Yeats' singling out of the Aran Islands as a culture and a way of life worthy of consideration by a writer was no random selection. The west of Ireland had been identified by the Celtic revival of the late 19th Century as the home of an authentic 'Irish' culture and way of life, the country's uncorrupted heart and natural home of the Gaelic language. And the Aran Islands, as islands off the west coast of the west of Ireland, were even more likely to encapsulate these pure and ancient Celtic cultural and spiritual values.
J.M. Synge first landed on Aranmor (Árainn), the largest of the three Aran islands, in 1898. He stayed for two weeks at the Atlantic Hotel by the quayfront in Cill Rónáin before deciding that the island, with its frequent steamers carrying visitors from the mainland and its begging children, had left behind the Celtic arcadia he was hoping to find. He summed up his disappointment with Cill Rónáin and Árainn in the Introduction to his book 'The Aran Islands', the journal of his time on Aran:
"Kilronan, the principal village on Aranmor, has been so much changed by the fishing industry, developed there by the Congested Districts Board, that it has now very little to distinguish it from any fishing village on the west coast of Ireland". (J.M. Synge, 'The Aran Islands', p3)
This disregard for the actual reality of the way of life in fishing villages on the west coast of Ireland - indeed, in any villages in the west of Ireland - would come to haunt J.M. Synge later in his short life, in the reception given to some of his plays. It is interesting that Synge spurns the development of a fishing industry - a development aimed at ensuring the survival of the people on the west coast - as somehow unpure and non-Celtic, and yet his own uncle had been run off the Aran Islands for exploitative fishing of the sea-stock there. In fact Synge glosses over the facts of his uncle's mission to Aran 43 years previously, mentioning only that an old man on Kilronan had recognised the family resemblance.
While on Aranmor Synge was shown a holy well famed for curing blindness and epilepsy. An old man told him the story of the well, a tale that J.M. Synge would use for his play 'The Well of the Saints'. After a fortnight Synge travelled from Aranmor to Inishmaan (Inish Meáin), the middle-sized of the three Aran Islands. He wrote of this journey:
'... It gave me a moment of exquisite satisfaction to find myself moving away from civilisation in this rude canvas canoe of a model that has served primitive races since men first went on the sea.' ('The Aran Islands', p3)
The curragh, the traditional wood-and-canvas fishing vessel of the west of Ireland, also featured strongly in artist Paul Henry's work on Achill Island (click for image 'Launching the Curragh').