Rembrandt and Synge and Molly

Denis Donoghue

  • The Collected Letters of John Millington Synge. Vol. I: 1871-1907 edited by Ann Saddlemyer
    Oxford, 385 pp, £30.00, August 1983, ISBN 0 19 812678 6

Synge’s origin was solidly Anglo-Irish, Protestant, upper-middle class: his father a well-got barrister, his mother the daughter of a Protestant parson in Schull, County Cork. Presumably it was a financial blow when his father died, but Synge was too young to feel a difference, and besides there was enough money coming from rented estates in Wicklow. The Synges were landlord-class, with the mentality that went with such privilege. As a young man, John thought himself some kind of radical in a vaguely European sense. In Ireland, he knew that the real issue was the ownership of land. In 1893 he canvassed against Gladstone’s second Home Rule Bill on the grounds that it would exacerbate the question of land and cause war between landowner and peasant. In Paris he joined Yeats and Maud Gonne in the Association Irlandaise and stayed in it as long as its talk sounded harmless, but when Maud’s journal L’Irlande Libre looked as if it would take the libre literally, he resigned from the association and told her he wouldn’t ‘get mixed up with a revolutionary and semi-military movement’. Years later, he accepted an invitation from the Manchester Guardian to write 12 articles on the impoverished areas of Galway and Mayo administered by the Congested Districts Board, but the articles, published in June-July 1905, were pretty innocuous. He wanted to see the local conditions improved, provided the peasants stayed as aesthetically winsome as they were: but he hated the few people who were comfortable enough to have acquired a double chin. Things should change: but not yet, O Lord, not yet. Synge’s political vision, in fact, didn’t amount to anything better than Yeats’s sickening ‘dream of the noble and the beggarman’. He hated the small towns, with their shopkeepers, as Yeats wrote, ‘fumbling in a greasy till’.

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