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The Aran Islands
By J.M. Synge
Serif BooksCopyright © 2015 Serif
All rights reserved.
I am in Aranmor, sitting over a turf fire, listening to a murmur of Gaelic that is rising from a little public house under my room.
The steamer which comes to Aran sails according to the tide, and it was six o'clock this morning when we left the quay of Galway in a dense shroud of mist.
A low line of shore was visible at first on the right between the movement of the waves and fog, but when we came further it was lost sight of, and nothing could be seen but the mist curling in the rigging and a small circle of foam.
There were few passengers; a couple of men going out with young pigs tied loosely in sacking, three or four young girls who sat in the cabin with their heads completely twisted in their shawls, and a builder on his way to repair the pier at Kilronan, who walked up and down and talked with me.
In about three hours Aran came in sight. A dreary rock appeared at first sloping up from the sea into the fog; then, as we drew nearer, a coastguard station and the village.
A little later I was wandering out along the one good roadway of the island, looking over low walls on either side into small flat fields of naked rock. I have seen nothing so desolate. Grey floods of water were sweeping everywhere upon the limestone, making at times a wild torrent of the road, which twined continually over low hills and cavities in the rock or passed between a few small fields of potatoes or grass hidden away in corners that had shelter. Whenever the cloud lifted, I could see the edge of the sea below me on the right and the naked ridge of the island above me on the other side. Occasionally I passed a lonely chapel or schoolhouse, or a line of stone pillars with crosses above them and inscriptions asking a prayer for the soul of the person they commemorated.
I met few people; but here and there a band of tall girls passed me on their way to Kilronan and called out to me with humorous wonder, speaking English with a slight foreign intonation that differed a good deal from the brogue of Galway. The rain and cold seemed to have no influence on their vitality and, as they hurried past me with eager laughter and great talking in Gaelic, they left the wet masses of rock more desolate than before.
A little after midday when I was coming back one old half-blind man spoke to me in Gaelic, but, in general, I was surprised at the abundance and fluency of the foreign tongue.
In the afternoon the rain continued, so I sat here in the inn looking out through the mist at a few men who were unlading hookers that had come in with turf from Connemara, and at the long-legged pigs that were playing in the surf. As the fishermen came in and out of the public house underneath my room, I could hear through the broken panes that a number of them still used the Gaelic, though it seems to be falling out of use among the younger people of this village.
The old woman of the house had promised to get me a teacher of the language, and after a while I heard a shuffling on the stairs and the old dark man I had spoken to in the morning groped his way into the room.
I brought him over to the fire and we talked for many hours. He told me that he had known Petrie and Sir William Wilde, and many living antiquarians, and had taught Irish to Dr Finck and Dr Pedersen, and given stories to Mr Curtin of America. A little after middle age he had fallen over a cliff, and since then he had had little eyesight and a trembling of his hands and head.
As we talked, he sat huddled together over the fire, shaking and blind, yet his face was indescribably pliant, lighting up with an ecstasy of humour when he told me anything that had a point of wit or malice, and growing sombre and desolate again when he spoke of religion or the fairies.
He had great confidence in his own powers and talent and in the superiority of his stories over all other stories in the world. When we were speaking of Mr Curtin, he told me that this gentleman had brought out a volume of his Aran stories in America, and made five hundred pounds by the sale of them.
'And what do you think he did then?' he continued. 'He wrote a book of his own stories after making that lot of money with mine. And he brought them out, and the divil a halfpenny did he get for them. Would you believe that?'
Afterwards he told me how one of his children had been taken by the fairies.
One day a neighbour was passing, and she said, when she saw it on the road, 'That's a fine child.'
Its mother tried to say, 'God bless it,' but something choked the words in her throat.
A while later they found a wound on its neck, and for three nights the house was filled with noises.
'I never wear a shirt at night,' he said, 'but I got up out of my bed, all naked as I was, when I heard the noises in the house, and lighted a light, but there was nothing in it.'
Then a dummy came and made signs of hammering nails in a coffin.
The next day the seed potatoes were full of blood and the child told his mother that he was going to America.
That night it died, and 'Believe me,' said the old man, 'the fairies were in it.'
When he went away, a little barefooted girl was sent up with turf and the bellows to make a fire that would last for the evening.
She was shy, yet eager to talk, and told me that she had good spoken Irish and was learning to read it in the school, and that she had been twice to Galway, though there are many grown women in the place who have never set a foot upon the mainland.
The rain has cleared off, and I have had my first real introduction to the island and its people.
