The man behind the theatre

A look into the life of one of Trinity’s most celebrated alumni. J.M. Synge

Photo by Thomas Rafferty

J.M. Synge is one of those names that will ring a bell with many Trinity students, even if they can’t remember why. His is one of many names that adorn lecture theatres around campus, though most of us don’t know much about the life behind the name.

Born in 1871, John Millington Synge was a playwright, poet, and collector of folklore. Amongst other achievements, he was also one of the key players in the Irish Literary Revival of the early 20th century. He was a founder of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre along with some contemporaries you may have heard of, including Lady Gregory and W.B. Yeats. In fact, Synge had something of an obsession with the concept of revival and the unearthing of unexplored aspects of culture. Although he was born to wealthy Anglo-Irish parents, he quickly became enamoured with the lives of ‘ordinary’ Irish people.

Synge was encouraged by W.B. Yeats to give a literary voice to rural Ireland; Yeats is quoted as telling his protégé to “give up Paris” and to head for the Aran Islands instead where he could “express a life that has never found expression”. Taking this advice, Synge travelled extensively throughout the west of Ireland which inspired many of his plays as well as his travel journal, The Aran Islands.

Although much of his informal education happened in the fields and villages of Connemara, Synge was taught formally in the urban surrounds of Trinity College, Dublin. In his four years of study he took classes in Hebrew, Irish and Music. He combined his knowledge of classical forms and his fascination with the Aran Islands in his one-act play Riders to the Sea which plays out like a Gaelic take on a classic tragedy.

Many of his stories came to be widely appreciated both in Ireland and abroad, but Synge also received public criticism, especially among nationalist audiences. His 1907 play The Playboy of the Western World became his most controversial work, sparking riots against its allegedly violent and stereotypical depiction of people from the West of Ireland. Despite protestation at the time, this work has gone on to be Synge’s most often revived, translated, and adapted play. Marking its 110th anniversary earlier this year, Trinity curated an online exhibition centred around the play which included photographs of Inis Meáin taken by Synge himself.

Synge suffered from illness for much of his life, including asthma and eventually Hodgkin’s disease, leading to his early death at the age of 37. In tragic circumstances similar to those of many of his plays, Synge died before getting to marry his fiancée Molly Allgood, an actress who starred in many of his productions. In addition to his dramatic works, Synge also wrote poetry, a collection of which was published after his death with a preface by Yeats.

If Synge’s story teaches us anything it’s that, while our education may begin in Trinity, it will continue well beyond the confines of any lecture hall.