Frank, Jack and Eibhlín Dubh: The Lament for Art O’Leary

Caoineadh Áirt Úi Laoghaire (The Lament for Art O’Leary) is a classic work of Irish literature. Composed as a keen by his widow, Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonail (Dark Eileen O’Connell, pronounced Eileen Duv), in the immediate aftermath of his death in 1773, it survived in oral tradition until it was finally collected from an aged professional keener in Millstreet and written down about 1800. Here are the opening lines in Irish followed by Frank O’Connor’s translation. (For those who would like to read the full text in Irish, you can find it here, with a translation by Thomas Kinsella.)

Mo ghrá go daingean tu!

Lá dá bhfaca thu

ag ceann tí an mhargaidh,

thug mo shúil aire dhuit,

thug mo chroí taitnearnh duit,

d’éalaíos óm charaid leat

i bhfad ó bhaile leat.

Keening was a women’s prerogative and tradition, and this keen is powerful and poetic, with long sonorous vowels, patterns of repetitive phrases, and all the devastated grief of a heartbroken woman. To get a sense of the pronunciation in Irish, the best reading I have come across is this one by Joanne Ryan.

The Lament has been translated many times, including by Thomas Kinsella, Brendan Kennelly, Vona Groarke and Eilís Dillon. In 1940, the Cuala Press brought out a special limited edition of the poem, in a translation by Frank O’Connor and with illustrations by Jack B Yeats. The Cuala Press was run by Elizabeth (Lolly) Yeats, sister of Jack B and William B, and was a driving force in the proliferation of printed material, beautifully produced, related to the Irish literary and artistic revival. 

Frank O’Connor (above), although better known for his short stories, was a scholar of the Irish language and translated many poems into English. His version is magnificent, capturing Eibhlín Dubh’s passion and fierceness and the rhythm and cadence of her keen. 

Art O’Leary was a handsome young cavalry officer in the army of Maria Theresa of Austria. He returned to Ireland upon his marriage to Eibhlín and they had two children. She was pregnant with a third (who did not survive) when he was shot dead by Abraham Morris, a local magistrate, when Art refused to sell Morris his horse for £5, as required by the Penal Laws. Art O’Leary is buried at Kilcrea Friary, above. His grave can be seen there (below).

The Lament lauds Art’s many virtues and paints a picture of him as brave and handsome, in the flower of his manhood.

Eibhlín curses Morris, and tells how, when Art’s horse came home alone, she leapt into the saddle to search for him.

She found him lying dead in a pool of blood, which she cupped in her hands and drank.

Jack B Yeats’ illustrations have the same wild quality that we imagine was characteristic of Eibhlín Dubh – an untamed spirit who expressed the extremes of great joy and pride and deep anguish. They are pen and ink drawings, hand coloured at the Cuala Press with light washes in blues, yellows and browns for the limited edition. Very little of Yeats’ illustrative work is included in the current, must-see, exhibition of his paintings in the National Gallery, and I was very pleased indeed to find this book online as part of the Internet Archives digital library.

Ireland 50 Years Ago: Jack B Yeats Special Edition 1

A special edition of Ireland of the Welcomes, July-August 1971, was devoted to Jack B Yeats, in honour of the hundredth anniversary of his birth. Having been intensely moved recently by the National Gallery’s exhibition, Jack B Yeats: Painting and Memory, I was interested to look at how he was viewed in 1971, as part of my Ireland 50 Years Ago series.

The illustrations are all from this issue and sorry – photographing from an old magazine doesn’t guarantee the greatest quality. This post will take us up to the beginning of his career as an expressionist painter, after he honed his drawing and watercolour skills and started to exhibit. This part of Yeats’ work is not really covered in the National Gallery Exhibition, which is almost entirely devoted to his oil paintings and is organised thematically rather than chronologically.

