Thursday, September 30, 2010

Synge Travels in Ireland

I enjoyed the Irish Revival playwright J. M. Synge's The Aran Islands, the subject of an earlier post, enough to follow-up with Serif Press's very nice 2005 edition of In Wicklow, West Kerry and Connemara, originally published in 1911. The book includes engravings done by Jack Yeats, son of the painter J. B. Yeats and brother of W. B. Yeats, to accompany the original.

A good playwright must have the very finest ear for dialogue and it is this talent that makes Synge's Irish travel writings so good. In the first part of the book he is traveling in the Wicklow Mountains northwest of Dublin and paying particular attention to the local patois. Synge was accused of troweling things on a bit, for example with this alleged quote from a Wicklow village woman: "Glory be to His Holy Name, not a one of the childer was ever a day ill, except one boy was hurted off a cart, and he never overed it. It's small right we have to complain at all." The author of The Playboy of the Western World, which caused riots at its premier for its searing caricature of marginalized Irish, is a legitimate object of suspicion, but I doubt he is distilling his material in a misleading way. In any event the flavor of the speech is clearly authentic and very charming to read.

The members of the Irish Revival were upper class people in a poor country, and most, like Synge, were Anglo-Irish. They were taken seriously as the gentry tend to be and the last section on Connemara was originally published as dispatches in the Manchester Guardian. Here we meet Synge the social reformer, getting in to quite detailed work on suggestions for the economic development of the "congested districts," meaning areas (mostly western, Irish-speaking areas) where there was not enough employment for the population. Synge is impressively perceptive and criticizes the governments' attempts to introduce new industries while ignoring some traditional ones (such as gathering kelp), showing how the Dublin bureaucrats had simply failed to think of the local industries as possibly worthwhile. He also criticizes the exploitation of poor workers and urges more economic justice as a necessary part of economic development. A worthy document that stands the test of time.

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