I went out through Killeany – the poorest village on Aranmor – to a long neck of sandhill that runs out into the sea towards the south-west. As I lay there on the grass, the clouds lifted from the Connemara mountains and, for a moment, the green undulating foreground, backed in the distance by a mass of hills, reminded me of the country near Rome. Then the dun top-sail of a hooker swept above the edge of the sandhill and revealed the presence of the sea.
As I moved on, a boy and a man came down from the next village to talk to me, and I found that here, at least, English was imperfectly understood. When I asked them if there were any trees in the island they held a hurried consultation in Gaelic, and then the man asked if 'tree' meant the same thing as 'bush', for if so there were a few in sheltered hollows to the east.
They walked on with me to the sound which separates this island from Inishmaan – the middle island of the group – and showed me the roll from the Atlantic running up between two walls of cliff.
They told me that several men had stayed on Inishmaan to learn Irish, and the boy pointed out a line of hovels where they had lodged running like a belt of straw round the middle of the island. The place looked hardly fit for habitation. There was no green to be seen and no sign of the people except these beehive-like roofs and the outline of a Dun that stood out above them against the edge of the sky.
After a while my companions went away and two other boys came and walked at my heels, till I turned and made them talk to me. They spoke at first of their poverty, and then one of them said, 'I dare say you do have to pay ten shillings a week in the hotel?'
'More,' I answered.
Then he drew back and did not question me any further, either thinking that I had lied to check his curiosity, or too awed by my riches to continue.
Repassing Killeany, I was joined by a man who had spent twenty years in America, where he had lost his health and then returned, so long ago that he had forgotten English and could hardly make me understand him. He seemed hopeless, dirty and asthmatic, and after going with me for a few hundred yards he stopped and asked for coppers. I had none left, so I gave him a fill of tobacco and he went back to his hovel.
When he was gone, two little girls took their place behind me and I drew them in turn into conversation.
They spoke with a delicate exotic intonation that was full of charm, and told me with a sort of chant how they guide 'ladies and gintlemins' in the summer to all that is worth seeing in their neighbourhood, and sell them pampooties and maidenhair ferns, which are common among the rocks.
We were now in Kilronan, and as we parted they showed me holes in their own pampooties, or cowskin sandals, and asked me the price of new ones. I told them that my purse was empty, and then with a few quaint words of blessing they turned away from me and went down to the pier.
All this walk back had been extraordinarily fine. The intense insular clearness one sees only in Ireland, and after rain, was throwing out every ripple in the sea and sky and every crevice in the hills beyond the bay.
This evening an old man came to see me and said he had known a relative of mine who passed some time on this island forty-three years ago.
'I was standing under the pier-wall mending nets,' he said, 'when you came off the steamer, and I said to myself in that moment, if there is a man of the name of Synge left walking the world, it is that man yonder will be he.' He went on to complain in curiously simple yet dignified language of the changes that have taken place here since he left the island to go to sea before the end of his childhood.
'I have come back,' he said, 'to live in a bit of a house with my sister. The island is not the same at all to what it was. It is little good I can get from the people who are in it now, and anything I have to give them they don't care to have.'
From what I hear, this man seems to have shut himself up in a world of individual conceits and theories and to live aloof at his trade of net-mending, regarded by the other islanders with respect and half-ironical sympathy.
A little later when I went down to the kitchen I found two men from Inishmaan who had been benighted on the island. They seemed a simpler and perhaps a more interesting type than the people here, and talked with careful English about the history of the Duns, and the Book of Ballymote and the Book of Kells and other ancient MSS, with the names of which they seemed familiar.
In spite of the charm of my teacher, the old blind man I met the day of my arrival, I have decided to move on to Inishmaan, where Gaelic is more generally used and the life is perhaps the most primitive that is left in Europe.
I spent all this last day with my blind guide, looking at the antiquities that abound in the west or north-west of the island.
As we set out, I noticed among the groups of girls who smiled at our fellowship – old Mourteen says we are like the cuckoo with its pipit – a beautiful oval face with the singularly spiritual expression that is so marked in one type of the West Ireland women. Later in the day, as the old man talked continually of the fairies and the women they have taken, it seemed that there was a possible link between the wild mythology that is accepted on the islands and the strange beauty of the women.
At midday we rested near the ruins of a house and two beautiful boys came up and sat near us. Old Mourteen asked them why the house was in ruins and who had lived in it.
'A rich farmer built it a while since,' they said, 'but after two years he was driven away by the fairy host.'
The boys came on with us some distance to the north to visit one of the ancient beehive dwellings that is still in perfect preservation. When we crawled in on our hands and knees and stood up in the gloom of the interior, old Mourteen took a freak of earthly humour and began telling what he would have done if he could have come in there when he was a young man and a young girl along with him.
