Thanks very much for getting back to me. I apologize for the slight delay in responding to you!
To introduce myself. I live in New York City. I have always been deeply immersed in literature. I taught English at the college level for a while as an adjunct professor, although that was not my major profession. I host two web sites/blogs devoted largely to literature (plus personal writings of mine).
A few weeks ago, on the recommendation of my wife, who had seen it with a friend, I went to a play at the Irish Repertory Theatre in Manhattan: The Aran Islands. It was a revelation for me. I came home from the play desirous of reading Synge, whom I hadn’t read before. (I also watched the Robert Flaherty film Man of Aran.)
I purchased the Penguin paperback of The Aran Islands. I loved it and got a lot out of it. Per my usual habit, I read the work slowly and deliberately, often reading certain paragraphs and passages several times, savoring the language and descriptions; the impressions and gleanings one gets from the place and the people; plus, the beautiful descriptions of sea, storms, and sky. It was like taking a trip and getting a taste of a strange, remote place.
“There has been a storm for the last twenty-four hours, and I have been wandering on the cliffs till my hair is stiff with salt. Immense masses of spray were flying up from the base of the cliff, and were caught at times by the wind and whirled away to fall at some distance from the shore. When one of these happened to fall on me, I had to crouch down for an instant, wrapped and blinded by a white hail of foam.
“The waves were so enormous that when I saw one more than usually large coming towards me, I turned instinctively to hide myself, as one blinks when struck upon the eyes.
“After a few hours the mind grows bewildered with the endless change and struggle of the sea, and an utter despondency replaces the first moment of exhilaration. …
“About the sunset the clouds broke and the storm turned to a hurricane. Bars of purple cloud stretched across the sound where immense waves were rolling from the west, wreathed with snowy phantasies of spray. Then there was the bay full of green delirium, and the Twelve Pins touches the mauve and scarlet in the east.
“The suggestion from this world of inarticulate power was immense, and now at midnight, when the wind is abating, I am still trembling and flushed with exultation.”
“My intercourse with these people has made me realize that miracles must abound whenever the new conception of law in not understood. On these islands alone miracles enough happen every year to equip a divine emissary. Rye is turned into oats, storms are raised to keep evictors from the shore, cows that are isolated on lonely rocks bring forth calves, and other things of the same kind are common.”
“It is likely that much of the intelligence and charm of these people is due to the absence of any division of labour, and to the correspondingly wide development of each individual, whose varied knowledge and skill necessitate a considerable activity of mind. Each man can speak two languages. He is a skilled fisherman, and can manage a curagh with extraordinary nerve and dexterity. He can farm simply, burh kelp, cut out pampooties, mend nets, build and thatch a house, and make a cradle or a coffin. His work changes with the seasons in a way that keeps him free from the dullness that comes to people who have always the same occupation. The danger of his life on the sea gives him the alertness of a primitive hunter, and the long nights he spends fishing in his curagh bring him some of the emotions that are thought peculiar to men who have lived with the arts.”
And, a quote Synge heard indirectly from the inhabitants: “Would anyone kill his father if he was able to help it?”
A reviewer of The Aran Islands on Amazon.com, it seems, put well what I think:
People have often said to me that they find Synge’s account of his time spent honing his Irish and collecting folklore on the Aran Islands to be one of the slowest and most boring reads they’ve ever encountered. I must heartily disagree.
While the work doesn’t exactly swing like a pendulum, the rhythms of his narration are very much like that of the changing tide and the rolling of the waves to which the islanders have grown accustomed. Synge’s narration — like time on Inishmaan — moves slowly and steadily, washing over the reader if one will let it.
Yes, “washing over the reader.” This is what happened to me as I proceeded slowly, a page or two at a time, through the book.
Regarding my compliments on your introduction and the edition as edited by you, I should note that I rarely read introductions prior to reading a book. I don’t want my impressions to be “muddied” beforehand. But, as I was reading, I found your footnotes extremely informative and well done. I could see the prodigious amount of work you had done in explaining difficult passages and allusions to local history and folklore and to specific locales as well as (crucially) Irish words and phrases. Then, there was much bibliographic information derived from rare books about Synge and the islands that could be easily overlooked. How do you manage to find such books (such as rare works in Irish)? How many editors of reissued literary works go to such lengths?
When I got to your introduction, I was fully absorbed in it and learned a great deal. It was not your routine introduction to a paperback reissue. Your impressive vocabulary alone was worth the trip. I kept jotting down words such as immiserated, nucleate, impercipient, immiscible, detrital, excursus, “inanimate vastitude,” and so forth. The introduction was so pithy and informative, so well researched and insightful. It makes one want to know more about Synge.
I am aware of your two books about the islands, having become so only recently. I hope to be able to find the time to read them.
July 30, 2017
J. M. Synge, The Aran Islands, edited with an introduction by Tim Robinson (Penguin, 1992)
Tim Robinson is a writer and cartographer. Born in Yorkshire, he lives on the Aran Islands, off the coast of County Galway in Ireland.