Pictures of the western world

JM Synge’s photographs captured island life in the west of Ireland, and are a sensitive exploration of a lifestyle that was then…

JM Synge's photographs captured island life in the west of Ireland, and are a sensitive exploration of a lifestyle that was then already slowly disappearing, writes DEIRDRE McQUILLAN

THESE PHOTOGRAPHS taken on the Aran Islands between l898 and 1902 by the playwright John Millington Synge are part of an exhibition devoted solely to the writer's pioneering photography, which is often overlooked in the context of his celebrated writings. Originally published by Dolmen Press in 1971, under the title My Wallet of Photographsand arranged by Lilo Stephens, whose husband, Edward Stephens, was a nephew of Synge, the photographs provide a fascinating turn-of-the-century visual record of the people and places in Dublin, Wicklow and the west of Ireland immortalised in his literary and dramatic writings. There are images of sheep fairs in Rathdrum and Leenane in Co Galway, portraits of farmers, farriers and family groups, a captured past revealing as much about its subjects and their way of life as the observer himself.

The exhibition was organised by Ciaran Walsh, visual-arts director of Siamsa Tíre in Tralee, to mark the centenary of Synge’s death and the images are reproduced with the permission of Trinity College, Dublin. It will be opened by Tim Robinson and Breandán Feiritéar today on Inis Meáin, the island most associated with Synge, where it will run until June 30th before transferring to the Blasket Centre in Dún Chaoin and to the Irish Cultural Centre in Paris in January 2010. Many of the descendants of the people photographed still live on the island and one of the most important portraits is that of Máirtín Mac Dhonnchadha, the man referred to as Michael in the Aran Islands and who was his Irish teacher and chaperone.

Synge was 27 when he went to the Aran Islands for the first time in l898, armed with l9th-century contemporary technology: a typewriter and a second-hand camera called a Klito he had bought from another visitor in Kilronan. Recovering from an operation for Hodgkin’s disease and a frustrated love affair, he was open, vulnerable and receptive. The images he took, record everyday island life – the women at the spinning wheels, the men gathering seaweed or hauling their currachs – but they also chronicle a dramatic news event, one of the last evictions on the island of an old woman turned out of her house after 30 years.


In his pictures of people, there's an intimacy, a familiarity in the attitude towards the camera, a sense of ease in facing a friendly rather than an intruding lens. The photographs were used by Jack Yeats for his illustrations for a series of articles Synge wrote for the Manchester Guardianin June and July 1905 and the original sketch of the family on Inis Oírr now hangs in the Niland Gallery in Sligo.

“These photographs are important because they are among the first to portray the cultural revival in Ireland at the turn of the century and are among the most visual statements of Irishness from a cultural national perspective,” says Walsh, who first came across the photographs on a visit to Inis Meáin two years ago. “Synge was someone who believed that here was a reservoir of pure unadulterated Irishness, much more rooted and organic and, in a way, like an alternative lifestyle that came from the people and the elemental forces that surround them.” Other photographers of the time, he argues, did not have the same empathy, did not speak Irish, and were transients passing through with a camera, or scientists clinically recording what they perceived as a primitive way of life.

Synge was a close observer of nature and an accomplished musician who had ways of engaging with islanders and entertaining them. He could also be inconspicuous when he wanted to, and the portrait of the family on Inis Oírr, the man moving away from the woman and child, has a kind of epic grandeur, almost cinematic in its formality and setting.

He noticed details of island dress, “the local air of beauty”: the flannel trousers, the veists or báiníns, the pampooties, cowhide shoes and, of course, the red petticoats and indigo stockings “on the powerful legs” of the women. He certainly didn’t write about white cabled Aran sweaters, which did not exist then, and the idea of drowned fishermen being identified by their knitted jumpers was a later, mythical invention. Early visitors to the island were always impressed by the colour and unity of the dress, and the contrast between the farmers on Aran and those of their counterparts in Wicklow in their top hats, suits and boots could not be more striking.

For Tim Robinson, what makes these images special is the way in which in the hands of an artist, a camera undergoes a remarkable metamorphosis. “It turns itself back to front and photographs the artist. Synge’s sitters . . . do not confront the camera, they present themselves to it frankly and trustingly. And that is the stance of Synge himself in relation to the countryfolk he interprets in his own image. He looks at them with exactly the look of natural human curiosity and unsentimental sympathy they reflect towards him. Modest self-respect and respect for the mystery of personal identity are the qualities exchanged between him and his subject, captured by the strange chemistry of photography.”

John Millington Synge opens today in Cniotáil Inis Meáin