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The Aran Islands
by J. M. Synge, Illust. By Jack B. Yeats
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Nothing much happens on the Aran Islands--at least, not much went on there in the late 19th century, when John Synge sailed out to these mist-shrouded, salt-sprayed, and wave-battered chunks of rocks south of Ireland. Therein lies the charm of the setting and of this lovely book, which captures the saltiness of both the marine air and the time-lost characters, who deeply believe in the magical "wee people." In cottages where nets and fishing tackle hang from beams, the women (who always wear red dresses and petticoats, as do some of the boys) sit at their spinning wheels or sew cow-skin sandals, while the fishermen spin yarns about fairies, sunken vessels, and bags of gold gained from adulterous wives. The big happening of the year is when roofs are rethatched--an event that blossoms into a festival with twisted rope stretching from kitchen table through lane to nearby field. Synge seems an ambassador from a different world: addressed as "noble person," he brings tokens of modernity--be they clocks or simple magic tricks that beguile the locals. First published in 1907, this re-released travelogue gives a poignant peek into another time and begs a visit to the Aran Islands to see how, or if, they have changed. --Melissa Rossi
When the wind is from the north the old woman manages my meals with fair regularity; but on the other days she often makes my tea at three o'clock instead of six. If I refuse it she puts it down to simmer for three hours in the turf, and then brings it in at six o'clock full of anxiety to know if it is warm enough.... The general ignorance of any precise hours in the day makes it impossible for the people to have regular meals. -from The Aran Islands At the behest of William Butler Years, whom he met in Paris during his bohemian sojourn there, JOHN MILLINGTON SYNGE (1871-1909) traveled to the remote Irish Aran Islands for part of every summer from 1898 to 1902. The native Dubliner was seeking the hidden treasures of his native land, and he found the inspiration for the plays that would see his name live in posterity, including 1907's The Playboy of the Western World. This beautifully revealing 1906 work is Synge's journal of his time in the primitive Arans and among its hale, stalwart inhabitants. From the folktales of the Aran people to the quirks of their Gaelic-tinged English, from the pagan remnants that inflect their rough Christianity to the coarse monotony of their diet, Synge celebrates the simplicity of life in the Arans but never romanticizes it. These are the people who sparked Synge's imagination so strongly that all his plays reflect their hopes, their dreams, and their tragedies.
A few of the younger men looked doubtful, but the older people, who have watched the rye turning into oats, seemed to accept the magic frankly, and did not show any surprise that 'a duine uasal' (a noble person) should be able to do like the witches.
About the Author
At the behest of William Butler Years, whom he met in Paris during his bohemian sojourn there, JOHN MILLINGTON SYNGE (1871-1909) traveled to the remote Irish Aran Islands for part of every summer from 1898 to 1902. The native Dubliner was seeking the hidden treasures of his native land, and he found the inspiration for the plays that would see his name live in posterity, including 1907's The Playboy of the Western World.
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