Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Mystery of Dun Aengus

Check out my latest post on the Aran Islands Blog.

In this post - decoding the mystery of Dun Aengus! Metalworks, ritual, power...

Bronze Age Hillfort, Dun Aengus, Inis Mor, Aran Islands

Monday, May 30, 2011

Hell Hath No Fury Like a Synge Scorned

Wow. When Synge didn't like you, he REALLY didn't like you. Here's a poem he wrote after Molly Allgood's sister expressed her negative reaction to The Playboy of the Western World

The Curse
To a sister of an enemy of the author's who disapproved of 'The Playboy'

Lord, confound this surly sister,
Blight her brow with blotch and blister,
Cramp her larynx, lung, and liver,
In her guts a galling give her.
Let her live to earn her dinners
In Mountjoy with other sinners:
Lord, this judgment quickly bring,
And I'm your servant, J. M. Synge.

The earlier drafts of the poem went like this:

With corns and bunions cramp her toes
Deck with pimples brown and nose
Contort her liver lungs and brain
For all her parts receive a pain
Contrive for every inch
Till devils though she wake or sleep
Through her flesh with horror creep
Till her breakfast, supper, dinner.

And the poem was actually published in 1909! Probably after Synge's death, since he didn't want his poetry published at all, let alone during his lifetime. But he first sent this poem to Molly in a letter. He wrote:

I have written a lovely curse on the 'flighty' one but I'm half afraid to send it to you...

Yeah. Sending a poem to your girlfriend about how much you hate her sister. Good move, J.M.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Synge Snippet: There could be no more terror in my life

I seemed to traverse whole epochs of desolation and bliss. All secrets were open before me, and simple as the universe to its God. Now and then something recalled my physical life, and I smiled at what seemed a moment of sickly infancy. At other times I felt I might return to earth, and laughed aloud to think what a god I should be among men. For there could be no more terror in my life. I was a light, a joy.

- From "Under Ether," Synge's essay recollecting of the effects of the anesthetic given to him during his neck surgery in 1897.

Synge grew up sickly (from asthma), and this was the first of a few surgeries he underwent to remove a swelling in his neck, which was diagnosed too late as a lymphoma. He seems to have lived with much physical discomfort, and probably a lot of fear from not knowing what was wrong with him.

This was the year before Synge went to Aran, when he witnessed the islanders' strength against the elements firsthand, and was moved by their relationship to mortality. It no doubt made him reflect on his own.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Aran Islands in Living Color

The Aran Islands are often described as gray and barren, but I discovered a world of color there.

Yes, Synge makes it out to be this way at times: "They live here in a world of grey, where there are wild rains and mists every week in the year."

But he also writes about the "red petticoats" worn by the women, the "faint yellow roofs" of the houses, the "green glittering waves" and "the blue chasm of the waves," the "bars of purple cloud" in the sky, and the "heavy indigo stockings" worn by the women. In fact, he mentions the color red more than gray (according to my word search function on my Kindle for Mac)!

The colors I found last summer on Aran...

Red plants sprouting out of the stone:

Orange lichen clinging to rock:

Yellow seaweed crawling onto the beach:

Green algae growing on the southern coast:

Blue paint chipping off a curragh:

Indigo hues streaked in the sky:

And violet flowers braving a life on the cliffs:

Thursday, May 26, 2011


Not so literary, but can I just say I'm really looking forward to the FOOD on this trip?
Lamb and potatoes at the Aran Fisherman

The Aran Islands probably weren't fun places to eat when Synge was there, of course. Here's what he wrote:

...during the day they simply drink a cup of tea and eat a piece of bread, or some potatoes, whenever they are hungry. For men who live in the open air they eat strangely little. Often when Michael has been out weeding potatoes for eight of nine hours without food, he comes in and eats a few slices of home-made bread, and then he is ready to go out with me and wander for hours about the island. They use no animal food except a little bacon and salt fish. The old woman says she would be very ill if she ate fresh meat.