Then he sat down in the middle of the floor and began to recite old Irish poetry with an exquisite purity of intonation that brought tears to my eyes though I understood but little of the meaning.
On our way home he gave me the Catholic theory of the fairies.
When Lucifer saw himself in the glass he thought himself equal with God. Then the Lord threw him out of Heaven, and all the angels that belonged to him. While He was 'chucking them out', an archangel asked Him to spare some of them, and those that were falling are in the air still, and have power to wreck ships and to work evil in the world.
From this he wandered off into tedious matters of theology and repeated many long prayers and sermons in Irish that he had heard from the priests.
A little further on we came to a slated house and I asked him who was living in it.
'A kind of a schoolmistress,' he said; then his old face puckered with a gleam of pagan malice.
'Ah, master,' he said, 'wouldn't it be fine to be in there, and to be kissing her?'
A couple of miles from this village we turned aside to look at an old ruined church of the Ceathrar Alainn (The Four Beautiful Persons), and a holy well near it that is famous for cures of blindness and epilepsy.
As we sat near the well, a very old man came up from a cottage near the road and told me how it had become famous.
'A woman of Sligo had a son who was born blind, and one night she dreamed that she saw an island with a blessed well in it that could cure her son. She told her dream in the morning, and an old man said it was of Aran she was after dreaming.
'She brought her son down by the coast of Galway, and came out in a curagh, and landed below where you see a bit of a cove.
'She walked up then to the house of my father – God rest his soul – and she told them what she was looking for. 'My father said that there was a well like what she had dreamed of, and that he would send a boy along with her to show her the way.
'"There's no need, at all," said she, "haven't I seen it all in my dream?"
'Then she went out with the child and walked up to this well, and she kneeled down and began saying her prayers. Then she put her hand out for the water, and put it on his eyes, and the moment it touched him he called out: "O mother, look at the pretty flowers!"'
After that Mourteen described the feats of poteen drinking and fighting that he did in his youth, and went on to talk of Diarmaid, who was the strongest man after Samson, and of one of the beds of Diarmaid and Grainne, which is on the east of the islands. He says that Diarmaid was killed by the druids, who put a burning shirt on him, a fragment of mythology that may connect Diarmaid with the legend of Hercules, if it is not due to the 'learning' in some hedge-school master's ballad.
Then we talked about Inishmaan.
'You'll have an old man to talk with you over there,' he said, 'and tell you stories of the fairies, but he's walking about with two sticks under him this ten year. Did ever you hear what it is goes on four legs when it is young, and on two legs after that, and on three legs when it does be old?'
I gave him the answer.
'Ah, master,' he said, 'you're a cute one, and the blessing of God be on you. Well, I'm on three legs this minute, but the old man beyond is back on four; I don't know if I'm better than the way he is; he's got his sight and I'm only an old dark man.'
I am settled at last on Inishmaan in a small cottage with a continual drone of Gaelic coming from the kitchen that opens into my room.
Early this morning the man of the house came over for me with a four-oared curagh – that is, a curagh with four rowers and four oars on either side, as each man uses two – and we set off a little before noon.
It gave me a moment of exquisite satisfaction to find myself moving away from civilisation in this rude canvas canoe of a model that has served primitive races since men first went on the sea.
We had to stop for a moment at a hulk that is anchored in the bay, to make some arrangements for the fish-curing of the middle island, and my crew called out as soon as we were within earshot that they had a man with them who had been in France a month from this day.
When we started again, a small sail was run up in the bow and we set off across the sound with a leaping oscillation that had no resemblance to the heavy movement of a boat.
The sail is only used as an aid, so the men continued to row after it had gone up, and as they occupied the four cross-seats I lay on the canvas at the stern and the frame of slender laths, which bent and quivered as the waves passed under them.
When we set off it was a brilliant morning of April and the green, glittering waves seemed to toss the canoe among themselves, yet as we drew nearer this island a sudden thunderstorm broke out behind the rocks we were approaching and lent a momentary tumult to this still vein of the Atlantic.
We landed at a small pier from which a rude track leads up to the village between small fields and bare sheets of rock like those in Aranmor. The youngest son of my boatman, a boy of about seventeen, who is to be my teacher and guide, was waiting for me at the pier and guided me to his house, while the men settled the curagh and followed slowly with my baggage.
Excerpted from The Aran Islands by J.M. Synge. Copyright © 2015 Serif. Excerpted by permission of Serif Books.
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