Synge and the Ireland of His Time, by William Butler Yeats

With Synge in Connemara

I had often spent a day walking with John Synge, but a year or two ago I travelled for a month alone through the west of Ireland with him. He was the best companion for a roadway any one could have, always ready and always the same; a bold walker, up hill and down dale, in the hot sun and the pelting rain. I remember a deluge on the Erris Peninsula, where we lay among the sand hills and at his suggestion heaped sand upon ourselves to try and keep dry.

When we started on our journey, as the train steamed out of Dublin, Synge said: ‘Now the elder of us two should be in command on this trip.’ So we compared notes and I found that he was two months older than myself. So he was boss and whenever it was a question whether we should take the road to the west or the road to the south, it was Synge who finally decided.

Synge was fond of little children and animals. I remember how glad he was to stop and lean on a wall in Gorumna and watch a woman in afield shearing a sheep. It was an old sheep and must have often been sheared before by the same hand, for the woman hardly held it; she just knelt beside it and snipped away. I remember the sheep raised its lean old head to look at the stranger, and the woman just put her hand on its cheek and gently pressed its head down on the grass again.

Synge was delighted with the narrow paths made of sods of grass alongside the newly-metalled roads, because he thought they had been put there to make soft going for the bare feet of little children. Children knew, I think, that he wished them well. In Bellmullet on Saint John’s eve, when we stood in the market square watching the fire-play, flaming sods of turf soaked in paraffine, hurled to the sky and caught and skied again, and burning snakes of hay-rope, I remember a little girl in the crowd, in an ecstasy of pleasure and dread, clutched Synge by the hand and stood close in his shadow until the fiery games were done.

His knowledge of Gaelic was a great assistance to him in talking to the people. I remember him holding a great conversation in Irish and English with an innkeeper’s wife in a Mayo inn. She had lived in America in Lincoln’s day. She told us what living cost in America then, and of her life there; her little old husband sitting by and putting in an odd word. By the way, the husband was a wonderful gentle-mannered man, for we had luncheon in his house of biscuits and porter, and rested there an hour, waiting for a heavy shower to blow away; and when we said good-bye and our feet were actually on the road, Synge said, ‘Did we pay for what we had?’ So I called back to the innkeeper, ‘Did we pay you?’ and he said quietly, ‘Not yet sir.’

Synge was always delighted to hear and remember any good phrase. I remember his delight at the words of a local politician who told us how he became a Nationalist. ‘I was,’ he said plucking a book from the mantlepiece (I remember the book — it was ‘Paul and Virginia’) and clasping it to his breast —‘I was but a little child with my little book going to school, and by the house there I saw the agent. He took the unfortunate tenant and thrun him in the road, and I saw the man’s wife come out crying and the agent’s wife thrun her in the channel, and when I saw that, though I was but a child, I swore I’d be a Nationalist. I swore by heaven, and I swore by hell and all the rivers that run through them.’

Synge must have read a great deal at one time, but he was not a man you would see often with a book in his hand; he would sooner talk, or rather listen to talk — almost anyone’s talk.

Synge was always ready to go anywhere with one, and when there to enjoy what came. He went with me to see an ordinary melodrama at the Queen’s Theatre, Dublin, and he delighted to see how the members of the company could by the vehemence of their movements and the resources of their voices hold your attention on a play where everything was commonplace. He enjoyed seeing the contrite villain of the piece come up from the bottom of the gulch, hurled there by the adventuress, and flash his sweating blood-stained face up against the footlights; and, though he told us he had but a few short moments to live, roar his contrition with the voice of a bull.

Synge had travelled a great deal in Italy in tracks he beat out for himself, and in Germany and in France, but he only occasionally spoke to me about these places. I think the Irish peasant had all his heart. He loved them in the east as well as he loved them in the west, but the western men on the Aran Islands and in the Blaskets fitted in with his humour more than any; the wild things they did and said were a joy to him.

Synge was by spirit well equipped for the roads. Though his health was often bad, he had beating under his ribs a brave heart that carried him over rough tracks. He gathered about him very little gear, and cared nothing for comfort except perhaps that of a good turf fire. He was, though young in years, ‘an old dog for a hard road and not a young pup for a tow-path.’

He loved mad scenes. He told me how once at the fair of Tralee he saw an old tinker-woman taken by the police, and she was struggling with them in the centre of the fair; when suddenly, as if her garments were held together with one cord, she hurled every shred of clothing from her, ran down the street and screamed, ‘let this be the barrack yard,’ which was perfectly understood by the crowd as suggesting that the police strip and beat their prisoners when they get them shut in, in the barrack yard. The young men laughed, but the old men hurried after the naked fleeting figure trying to throw her clothes on her as she ran.

But all wild sights appealed to Synge, he did not care whether they were typical of anything else or had any symbolical meaning at all. If he had lived in the days of piracy he would have been the fiddler in a pirate-schooner, him they called ‘the music —’ ‘The music’ looked on at every thing with dancing eyes but drew no sword, and when the schooner was taken and the pirates hung at Cape Corso Castle or The Island of Saint Christopher’s, ‘the music’ was spared because he was ‘the music.’

Jack B. Yeats

This web edition published by:

eBooks@Adelaide
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 14:50