Immediately after his first visit to Aran in 1898, J.M. Synge stayed at Lady Gregory's Galway estate Coole Park. Lady Gregory, one of the leaders of the Celtic literary 'revival', was the wife of Dublin MP William H. Gregory, whose amendment to the 1847 poor relief bill (the 'Gregory clause') accelerated the mass evictions - clearances - of starving Irish peasants during the Great Famine. Synge was party to plans by Lady Gregory and W.B. Yeats to create a national theatre for a new generation of distinctively Irish drama.
This project, the Irish Literary Theatre (later the Irish National Theatre), opened in May 1899 in controversial circumstances. In an ominous precedent for J.M. Synge, the first production staged at the theatre sparked a riot and vociferous protest. The play, W.B. Yeats' The Countess Cathleen, was set during the Great Famine and featured two peasants who sell their souls to two devils in return for gold to buy food. When their aristocratic landlady, Countess Cathleen, hears of this she offers the devils her own soul in exchange for those of the starving peasants. The play from the Anglo-Irish Yeats offended the native Irish - and the growing nationalist political sentiment - on a number of levels, not least the anti-Catholic heresy of one of the peasants kicking apart a small shrine to the Virgin Mary. Protesters also objected to the portrayal of a particularly servile Irish peasantry, and the play reawakened bitter memories of 'souperism' - the practice by which Protestant ministers and landowners would offer soup to the starving Irish during the famine on condition that they renounce Roman Catholicism. 'Souperism' was practised on Achill Island by the Protestant Mission at Dugort, although it is reported that those islanders who did 'sell their souls' for food at the Mission immediately returned to the Catholic church as soon as the Famine subsidided.
J.M. Synge, meanwhile, returned to the Aran Islands for a month in September 1899, and again in September 1900, when he witnessed the tragedy of a drowning which would form the basis of his short play 'Riders to the Sea'. This play had a strong impact on the artist Paul Henry, who also witnessed the grief accompanying a drowning while on Achill Island. Paul Henry painted several versions of the event (click for image) and even quoted from Synge's play in an addition to the title of 'The Watcher' in a 1911 exhibition. In September 1901 Synge again visited Aran for a 19-day visit.
During these visits to Aran Synge's belief in Inishmaan as the last remaining example of an authentically Celtic way of life, as opposed to the corrupted culture of the larger Aran island of Aranmor (and the rest of Ireland), became more entrenched:
"... I am in the north island [Aranmor] again, looking out with a singular sensation to the cliffs across the sound. It is hard to believe that those hovels I can just see in the south are filled with people whose lives have the strange quality that is found in the oldest poetry and legend. Compared with them the falling off that has come with the increased prosperity of this island is full of discouragement. The charm which the people over there share with the birds and flowers has been replaced here by the anxiety of men who are eager for gain. The eyes and expression are different, though the faces are the same, and even the children here seem to have an indefinable modern quality that is absent from the men of Inishmaan." ('The Aran Islands', p69)