Island Funeral, rendered in the magazine in black and white

The long article is by Roger McHugh, based on his Introduction to the Dolmen Press book Jack B Yeats, A Centenary Gathering. Roger McHugh was himself an esteemed academic at UCC, a writer, playwright and critic, an ardent republican, and according to his bio in the Dictionary of Irish Biography, ‘an enthralling dinner-table raconteur.’ His analysis is insightful and evocative. I will simply use his words after the poem by MacDonagh and through the rest of the post, indicated by italics.

The article begins with a poem by Donagh MacDonagh (an equally  erudite man with an impressive literary and nationalist pedigree) which I will quote in full as it expresses wonderfully what it is to look at a Yeats painting.

Love of the dusty rose 

Blooming above the Square 

Lights the whole studio 

And singer, fisher, clown, 

Horseman and Saddled Horse

Surge through the winter air

Razing the years and the walls 

For the wild man of the fair

To snatch the wagered purse

And bring the champion down.

The women by Liffey side,

The pig-buyer home from the fair,

The horse taking time in its stride

Are dead, with the big-muscled men

Who bullied their way into sight

And froze in an arrogant stare;

But they and the sailors of Sligo

Are bright in a memory where

Colour condenses in light

And the starved rose blushes again.

Donagh MacDonagh

Create? The painter had his reservations: ‘No one creates’, he wrote; ‘the artist assembles memories’. By this I think he meant that the intense moment is always already past but that observation, memory and technique can recapture it. . . He thought that ‘painting was the freest and greatest means of communication we have’ and that the finest paintings always had ‘some of the living ginger of life in them’.

As a youth in Sligo He preferred to play around the quays and the streets, inspecting with due reverence sea captains, sailors and pilots, or at country fairs and sports observing and sketching small farmers, pig-jobbers, worried shopkeepers, untamed tinkers, shouting ballad singers, exultant jockeys surrounded  by triumphant or sullen wild faces, or the stirring arrivals of Bianconi long cars, of bands, of circuses.

This drawing (also reproduced from Ireland of the Welcomes) is an illustration from Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World. Read more about Yeats’ and Synge’s collaborations in this post

As a background to these assorted characters was a setting of great variety; cliffs whose wildness was accentuated by the ‘crashing wind and lashing sea’ . . . legended mountains like Ben Bulben and Knocknarea, long reaches of sand sometimes marked ominously by wrecks perhaps dating to the Armada.

Jack B Yeats as painted by his father, John Butler Yeats. I find it uncanny how little his expression changed between this boyhood image and a photograph taken of him as an older man (below)

Even at sixteen he had started his career as a professional illustrator . . . he illustrated school-books, newspapers, periodicals, comic-cuts, racing papers.

Where England gave him many subjects for his illustrations and sketches, Ireland provided almost all those for the drawings and watercolours which he exhibited up to 1911 in Dublin and London. The Painters who exhibited at the Royal Hibernian Academy at that time were either English or Irish imitators of the Leightons and the Poynters, titled men who set the standard. ‘It was into their varnished world where it was nice to see a bit of Normandy or something from Surrey painted by an Irish artist,’ wrote C. P. Curran, ‘that Jack Yeats broke with his troop of tinkers and maggie-men, jockeys and drovers, pig-jobbers and purse-proud horse dealers, stout farmers and sea-faring men, the whole life of a little western town by the sea. It was very exciting, but was it art?

Following his own lead about the affectionate zest for life that is the basis of artistic achievement, I think that people untutored in technique but with some sensitivity can catch the essential elements of those early works. . . . They depict individuals. . . . but in such a way as to capture some essential quality which lifts the picture above its particulars. A tinker is painted in black garb which is set against the black of rock and the dark sky, relieved by a glimpse of white sea-foam. His wild eyes gleam from a ‘black-avised narrow face; he seems the embodiment of some wild night spirit.

The line-drawing of the squireen, bowler-hatted, gloomily assertive, owes much to the sharp, sure vertical lines of his coat and umbrella set against the curve of road, wall and mountain.