I can't speak to the general daily food of the people who live on the islands. There was one grocery store on Inis Mor that seemed very well stocked, though the vegetables and fruits were somewhat lacking, and I was surprised not to find a fish counter at the store. I was told that most people have a friend who fishes who brings them their fresh catch of the day.

Last year I didn't have a kitchen so I ate out a lot, but this time I will have a kitchen while I'm on Inis Mor, so maybe I'll make friends with a fisherman and get some fresh fish to cook at the house.

While I'm on Inis meain I'll be staying at my fellow Aran Islands blogger Elisabeth Koopman's house. I hear she has her own vegetable garden, so I'm really looking forward to seeing it, and to eating fresh organic food there.

Last year on Inis Mor I HAD to try different foods at the restaurants. Yes, pricey, because mostly tourists eat at the restaurants. Hence why I'm glad to have a kitchen this time. But trying the seafood was a must. Here's what was good:
  • Fish sandwich and chowder at the seafood restaurant across from the American Bar (I can't recall the name)
  • Lamb stew at the Aran Fisherman
  • Pizza at Bayview Restaurant
  • Oysters at Joe Wattie's
  • The coffee and hot chocolate at the internet cafe was very good
Last year I also indulged in Irish breakfast at the Dormer House

brown bread

Crab claws in butter sauce at the Aran Fisherman

And lunch one day with Helmut and Irmtraud at the Killeany Lodge, with vegetables from their organic garden.

Getting hungry now...

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

You'd Rave And Rend Them With Your Teeth

A Question

I asked if I got sick and died, would you
With my black funeral go walking too,
If you'd stand close to hear them talk or pray
While I'm let down in that steep bank of clay.

And, No, you said, for if you saw a crew
Of living idiots, pressing round that new
Oak coffin - they alive, I dead beneath
That board, - you'd rave and rend them with your teeth.

Written 1908, Published 1909

This poem, written not long before Synge's death, was sent in a letter to Molly Allgood. He had in fact asked her if she'd go to his funeral, to which she replied, "No, for I could not bear to see you dead and the others living."

This poem reminds me so much of the way Synge describes the way the Aran Islanders at the turn of the 20th century mourn:

"While the grave was being opened the women sat down among the flat tombstones, bordered with a pale fringe of early bracken, and began the wild keen, or crying for the dead. Each old woman, as she took her turn in the leading recitative, seemed possessed for the moment with a profound ecstasy of grief, swaying to and fro, and bending her forehead to the stone before her, while she called out to the dead with a perpetually recurring chant of sobs." - The Aran Islands 

I love how Synge always draws from his life in his art, and lets his art inform his life. It makes for much self reflection and serious engagement with subject matter.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Hillforts and History

Read my latest post on the Aran Islands Blog!

In this piece I begin to talk about the history of the Aran forts. They are spectacular sites. Synge spent time in one fort on Inishmaan in particular (Dun Conor). I found the one that I loved the best to be Dun Duchathair - the Black Fort - which has never been excavated. The excavations at Dun Aengus have given us some clues as to what life might have been like for the early Aran Islanders. Check out my post to learn more!

You've a Fine Bit of Talk, Stranger

Come along with me now, lady of the house, and it's not my blather you'll be hearing only, but you'll be hearing the herons crying out over the black lakes, and you'll be hearing the grouse and the owls with them, and the larks and the big thrushes when the days are warm, and it's not from the like of them you'll be hearing a talk of getting old...and losing the hair off you, and the light of your eyes, but it's fine songs you'll be hearing when the sun goes up...

This is Synge's character the Tramp from his play In the Shadow of the Glen. The play is based off a tale that Synge recorded on the Aran Islands about an unfaithful wife who is caught in the act by her husband who was pretending to be dead in order to ambush her. In Synge's play, it's unclear whether the wife, Nora, has been unfaithful, but it's clear she has been terribly unhappy with her old, tyrannical husband, who she married for security, not for love.

