still famous to this day for his play, “Playboy of the Western World”, and the ensuing controversy attached to it following it's première performances in the Abbey in 1913. and so, it is easy to forget the other amazing writing he did.
Stepping aside from his plays and poetry, may of which is stylised heavily, and spoken in colloquial Anglo-Irish. His travel writings is what most grabbed me. Recorded during his journeys through Wicklow, Conemara, Kerry, and the Aran Islands. What is captured within is a snapshot of Irish life and the turn of the century before everything changed.
His writings on Aran for example, are held to be the premium accounts of the island. Synge's work has the withdrawal of an outsider, and thus he is more keenly aware of the islanders tragic circumstances which they just take for par for the course. Beyond this, his writings on Kerry and Wicklow, serve to put into context the islanders struggles as well documenting some the now lost traditions of “Old Ireland”.
Also, within this book, is Synge's own journey. Beginning with his very first trip to Aran to study the Irish language we see how at first mistrusted he earns his place with the island communities. As the particular lack of judgement shown towards him of which ore recent work on the island (like Martin McDonagh's) shows the opposite. Indeed when reading not only Synge's non-fiction on Conemara and Aran, but also his plays, we see the full influence of his work on the more modern playwrights of our time. And it keenly noticed the huge influence he had on McDonagh, and later Kevin Barry in writing there major works set on Ireland's West Coast.
Synge, unknowingly at the time, has captured the West's old spirit, and his work is still used as a reference for many historians, most recently Dairmaid Ferriter in his “On the Edge.” I recommend this book for anyone with an interest in Ireland's cultural history, and his notes on the Irish language also prove for a fascinating read. On top of this, his plays, once thought to scandalous to perform can be re-examined, and when taking out the fear of the church that was so prevalent at the time, a real insight can be gained into how these people thought, and what they believed in.
At Playboy's first performance Synge was accused of capitalising on the “simpleness” of the Irish “peasant.” but in truth, looking back at his own work, and other histories, it is clear that he was dead on the nose, and further than that gave a voice for a people whom prominent nationalists took upon themselves to speak for, without actually getting to know them in truth. A great book to be re-examinted in the 21st century, and a crucial part of the cultural history of the island.