It was on Inishmaan that J.M. Synge found the pure and untainted 'Irish' people and way of life he had been seeking. He imagined Inishmaan as the last remaining example of a pre-modern, pre-religious Celtic arcadia:
'...The thought that this island will gradually yield to the ruthlessness of 'progress' is as the certainty that decaying age is moving always nearer the cheeks it is your ecstasy to kiss. How much of Ireland was formerly like this and how much of Ireland is today Anglicised and civilised and brutalised...' (from Notebooks, published in Collected Works, Volume 2, p103).
While on Inishmaan J.M. Synge struck up a friendship with an elderly islander, Pat Dirane, who was able to converse in English (Synge's Gaelic was not yet good enough for him to understand the native speech). Dirane told Synge many stories, some of which Synge documented in 'The Aran Islands'. One such story, told in the kitchen of Synge's cottage, recounted the tale of an unfaithful wife and was to form the basis of J.M. Synge's 1902 play The Shadow of the Glen.
Synge reported on most aspects of island life in 'The Aran Islands', including an interesting account of an eviction and a perhaps more telling report on an island funeral. While his account of the eviction fails to acknowledge his own brother's activity as a land agent in the neighbouring county of Mayo, the report on the funeral contains a barely disguised attack on the Catholic church; after describing the keening of the mourners, he observes:
'Before they covered the coffin an old man kneeled down by the grave and repeated a simple prayer for the dead. There was an irony in these words of atonement and Catholic belief spoken by voices that were still hoarse with the cries of pagan desperation.' ('The Aran Islands', p32)
It was, and remains, unclear whether Synge's antipathy towards the Catholic church was simply the Anglo-Irish Protestant bigotry he had learned from his family or whether it was in the name of some imagined pagan, Celtic community that pre-dated Catholic (and Protestant) religion on Ireland. After the burial ceremony Synge was told a story from an elderly islander about the poteen ('moonshine') drinking that takes place at island funerals. He was told of one time when two men collapsed unconscious in the graveyard after drinking heavily, and one of the men died later that night. This image of drunken debauchery at an Irish funeral was later used by Synge in his controversial drama 'The Playboy of the Western World'.