Photo from Druid Synge Production
A wandering Tramp who had come upon the house in the glens of Wicklow earlier in the evening became embroiled in their conflict, and when Nora's husband kicks her out of the house, the Tramp invites her to go with him and live the life of a tramp (a wanderer). He assures her that a life lived free, in nature, will make her feel more youthful and happy than she's felt stuck in this isolated cottage.

It's clear to me that the Tramp is Synge - the man who wants to rescue a woman from her lonely life and bring her on a journey of love and adventure, and to share with her his adoration of the natural world.

You've a fine bit of talk, stranger, and it's with yourself I'll go.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Aran Adventure + Week in Wicklow

This trip just got exciting, people.

A Young Synge
Well, okay, it was exciting before, what with bronze age forts and holy wells and magic and myths and spiritual healers and all. And that's all still happening. But now - I'm also going home.

To Synge's home, of course.

I am thrilled to confirm that as part of my upcoming Ireland adventure, I'll be spending four days in Wicklow to attend the Synge Summer School, and then exploring the areas in Wicklow where Synge used to wander. On these walks in Wicklow he met many people on the roads and in the glens, and I think it's safe to say that these encounters inspired him *almost* as much as his time spent on Aran.

Avondale House
This is the Synge Summer School's 21st year. It was started in 1990 by Professor Nicholas Grene, now is run by Professor Patrick Lonergan of NUI Galway, and meets in Rathdrum at Avondale House in Avondale Forest Park - the home of Irish political leader Charles Stewart Parnell, AND was one of the Synge family summer homes. The Summer Programme consists of seminars and lectures by leading Synge scholars and Irish theatre professionals.

I can't wait to meet and talk to other people who are as fascinated as I am with Synge and who share my love of his writing.

After the program concludes I will try to find other Synge spots in Wicklow:
  • Castlekevin
  • Tomriland House
  • Glenmalure
  • Wicklow National Park

Theatre Geekery Update

This is a very sleepy Emily signing in to say that I DID get through to the Druid Theatre box office at around 5:45am, after forty-five minutes of busy signals. Aaaand...the tickets had all been sold out, but I DID get on the waitlist at least, and am near the top of said waitlist. The woman I spoke to on the phone knew me from my Twitter page (haha! I love that. Cyber life, meet real life). She was very friendly and accommodating, and also said that since I'll be on the island that day anyway there's a good chance I'll get in to one of the performances even if I don't get off the waitlist.

Here's hoping!

And now, I'm going back to bed for a few more Zzzz's....

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Theatre Geekery

I'm waking up at 5am on Monday (tomorrow) morning to make a long distance phone call to Ireland.

Why? you ask.

Because the Druid Theater company of Galway is putting on a production of Martin McDonagh's play The Cripple of Inishmaan.

ON Inishmaan. When I'M on Inishmaan!!!

Photo from Druid Theatre website of Cripple of Inishmaan production.
There are a limited number of tickets available for non-residents of the islands, and the box office opens at 10am on Monday.

Martin McDonagh's other plays include The Pillowman, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, A Behanding in Spokane, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, and others. I'm a big fan of his dark humor.

I'm saying a prayer tonight to Manannan mac Lir god of the sea that I'm able to get a ticket.

Wish me luck!

Waiting for Sun

It's gray and rainy in New York City. Looking at photos like this one of Inis Mor is getting me through...

Blue Water, Blue Skies, Kilronan

Sunday Synge Snippet


Still south I went and west and south again,
Through Wicklow from the morning till the night,
And far from cities, and the sites of men,
Lived with the sunshine and the moon's delight.

I knew the stars, the flowers, and the birds,
The grey and wintry sides of many glens,
And did but half remember human words,
In converse with the mountains, moors, and fens.

Written 189-? Revised 1907. Published 1909.
(from Synge Collected Works Volume 1)

Saturday, May 21, 2011

When First We Met

Maybe I should back up for a minute to explain myself, just a bit.