The next post will take us through his life as the greatest of Irish painters. Here’s a sample image from the article.

Remembering Maeve

We spent yesterday afternoon at the Echoes Festival in Dalkey, a celebration of the life and work of Maeve Binchy and her impact on Irish writing. Maeve, who died in 2012, was universally beloved, and nowhere more so than in my house. You see, Maeve was a great friend to my mother, the writer Lilian Roberts Finlay (that’s the two of them, above at the Vancouver Writers’ Festival). As a writer, Lilian was nowhere near as successful as Maeve but that didn’t matter to Maeve. She was supportive and generous and encouraging and caring: when we cleaned out Lilian’s house we found notes and cards from Maeve, always cheerful and positive. 

Lilian and Maeve shared a stage at the Vancouver Writer’s Festival in 1998 and I think every Irish person in Vancouver was at their talk, including a huge contingent from the Irish Women’s Network. It was a great success – Lilian (below) was a superb reader of her own stories (that time in the Abbey School of Acting had not been wasted) and Maeve was, well, wonderful. 

Maeve and Gordon invited Lilian and me to lunch with them at their hotel – this lunch will live in my memory forever because it confirmed what everyone always says about Maeve: she was, in person, exactly as you imagine her to be – kind, funny, fascinating, witty and incredibly warm. She and Gordon were sweet and loving with each other, with lots of banter to make us all laugh and keep the talk flowing. Because we proudly claim Maeve for Ireland, we forget that the rest of the world loved her too and often read her in translation. Maeve was huge in North America – here’s the photo by Derek Speirs that accompanied her obit in the New York Times.

The Echoes Festival afternoon we attended was a forceful reminder of what a powerhouse Maeve was in Irish writing. The discussions were wide-ranging and focused on her influence on contemporary novel-writing – her insistence on using her own voice, on being authentically Irish and never pandering to those who might not understand our idiom, on allowing Irish girls and women to see their own lives on the page. 

Moderator Caroline Erskine with Turtle Bunbury, Rachael English, Caelainn Hogan and Phil Mullen

Phil Mullen read her own story about stealing the pennies for the Black Babies, and we all nodded along in recognition, even as were were appalled at her treatment in the industrial school where she grew up. A lighter note was struck by Maeve’s cousin, Gillian Binchy, about her Communion Dress – a story worthy of Maeve herself.  

Maeve wrote for and about women (write what you know was one of her mantras, a maxim she spun into very funny anecdotes about not writing about orgies) and one of the sessions fittingly took shape around the secrets and shame faced by Irish women in the 20th century. 

At Echoes in 2017, Margaret Kelleher, UCD professor of Anglo-Irish literature and drama, said that close study of Binchy’s writing suggests she will be regarded as a “key witness and chronicler of Irish life in the last decades of the 20th century and the first decade of the next”.

YOU STILL CAN’T HOPE FOR BETTER COMPany than maeve binchy
by Henrietta Mckervey, irish INDEPENDENT
Róisín Ingle (left) moderated a discussion with (l to r) Sarah Maria Griffin, Anna Carey and Chris Binchy

All the speakers, writers, readers and moderators were excellent. We’re already planning to attend the full event next year. And – can we say – this was our first live-audience indoor event in almost two years. Tickets were limited to ensure social distancing, and we wore masks throughout, but oh my goodness how great it felt to be part of a live event again!

Seaweed and Sealing Wax

Finola has been involved in the Ellen Hutchins Festival since it began in 2015 – the 200th anniversary of the death of Ireland’s first female botanist. This year she was asked to help organise and MC an outdoor event, and has had a very busy time – together with her collaborators – leading up to this. On the day – last Friday – I went along to see the culmination of their hard work, and I thought I would share the experience with you.

