In the morning, I set out to visit their cottage, which has recently been renovated and reopened as a Synge museum. When I get there, however, everything is locked up tight. There is no sign on the door with posted hours, just a sign on the corner saying Teach Synge (Synge Cottage). For the moment, I will have to move on to another of Synge’s favorite haunts on the island.
A ten minute walk up through a lace network of stone walls leads to the Dun Chonchuir, the remains of a massive stone fort that once guarded the town. In 700 B.C., the circular fort (as was very common in this part of Ireland) served as an easily defensible position against hostile neighboring tribes on the other islands and, later, marauding Vikings. It is now a quiet circle of grass surrounded by crumbling stone walls some twenty feet thick in places. Synge would come up here to have a smoke, maybe a nap, and occasionally a chat with one of the locals who would come up to see if there was anything interesting in Synge’s newspaper.
Once I’ve had my smoke (it was a bit too cold to nap), I amble back down to Teach Synge to see if it had opened up yet. Still no sign of anybody around, so I head off to what is known as “Synge’s Chair” (Cathoir Synge in Gaelic). According to what I’ve read, Synge found one of the most remote places on this remote island, and created a little shelter for himself by piling rocks up in a small semi-circle enclosure. The owner of Tig Congaile told me to follow the one main road on the island until it reached the end and then follow the signs to the path. I would know when I reached his chair because it would be the pile of rocks with a small plaque proclaiming Cathoir Synge.
I trudge off on the only main road on the island and one of the few roads I can see anywhere. Along my left is a steep rise completely covered with the loose shale seen everywhere on the island. On my right are hundreds of postage-size fields, walled off completely with rocks. There are rocks literally everywhere. Rock walls five feet high and two feet wide run crazily across the landscape. Sheep and cattle are hedged in to fields not much bigger than a basketball court. The fields and rock walls lead straight down to the water, or in some cases, right off the cliffs that rise up out of the water. Sheep cling to the sides of the island, silhouetted against an ocean that is two-hundred feet below them.
One of the main industries on the island is certainly raising sheep. Of course the lambs are used for meat, but the islanders traditionally don’t eat much meat. They can make more money selling the lambs on the mainland. The wool is brought down to the Inis Meain Knitwear factory, which is an odd anachronism on this island that time forgot. The showroom for the Inis Meain Knitwear factory is done with large glass windows, funky lighting, modern furniture and intelligent displays. It could just as easily be the newest store in New York. In fact, Inis Meain Knitwear sweaters, scarves, gloves and shirts can be found in Bergdorf’s and Saks.
The other way to make money on Inis Meain is by fishing and lobstering. Many men still use the traditional curraghs that have been used on the island for centuries. Instead of heavy fiberglass or steel boats, the Aran islanders use stretched canvas over a light wood frame. The canvas is tarred to make it waterproof, and the men wear special pampooties rather than shoes or boots so as not to tear the canvas. They lobster in much the same way they did in Synge’s time – by setting traps, waiting for the lobsters to enter them and then hauling the heavy traps into a boat that is chucking and rolling in the surf. Nowadays, however, the lobster catch is airlifted straight to Paris
At then end of the road, I do find a sign pointing me up and over one of the nearest stone walls and across a field made entirely of loose stone. After that, I climb over another stone wall and look around in amazement. It is as if the islanders just couldn’t stop making stone walls. There are stone walls dividing up fields of stone. There is no grass on these fields, just slate. I also pass huge piles of stone, but not just piles. This stone has been stacked in wonderful square towers five and six feet high. It is difficult to tell whether these were done by locals or visitors with too much time on their hands, but they are certainly an impressive sight against the bleak expanses of rock.
After another couple of stone fields separated by rock walls, I come to a rough semicircle of stones piled up and a plaque confirming that this is, in fact, Synge’s chair. I go around to the front where there is a natural seating area and plant myself. Facing out, I see what he saw: the raging sea and the southern tip of the northernmost island, Inis Moir. I can see two dozen houses scattered around its only town, Cill Ronain. As I inch forward toward the cliff, I can also see the water some three hundred feet below me and can hear where those rolling waves coming in off the Atlantic hit the first land they’ve seen in thousands of miles. However, I can’t see where the surf actually hits; it’s too far down.
Synge often brought his notebook here and wrote while he sat and smoked, so after I have my lunch, I bring out my notebook and pipe. The problem is that the view is entirely too distracting. I want to watch the enormous waves roll through the channel for hours. I can see County Mayo off in the distance, just as Synge often could when the weather was clear. I put my pen and notebook back in my backpack and concentrate on enjoying the sheer isolation of his study
It is late afternoon by the time I head back into town to give Teach Synge one more try. Alas, it is still closed up tight. However the tiny general store across the street has opened, so I head in to buy some postcards and water. Before I can open my mouth, the kindly, ruddy-faced man behind the counter asks if I am enjoying my stay on the island. I am clearly not from around here. I explain why I’m here, and we chat for a while. He shows me a poster from when the Druid Theatre of Galway came to the island in the summer of 2005 to perform the entire Synge cycle in Dun Chonchuir. Apparently the performances under the stars were truly magical; they also brought in hordes of guests to the island from as far away as Tokyo and New York. The shows were even reviewed in the New York Times.
I ask him about Teach Synge. “Oh,” he says, “You’ll have to hunt down Martin. He’s around here somewhere. He’ll open it for you.” He heads out onto the porch and squints into the sun. “Ah sure, there he is on his tractor heading this way,” and he points out a man on a tractor driving up the long slope behind the cottage
By the time I pay for my things and get back across to the cottage, Martin has already hopped off and is in his yard taking down the wash that was hanging out to dry.
“Hello,” I call out. “Is it possible to open up the cottage? I’m a writer from America doing a book on Synge and…” Without a word, Martin turns and walks into the house. Stunned, I have absolutely no idea what to do. I stand in the road confused until he pokes his head around the cottage and calls out “will you be coming in or no?
Stooping through the low doorway, I enter the room where Synge sat for weeks on end gathering stories from the local wise men and chatting with the young girls. Martin shows me Synge’s room, cleanly whitewashed and sparse with just a bed and a chair. In another room, there was a whole display set out on the bed describing the renovation and the reopening ceremony. The playwright Brian Friel, the actor Stephen Rea, and the Irish scholar Declan Kiberd, along with many others gathered on the island to celebrate Synge’s legacy and the reopening of the house. The main room, where all the cooking and conversation took place, has been set up to recreate Synge’s time there with woolen socks drying by the fire and a teakettle on the hob. Perhaps that is why everything has a made up feel to it, and, after giving some money to help with thatching the roof (a time consuming and expensive exercise), I shuffle back down the road to the Tig Congaile to pick up my bag before I get back on the boat to go back to the mainland. I think back over the day and where I felt the most connected to the genius of Synge. For me, sitting looking out over the ocean, watching the same water come rolling in off the Atlantic as it had for millions of years, I could understand what kept him coming back to this island and why he wrote so passionately about his time here.
The winds have shifted by the time I step back on the boat and the trip back to shore is a relatively smooth one. It is dusk and I don’t have a place to stay again. But I’m following Synge’s paths tonight into County Mayo, the setting for his play, The Playboy of the Western World, that set Dublin to rioting in 1907. I have faith I’ll find something.
Causes Robert Felton Supports
The Sierra Club, Soccer without Borders,