About six years ago, I found this play called "Riders to the Sea," a short one-act written a hundred years ago by a playwright whose last name I couldn't pronounce. The play, about a family living on one of the Aran Islands in the late 1800s, consumed me. I read it over and over. I started reading about the Aran Islands. I started reading about the playwright, John Millington Synge (pronounced SING). I just started collecting information - Aran history, archaeology, mythology, Synge's plays, poetry, essays, his biography, everything. I couldn't get enough. I became obsessed with a 19th century Irish writer and some rocky islands that he wrote about.

That's how I ended up visiting Aran in November 2007 to search for the Aran that Synge described. It was freezing. And it was unlike any place I'd ever been.

I kept reading and wrote about what I'd read and what I'd experienced in that first trip. My next trip in 2010, I stayed for a month, and when I left those islands, I was a different person. Aran, in some ways, was just as Synge described. In other ways it was entirely different.

I love the similarities, and I love the differences. Aran totally fascinates me, and I love Synge's love of Aran.

I'm going back this summer to see what else I'll find.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Synge Snippet: Synge's Emo Love Letters

Synge was a brilliant playwright and essayist, but as far as love letters goes...

8 October 1906
Monday night 12:30

Dear Heart,

I have been in bed for half an hour and I've suddenly taken a notion that I must write you a line before I go to sleep. My little treasure if you knew how I longed to have a little chat with you all the evening but it wasn't possible. I wonder if you felt I was neglecting you? It couldn't be helped. Perhaps you'll think I'm an ass to write to [you] so soon when I've nothing to say except that you're my only changling and I'm always thinking about you, and yearning to be with you even when I seem to be taking no notice of you at all.

Be good and faithful to your old Tramp and we'll have great times yet. I don't know why I am writing this. A thousand blessings on you.


A little whiny? A little clingy? Sure. The rest of his letters are no better. But hey, you know what? I think it's endearing to know that he's got complicated, messy emotions, and that his relationship with Molly wasn't the picture of some romantic ideal. It makes him more human.

Aran Adventure 2011

It is now nine days since rain has fallen, and the people are filled with anxiety, although the sun has not yet been hot enough to do harm. The drought is also causing a scarcity of water...
-JM Synge, The Aran Islands

In the beginning of summer of 2010 Aran experienced a drought during the month of June. (It seems that the islands also experienced a drought during Synge's time). But I arrived in July, and that's when the heavens decided to open up nearly every day. Lots of soggy bike rides, wet socks, squeaky sneakers, and utterly impossible hair days.

With my summer 2011 trip to Aran soon approaching (!!!!) I realized I needed to buy better rain gear, and this week I finally found a suitable waterproof jacket (with a hood this time). An umbrella just wouldn't cut it with those winds, and was annoying to carry while hiking. It's best to be prepared every day for short rain showers during the day, even if the weather report predicted clear skies. I suggest leaving the umbrella behind and investing in good rain gear. And just embrace getting wet!

The Aran Islands are absolutely brilliant after a rainshower. The gray rocks glisten, the heavy clouds make the sky seem closer, and you learn to appreciate the moments of sunshine even more.

It has cleared, and the sun is shining with a luminous warmth that makes the whole island glisten with the splendour of a gem, and fills the sea and sky with a radiance of blue light.
-JM Synge, The Aran Islands

Inis Mor glistening after a rain storm

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Synge Snippet

"Once men sought in art to make natural things beautiful. Now we seek to make beautiful things natural."

- Aran 3/11/99 (from Notebook 17, Synge Collected Works v2)

New homes, old homes, and rainbow on Inis Mor, 2007

Synge the Photographer

Synge's photos of his trip to Aran are on display, RIGHT NOW, on Inis Oirr (Inisheer)! When Synge traveled to Aran he brought a fiddle and a box camera. He hoped that they would spark conversation with the locals.

After a few minutes of Google searching I think I figured out that GRIANGRAFFANA is Irish for photographs. Good to know. (I should have done as Synge did and attempt to learn Gaelic...attempt being the key word.)

