Playwright of the Western World – Frank McNally on 150 years of JM Synge

An Irishman’s Diary

Born in Dublin 150 years ago today (April 16th), John Millington Synge would still be only a baby when the event that inspired his greatest play happened. That was two years later, in a potato field in Connemara, where a young man named William Maley killed his father with a spade.

Whether Synge ever heard the full story is doubtful. Maley disappeared, and so did much of the detail of the case until it was rediscovered a century later by the founder of the Garda Museum, Gregory Allen, who wrote An Irishman's Diary about it in 1997.

But more importantly, while visiting the Aran Islands in the 1890s, Synge heard a folk version of the tale from Pat Dirane, the "seanachaí of Inishmaan". Much reworking later – and with the fictionalised father surviving the spade attack – the story made theatrical history as The Playboy of the Western World.

Like his contemporary and acquaintance James Joyce, Synge might easily have had a career in music rather than writing. He studied first at the Royal Irish Academy of Music in Dublin, and later in Germany, before shyness and self-doubt dissuaded him from a performing life.


Instead, he chose the quieter pursuit of literature, although the results of his best work in that discipline were to be the opposite of quiet.

As another contemporary, WB Yeats, later summed up Synge’s paradoxical nature, he was somebody who “never spoke an unkind word” but whose written words could “fill the streets with rioters”.

It was Yeats who had encouraged him to go west in search of writing material among the Irish-speaking areas that were even then dwindling. As well as the Aran Islands, Synge spent valuable time in West Kerry – where the fictional Christy Mahon begins his odyssey – and in Mayo, where most of the Playboy's action occurs.

But by his own account, a crucial part of Synge’s education also happened in the east, among the Wicklow Mountains, where he set his early one-act play, In the Shadow of the Glen (1903).

That too was based on a story heard from Dirane and yet when writing it, Synge recalled years later: “I got more aid than any learning could have given me from a chink in the floor of the old Wicklow house where I was staying, that let me hear what was being said by the servant girls in the kitchen”.

Even so, it was the Connemara-haunting Synge that Joyce lampooned in Ulysses, which has Buck Mulligan (aka Oliver St John Gogarty) warning Stephen Dedalus: 'The tramper Synge is looking for you […] He heard you pissed on his halldoor in Glasthule. He's out in his pampooties to murder you.' 'Me! Stephen exclaimed. That was your contribution to literature.'

In his early 30s then, Synge was already suffering the effects of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Three years later, meeting him again on a Dublin street, the real-life Gogarty would silently diagnose the advancing condition from the playwright’s appearance.

That was in August 1907, months after the Playboy’s tumultuous premiere at the Abbey where, as Lady Gregory’s famous telegram to Yeats announced: “Play broke up in disorder at the word shift.”

The mild-mannered Synge would go on to earn the distinction of having caused riots on both sides of the Atlantic, even if he would not be around to hear of the trouble in New York in 1911, where – more logically – it was Christy’s confession of patricide that first triggered the audience and a fusillade of “flying vegetables”.

Revolutionary as his plays were, they were the wrong kind of revolution for those who would launch the real thing in the GPO a few years later.His identification of a pagan undercurrent in Irish peasant life did not sit comfortably with the approved romanticisation of the period. On the contrary, for Patrick Pearse’s newspaper An Claidheamh Soluis, the Abbey’s defining contribution to Irish life then was “the spoiling of a noble poet in Mr W.B. Yeats, and the generation of a sort-of Evil Spirit in the shape of Mr J.M. Synge”.

It only added to their crimes that police had been called in to defend the Playboy from the people. That made both men look part of a discredited establishment.

And yet, as Roy Foster writes in the book Vivid Faces, "the future was with Synge, though he did not live to see it". His masterpiece was an Irish retelling of a very old story, the Oedipal myth.

But in the anarchic and apparently apolitical take of a young man felling his tyrannical father, it would also soon appear to symbolise the rise of a militant younger generation that had lost patience with the sins of its parents.