The weather forecast for that day was atrocious! Heavy rain and thunderstorms were predicted for the duration, and we set out for Ballylickey with some trepidation. However, as is often the case in West Cork, the weather forecasters were confounded. Nevertheless, the Festival team had prepared for all eventualities and we arrived in time to contribute to the setting up of a shelter made from a silk parachute and a number of wooden poles. The transformation of an empty area of lawn in the gardens of Seaview House Hotel into an impressive performance space in a very short time was quite remarkable – and a visual treat – as the swirling mass of silk was tamed by our team, directed by Seán Maskey.

Watching (and, indeed, participating) in this constructional triumph, I was taken back to the days when I lived in Cornwall and followed the escapades of two theatre groups there: Kneehigh Theatre and Footsbarn. Both started out as small troupes of travelling players who took their performance spaces with them and incorporated the action of creating and erecting their transitory auditoria into their shows: all part of the visual entertainment. Both those groups have evolved and travelled far away from their roots, but the evanescent nature of their early shows has stayed with me, to be pleasantly awakened by the happenings at Ballylickey.

To see where Ballylickey fits in to the story of Ellen Hutchins, have a look at Finola’s post from 2015. Ellen was born in 1785 in Ballylickey House and lived much of her short life there. Seaview House – now the Hotel – was built partly in the grounds of the Hutchins family home, so it is a fitting venue for Festival events, as we know that we are following her own footsteps as she became interested in the world of plants and seaweeds which she discovered all around her as she was growing up.

. . . Ellen was a pioneering botanist who specialised in a difficult branch of botany, that of the non-flowering plants or cryptogams. She discovered many plants new to science and made a significant contribution to the understanding of these plants. She was highly respected by her fellow botanists and many named plants after her in recognition of her scientific achievements.In addition to being an outstanding scientist, Ellen was also a talented botanical artist. Botanical drawings serve science in a very important way . . .

Ellenhutchins.com

That’s Finola (above) introducing the subject of the day: the correspondence that passed between Ellen and Dawson Turner of Yarmouth, Norfolk, who had become a recognised authority on botany in early 19th century Britain, even though this was always a leisure pursuit: professionally he worked for his father, who was head of Gurney and Turner’s Yarmouth Bank and took over his role on his death. Dawson wrote numerous books on plants and got to know the leading botanists of the day, including Ellen. Amazingly, one hundred and twenty letters between her and Dawson survive. Those from Dawson Turner to Ellen are held by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and those from Ellen to Turner are at Trinity College Cambridge. Friday’s event was a reading of a selection of these letters. On Finola’s right, above, is Karen Minihan, an actor and drama director who lives in Schull: she read the letters from Ellen. Moreover, it was she who selected and organised the extracts – which were the heart of the performance.

Above are the two other performers: on the right is Mark O’Mahony from Cappaghglass – he is a part-time actor, and here he reads the letters from Dawson. On his right is Carrie O’Flynn. She is a historic re-enactor and researcher: she appeared as Ellen, in authentic period dress, and provided really illuminating interpolations between letter-readings, informing us about the act of letter-writing itself in the early 1800s – the ink and quill pens; the postal service; Ellen’s probable appearance and dress (there are no surviving portraits of her) and the difficulties which Ellen would have had to face in pursuing here chosen interests, especially as she was herself quite frail and was for many years the carer of her own mother. Her achievements in the light of all this are truly remarkable, and Carrie succeeded in bringing this out with her contributions. Below she shows us the brass microscope that Ellen used – an essential item of equipment for her work.

As the reading of the letters progressed it became gradually obvious that a deep friendship was developing between the two botanists, and the language reflected this. Particularly telling (and this was drawn out in the selection of the letters) was the way the missives were framed as time went on. From a simple, almost curt formality in the earliest, we begin to read how their shared interests extended beyond the botanical; they exchange newly discovered poetry; Dawson tells Ellen that he has named his newly-born daughter after her; they imagine how they would like to meet each other and walk their favourite landscapes together. Each sends the other packages containing examples of the plants and seaweeds that preoccupy them, and their greetings at the top and tail of every page become increasingly warmer. We, the audience, open our imaginations as to how a happy fulfilment could ever metamorphose – West Cork and Norfolk are as far apart as any two place could be in early 19th century Britain. Poignantly, we learn that they never met: Ellen – always in poor health – died in 1815 at the age of twenty nine. We can only imagine that Dawson, remote in Norfolk, was desolate.

