The playwright John Millington Synge (J.M. Synge) was hugely influential in constructing one view of life and culture in the west of Ireland at the turn of the 20th century. J.M. Synge's infamous work 'The Playboy of the Western World' owes more than a passing debt to Achill Island and its history.

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J.M. Synge & Achill Island (continued)

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We can see here how the apparently anti-modern, anti-commerce beliefs of J.M. Synge could be interpreted, by Irish nationalist sensibility, as yet another instance of the Anglo-Irish landowning Ascendancy attempting to keep the native Irish in medieval poverty. Synge appears to be suggesting that improvements in economic and social welfare in the west of Ireland come at the expense of the charming and authentically Celtic way of life. His antipathy towards such development and the types of social structures that this 'progress' engenders, was revealed in 1905 when Synge accompanied the artist Jack B. Yeats on a tour of the west coast of Mayo. Synge had been commissioned by the Manchester Guardian, an English newspaper, to write a series of articles on the distressed state of the Congested Districts, and Yeats was to illustrate the series. Synge wrote of his experience:

"... Unluckily my commission was to write on the 'Distress' so I couldn't do anything like what I would have wished as an interpretation of the whole life ... There are sides of all that western life, the groggy-patriot-publican-general-shop-man who is married to the priest's half-sister and is second cousin once-removed of the dispensary doctor, that are horrible and awful ... All that side of the matter of course I left untouched in my stuff [the newspaper articles]. I sometimes wish to God I hadn't a soul and then I could give myself up to putting those lads on the stage. God, wouldn't they hop! In a way it is all heart rending, in one place the people are starving but wonderfully attractive and charming, and in another place where things are going well, one has a rampant, double-chinned vulgarity I haven't seen the like of." (letter to his friend Stephen MacKenna,1905, published in Collected Works, Vol. 2, p283)

In fact Synge was to put 'those lads' on the stage, albeit with a slightly more muted disdain, in the work 'The Playboy of the Western World'. The Playboy was set in north Mayo, close to Achill Island, and commentators have noted that J.M. Synge chose to set the play - with its derorgatory depiction of rural life - away from his beloved Aran Islands. As well as the proximity of the setting - in the play Synge refers to 'the heaths of Keel' and to escaping on the Achill boat, as well as a curious reference to 'the madmen of Keel, eating muck and green weeds, on the faces of the cliffs' - there is a stronger Achill connection to this play. The story of The Playboy of the Western World is partly based on the story of an Achill man, James Lynchehaun.

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Further reading

Buy books on Achill Island from Amazon

'The Playboy of the Western World' and other plays
by J.M. Synge (Ed. Ann Saddlemyer)

The Aran Islands
by J.M. Synge (Ed. Tim Robinson)

Collected Works Vol. 1: Poems
by J.M. Synge

Collected Works Vol. 2: Prose
by J.M. Synge (Ed. Alan Price)

Synge: The Complete Plays
by J.M. Synge (Ed. & with Intro by T.R. Henn)

The Collected Letters of J.M. Synge: Vol. 1: 1871-1907
by J.M. Synge (Ed. Ann Saddlemyer)

Fool of the Family: A Life of J.M. Synge
by W.J. McCormack

The Well of the Saints
by J.M. Synge (Ed. Nicholas Grene