James Lynchehaun was born at Achill Sound in about 1860 and was educated at the monestary at Bunacurry, Achill Island. A known trickster and ladies man, he was sacked as a school teacher for falsifying the roll in order to gain more pay. He later worked as an agent for a formidable but eccentric English landlady, Agnes MacDonnell, on her estate in The Valley, Achill Island. Lynchehaun was sacked by MacDonnell and a bitter dispute ensued over his estate cottage. During the dispute, in 1894, MacDonnell's residence The Valley House was set on fire and she was savagely attacked and left for dead as she fled the fire.
Agnes MacDonnell survived the vicious attack although she suffered severe facial disfigurement, and Lynchehaun was arrested and charged. He escaped from custody and, after returning to Achill on a boat, was hidden on the island by friends. Though he was later betrayed (for a reward of £300) and spent seven years in jail, he escaped again and fled to the U.S., where, following his arrest 82 days later, his case set a precedent in U.S. extradition law when the courts refused the British government's extradition claims. Lynchehaun is reputed to have returned to Achill, disguised as an American tourist, in 1907 and to have settled finally in Scotland where he died in 1937. (The full story of Agnes MacDonnell and James Lynchehaun is available in the History section of the website of Achill hostel The Valley House.)
J.M. Synge is said to have based the character of Christy Mahon, the 'playboy' of the play's title, on James Lynchehaun. In the play Christy, thinking he has killed his father in a fight, escapes to a remote part of north Mayo where the local publican, Micheal James, allows him to remain as a pot boy to safeguard his daughter, Pegeen Mike, while he attends a wake (the notorious drunken wake which Synge based on the story heard on Aran). Pegeen Mike falls in love with Christy, much to the indignation of her would-be suitor Shawn Keogh. Keogh's character, weak, cowardly and in thrall to the Catholic church in the form of the local priest, is Synge's embodiment of the 'rampant, double-chinned vulgarity' that he observed on his travels in the west of Ireland.
The Playboy of the Western World was premiered at the Irish National Theatre in January 1907. The theatre, which had already seen riots from a nationalistic audience at the performance of Yeats' The Countess Cathleen, was to witness disturbances at Synge's play that have become legendary. From the vulgarity of the characters' language to the depiction of Shawn Keogh's cringing servitude to the local priest, and from the bloody violence of the 'murder' to the hero-worshipping by the villagers of a shameless 'killer', the audience took immediate exception to this representation of rural Irish life. In the folklore of the 'Playboy Riots', the final straw for the audience was the reference by Christy Mahon to a drift of females standing in their shifts (night-dresses). The audience rioted at this point, and subsequent performances were drowned out by a booing audience that had been whipped up by critics with nationalist sympathies.
J.M. Synge himself remained unrepentant about the reception given to his story of life in the west of Ireland. In a letter to his friend Stephen McKenna following the Playboy Riots, he attacked his attackers: "... the scurrility and ignorance and treachery of some of the attacks upon me have rather disgusted me with the middle-class Irish Catholic. As you know I have the wildest admiration for the Irish Peasants, and for Irish men of known or unknown genius ... but between the two there's an ungodly ruck of fat-faced, sweaty-headed swine." (published in Collected Works, Vol. 2, p283)
It is worth noting that some accounts say the play was received well when it was later staged in the west of Ireland, suggesting that the offence taken at its Dublin premiere was less of an instinctive and classless reflex and more a politically mediated objection from a group of urban-based nationalists. J.M. Synge was to die just two years after the Playboy Riots, in 1909, leaving behind the unfinished play 'Deirdre of the Sorrows'. Another of his plays, 'The Tinker's Wedding', was thought too antagonistic to nationalist sentiment to be staged in Ireland in the wake of the Playboy Riots, and was not shown in Dublin until 1971. Despite the controversy caused by The Playboy, J.M. Synge had a huge impact on the Irish literary and cultural scene, providing an inspiration for the Achill-based painter Paul Henry and being read by other writers with Achill links, including Ernie O'Malley and Graham Greene.