In Playboy country
As Druid prepares 'The Playboy of the Western World' for the 21st century, Lorna Siggins looks at the townlands that inspired Synge's great work
John Millington Synge's directions could have been a little more specific, but perhaps there was good reason to forget about that stone. The "gap of hazel glen" recorded in his poem, Danny, was the scene of a terrible crime which many would remember for generations to come.
And sure enough, the location of that bloody execution on the verge of the busy Belmullet-Bangor thoroughfare was identified almost a year ago. It emerged during discussions at the first annual Erris Literary Festival, and Bridie Quinn - who had organised the event to pay tribute to Synge's association with the north Mayo area - was riveted. With the help of the local authority, the scrub and bushes were cleared away to reveal a large long flat-topped boulder. An elongated cross had been gouged with fine precision out of the sandstone. It lies less than a mile from the "gap of hazel glen . . ."
So when Garry Hynes brought her troupe to Erris several week ago during initial rehearsals for The Playboy of the Western World, the stone just had to be on the itinerary. Actor Frank O'Sullivan stood astride it, as he retold the tale of Danny, the rate collector who had managed to get up everyone's nose: "One night a score of Erris men, A score I'm told and nine, Said 'We'll get shut of Danny's noise, Of girls and widows dyin'.' "There's not his like from Binghamstown To Boyle and Ballycroy, At playing hell on decent girls, At beating man and boy."
Bridie Quinn knows her Erris intimately, and for years the former English and drama lecturer at Carysfort College, Dublin, has endeavoured to reclaim its link with the author and playwright, who came to north Mayo with the Congested Districts Board.
"Synge would have heard about Danny and about his terrible fate, and wrote that poem. But he also worked parts of Danny's character into the role of the 'Playboy', Christy Mahon. As a rate collector, he would never have been popular anyway," she says. "The Famine was particularly cruel in north Mayo, whole families were buried in the very hovels that they starved to death in,and the legacy of the Binghams and the very cruelty of that landlordism still hasn't been quite forgotten." She has traced 15 other references in the Playboy text to parts of the wild and beautiful blanket bog landscape, extending from Doohoma and Gaoth Saile (Geesala) to Carrowmore lake and Bangor Erris.
There is the "shebeen", which Synge described as "very rough and untidy", and where Pegeen Mike, the "wild-looking but fine girl" is writing at a table when the play opens. As Quinn explained to the DruidSynge troupe last month, and again to this reporter last week, Synge stayed at the inn during his visit to Gaoth Saile.
"He would have travelled in the road from Belmullet, where his permanent lodgings were at the Royal Hotel," she says. Little remains of the shebeen now, but the wall still stands with its window overlooking the strand at Doolough. "He would have looked through here, and he would have seen girls picking cockles on the strand. They would have been the inspiration for the play's 'village girls' - Sara Tansey, Susan Brady and Honor Blake. And he would have witnessed the spectacular horse racing at Doolough, which still takes place every August at low tide."
There is the cross-roads where Pegeen Mike's father, publican Michael James, was due to meet Philly Cullen and a couple of friends en route to Kate Cassidy's wake. The same cross-roads marks the centre of Gaoth Saile. There are also several references in the text to Neifin - as in Nephin - and the Erris plain. And there's the "Owen" river where Christy thinks he might poach a fish. He might still be tempted now, for the Owenmore river is still privately owned almost a century later.
When the game is up in Act Three, and Christy is revealed for the man he really is, the Widow Quin and Sara Tansey want to conceal him in petticoats and whisk him away "in the ferry to the Achill boat". Bridie Quinn ("no relation") points out that a ferry used to run from Doohoma to Achill - a route taken by many emigrants who would have tickets for the "Sligo boat" across the Atlantic.
"There is a local story about a man called Lynchehaun who was in hiding in Achill for a terrible deed, and had to be smuggled away," she says. "Again, Synge would have drawn on that, and borrowed parts of Lynchehaun's legendary character."
Synge had also spent time in west Kerry, the Blaskets and Connemara during his period with the Congested Districts Board, and this gave Quinn a clue when she realised that one of the play's references is not associated with Erris.
"Michael says to Pegeen Mike that he doesn't want to be returning through the Stooks of the Dead Women after Kate Cassidy's wake. This refers to a terrible drowning, where several women, all dressed in green, were found in a boat which had broken up in a storm. In fact, that was on the Kerry coast - although this coastline has many of its own fatalities."
Belmullet, Bangor and Gaoth Saile are much changed communities since Synge's time, with an air of confidence and prosperity about them in spite of their relative isolation. As Quinn notes, the burning issue is the plan by Shell, formerly Enterprise Energy Ireland, to construct an onshore terminal at Bellanaboy as part of the €800 million Corrib gas field development. While there is much support for the plan, there are also serious concerns about the impact it may have on the one of the most beautiful parts of the north-west coastline.
Erris is still officially in the Gaeltacht, but the Irish language is under pressure. Synge spent several summers on the Aran islands, as recorded in his book of the same name, and developed a love of the language that resonates through his dramatic work. "I think one has to appreciate that he would have had an ear for its construction, and the fact that this was how it was adapted into English and spoken by certain communities," Quinn notes.
The dialect, she agrees, may seem very alien to a "DART" generation, though older people in the Erris area will appreciate its nuances.
However, she is fascinated by Garry Hynes's casting of Cillian Murphy - he will surely attract more than a few twentysomethings - and by the publicity that promises a "Playboy for the 21st century". And she will follow with more than passing interest the ambitious Druid project to stage all six Synge plays over the next two years.
• The Playboy of the Western World opens on February 10th, in the Town Hall Theatre, Galway, and moves to the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, on February 23rd. It will run for one night in community halls in Gaoth Saile, Co Mayo, on March 23rd, and on the Aran islands of Inis Oirr, Inis Meain and Inis Mór (March 25th to 27th). It then transfers to the Royal Theatre, Castlebar, Co Mayo (March 30th to April 3rd); the Blasket Centre, Dún Chaoin, Co Kerry (April 5th); and Siamsa Tíre, Tralee, Co Kerry (April 6th to 10th). www.druidtheatre.com
• The Erris Literary Festival, Féile Litriochta Iorrais, runs from July 2nd to 4th at Teach Iorrais. For information, telephone Bridie Quinn at 097-83568.