The exhibit venue is Aras Eanna, an arts center on the smallest of the Aran Islands. The photos are on display until May 31, 2011. I'm sad I won't be able to get there in time.

Luckily for people like me who can't make it to the exhibit, there's a book called My Wallet of Photographs with all of Synge's photos from Aran and a few from Wicklow, the Blaskets, and Kerry. Of course it's no substitute for seeing the real photos, IN person, ON Aran.
Synge's Photography from Aran

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Synge Snippet

Synge isn't known for his poetry, and most of it wasn't published during his lifetime. Though some of his poetry is sort of brooding and dark in an "okay I get it already you're an angsty artist" sort of way, some of it is really lovely. Here's a poem that makes me smile and think of Synge and Molly Allgood on one of their escapes to the countryside. They had to meet secretly at the beginning of their courtship since she was an actress in his theatre company, and it wasn't kosher for them to be seeing each other. (Scandalous!)

In May

In a nook
That opened south,
You and I
Lay mouth to mouth.

A snowy gull
And sooty daw
Came and looked
With many a caw;

'Such,' I said,
'Are I and you,
When you've kissed me
Black and blue!'

-Written in 1907, published 1909

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Wedge Tombs, Mythology, Angry Saints, and Glistening Waters

I'm honored to be contributing blog posts to the Aran Islands Blog. It's a lovely site with photos, news, and information on visiting the islands.

Check out my latest post, Aran Archaeology: Wedge Tombs, or my last few posts:
Why the Irish Have Better Stories,
A Saint With An Attitude,
and The Splendour of a Gem.

Thanks for reading!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Must've Been One Tired Fellow

"Like a poet I know who finds his lines by glancing along titles on library shelves, so the fisherman low among the waves raises his eyes and picks words off the land with which to write sentences on the sea." - Tim Robinson, Stones of Aran: Pilgrimage.

Cliffs on Inis Mor near Dun Duchathair (the Black Fort)
In preparation for my trip to Aran this summer, I'm rereading Tim Robinson's books. Tim Robinson walked nearly every square inch of Inishmore, an unbelievable feat, and wrote two books about each rock formation, cliff, and piece of land. The first book, Pilgrimage, is just the perimeter of the island. The second book, Labyrinth, is the interior.

He created a beautiful map of the Aran Islands, one that I purchased last summer. When I was on the island I used it every day that I went out for a hike, but I only opened it up in my room before I went out, and brought another more general map out with me while I was walking. Robinson's map is just too beautiful to get wet or dirty.

What I love about Pilgrimage (well, there are many MANY things I love about this book) is that Tim Robinson decided to circle the island clockwise in keeping with the traditional method for the ritual circling of holy wells. In doing so, he infuses his story with an apt sacredness that makes his writing all the more lyrical.

I'm in such awe of the work it must have taken Robinson to write these books, though he must have been totally obsessed with the subject in order to even attempt this. As one man I spoke to last summer on Inis Mor told me, "Tim Robinson is probably the kind of person if you met you'd want to buy a coffee, because he was probably walking for five days beforehand!"

If I ran into Tim Robinson, I would be honored to buy him a coffee.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Céad Míle Fáilte! (One Hundred Thousand Welcomes)

Greetings, blogosphere. I'm delighted and excited to begin this blog. I've been planning it for a while, and I can now devote the time and energy necessary to make it what I want it to be.

In 2005, as a college freshman, I fell in love with the writing of the Irish playwright John Millington Synge, and after reading his travel memoir The Aran Islands, more of his plays, essays, poetry, and his biography, I realized I was in love with his love of Aran.

Synge visited Aran five times during his lifetime. Twice I have been pulled to Aran because of Synge - in 2007 for 3 days, and in 2010 for a month. Those two visits cemented my love of the Aran Islands, and catalyzed a fascinating path of self discovery. I'm returning for a third visit to the islands this summer to see what else I'll find.

This blog will be devoted to sharing my research on Synge and the Aran Islands, photos, quotations, poetry, and exciting Aran or Synge-related news and events.

Looking forward to your comments!