Ian O’Riordan: Following JM Synge’s footsteps over his beloved native terrain

Foothills of Dublin and Wicklow mountains evoke spirit of famed Irish playwright/poet

 Looking north towards Tibradden and Two Rock Mt from Cruagh Mt. Photograph: Francis Bradley

Looking north towards Tibradden and Two Rock Mt from Cruagh Mt. Photograph: Francis Bradley

 

We were born just around the corner from each other and an even 100 years apart, and depending on the play of light or the hour of need, my morning or evening run these past three months has often been in the shadow of John Millington Synge. Only who exactly is shadowing who?

It begins and ends with suitably linear intentions in Glencullen, from where the young Synge first ventured beyond the foothills of Dublin into the proper mountains of Wicklow, and is also the subject of his first published piece of work, in the old Trinity College miscellany Kottabos, for the Hillary term of 1893; in a simple Wordsworthian sonnet titled In Glencullen, he sets out with “thrush, linnet, stare and wren, brown lark beside the sun, take thought of kestril, sparrow-hawk, birdlime and roving gun”.

From here Synge would like me cross over the Glencullen River and back up towards the Glencree Valley, one of his first and most lasting haunts of Co Wicklow, lyrically intimate details of which were later collated in Travels in Wicklow, West Kerry and Connemara.

More than Aran or Kerry this is original Synge country: few men have traversed this valley by foot, bicycle, or more swift of foot than he, ending his essay The People of the Glens with these words: “I wished them good evening and started again on my walk, as I had two mountains to cross.”

Unlike me Synge wasn’t limited to a 5km radius from his home, far from it; since January my effort and distance has been measured by the out and back run from Synge’s Rock, the large granite boulder that sits naturally at the entrance to the magnificent Oak Glen, fully replanted in 1996, and inscribed with the opening lines of his later poem To the Oaks of Glencree: “My arms are round you, and I lean against you, while the lark sings over us, and golden lights and green shadows are on your bark.”

No. 2 Newtown Villas where Synge was born 150 years ago – next Friday to be exact, April 16th 1871 – still sits at the top of Braemor Road in Churchtown, just around the corner from Mount Carmel Hospital, my birthplace of 100 years later.

A sort of identical twin-country house, long since gone is the wild orchard out the back; now converted into apartments and renamed Synge House, it also sits directly across from Landscape Road, at the top of which my mother grew up, and from where my grandparents first fell under something of a Synge-like spell, handing down an original programme from his debut play The Well of Saints at the Abbey National Theatre in February 1905, two years before his other visions of Ireland became so real they sparked a riot.

In 1975 they also built a house on the largest of the Aran Islands, in part to afford their grandchildren the chance to explore the islands like Synge once did, providing ample books and maps as accompaniment, that experience aptly complemented by long stays in Kerry, the birthplace of my father, our later ventures out towards Ventry and Dunquin uprooting our imagination as they must have his too.

Running routes

When his father John Hatch died of smallpox when Synge was only one, his doting mother Kathleen moved the family a short distance away to No. 4 Orwell Park, living next door to her widowed mother.

It was from here the often sickly and asthmatic Synge, prevented from traditional sporting pursuits, took to exploring the River Dodder and beyond with his older brother Samuel, finding what he later described as “a strange sense of enchantment and delight” from the “furze bushes and rocks and flooded streams and strange mountain fogs and sunshine” – and sometimes its “fearful and genuine hypnotic influence”.

My first running routes around Churchtown and Rathgar also passed up Orwell Park and the River Dodder, only not with the same profound impact the area had on Synge: though his interest in nature was always more romantic than scientific.

By age 15 he’d read Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and with that abandoned his Protestant faith and all it represented, and increasingly questioned the practices of his Anglo-Irish family, prompting his mother’s famous response: “What would become of us if our tenants in Galway stopped paying the rent?”

Perhaps adopting some of his own deeply ironic humour, Synge rarely turned down the chance to a stay at one of the family’s Wicklow retreats, beginning most tellingly in the summer of 1892, aged 21, which he spent at Castle Kevin, a then “boycotted” house next to a desolate wilderness of a garden with broken walls and decaying greenhouses, on the hill just behind Annamoe, where I once stretched in the kitchen before setting out on a cycle with its current owner Daniel Day-Lewis.

Later stays at Avondale House, the home of Charles Stewart Parnell, further extended Synge’s exploration of Wicklow, which given his ailing health was increasingly done by bicycle, though no less influential, the nearby Glenmalure the setting for his play In the Shadow of the Glen.

Synge travelled west again in 1905 in the company Jack B Yeats, also born 150 years ago, who went on to win Ireland’s first Olympic medal as part of the Irish Free State, awarded silver in the then arts and culture event for his painting The Liffey Swim, in Paris 1924.

Yeats also witnessed firsthand Synge’s deterioration in health, yet determination to walk on, later writing: “Though his health was often bad, he had beating under his ribs a brave heart that carried him over rough tracks.”

In 1907, the year The Aran Islands was published, Synge enjoyed one last blissful summer in Glencree, staying at McGuirk’s cottage that still sits in splendid isolation at the top of the valley, below Lough Bray, his fiancée Molly Allgood often at his side, only by then he knew the end was frighteningly near, and he died 18 months later, just short of his 38th birthday, of the Hodgkin’s disease that plagued the last decade of his life.

Further explored

Few Irish playwrights or poets have been reassessed and rediscovered and still been seen to reveal more than Synge, and 150 years on from his birth, gently magnified perhaps by the confines of the lockdown, his energy and endurance and yes athleticism, language that by turns could be wildly amorous or despairingly bitter, feels ripe and waiting to be further explored when the county and country reopens again.

When first or last back around this corner, it’s likely too he’d have visited Glencullen House, remodelled in 1800 by Francis Johnston (who also designed the GPO and the Royal Chapel at Dublin Castle), Glencullen being the original seat of the FitzSimon family into which the daughter of Daniel O’Connell married, and where seven years ago this week my home became the small corner pile which served as the original gate lodge and entrance, under which may have run the shadow of John Millington Synge.

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