Important to our day – apart from the presenters and actors – were Madeline Hutchins (above – showing us some of Ellen’s drawings of seaweed), great great grand-niece and a co-founder of the Festival; and – behind the scenes but essential – the team, including Clare Heardman, co-founder of the Festival and a Conservation Ranger at the National Parks and Wildlife Service. Here’s Clare in action setting everything up – and running the Festival shop:

We had a further treat in store for us after the show: we were taken on a guided tour of some of the environments which Ellen would have known and explored during her life at Ballylickey. This felt really special, and brought us close, again, to the extraordinary young woman whose short but productive life we now celebrate here in West Cork.

Please note that Ballylickey House today is private property, and visitors should not seek access. There is plenty of the natural environment that Ellen would have been familiar with around Ballylickey and on the shores of Bantry Bay – well worth an exploration. And this link to the Ellen Hutchins Audio Trail is invaluable, especially to anyone who was not able to be at Friday’s event.

Particular thanks, of course, to all who participated – and attended – the event. It was a great success! Thank you to the weather Gods. And many thanks to Seaview House Hotel for providing the venue

Inchydoney – and Virgin Mary’s Bank

Virgin Mary’s Bank: it’s the intriguing name of a smallish rock outcrop that juts out into the sands at Inchydoney, West Cork. Stories abound, of course. Let’s do a bit of exploring…

We first saw the name – Virgin Mary’s Bank (sometimes Virgin Mary’s Point or Virgin Mary’s Rock) – on the map when we were orientating our views across the sands from Ring on our excursion last month (above). There’s such a huge, sandy estuarial strand over on that side, stretching all the way from Ring and beyond Inchydoney island: it must be one of West Cork’s most covetable assets!

The view above – looking east from Inchydoney Island towards Ring Head – shows barely half the extent of the sands – and beautiful, golden sands they are. In the summertime, of course, the area is buzzing with visitors and sun-seekers, but there is plenty of room, and the beaches are never overrun, although car parking can be at a premium – get there early, if you can, in peak season. But why is Inchydoney an island, you might ask, when you look at the aerial view which seems to show it linked to the pastured landscapes to the north west? Here’s the answer:

The top map is an extract from the earliest 6″ Ordnance Survey map, mostly surveyed in the 1840s. There you can see the island, clearly surrounded by water, with a causeway on the northwest side linking it to the nearby mainland. The principle features on the island at that time are Inchidoney House, a ruined church and burial ground. The later Cassini 6″ map (above) shows how causeway dams have been built to enclose areas of reclaimed land, here called ‘intakes’, effectively joining the former island to the adjacent mainland. The causeways are very clear if you approach the island from the west side (below).

The Cassini map was surveyed in the late 19th century, and we know from historical records that the causeway system was constructed by the Congested Districts Board in the 1840s, probably as a famine relief scheme. The roads and retaining boundaries were constructed from limestone quarried on the island. It is recorded that workers were paid a penny a day, and that on the first day of the works nine people died – presumably of malnutrition.

I found an excellent article on Inchidoney Island in a recent edition of Ireland’s Own (October 2019), available to download online, written by Mary Rose McCarthy. She relates how Richard Hungerford, from a Somerset family background, owned a substantial part of the island in 1690 and his descendants were there until the early 1900s. They rebuilt Inchydoney House in the early 1800s: it still stands. The writer ‘Mrs Hungerford’ – Margaret Hamilton of Rosscarbery – married into the Hungerford family and was notorious for an incident in 1905. Here is an extract from a letter sent by her to the Clonakilty Urban District Council on August 16th:

On 10th inst I received a letter from the Town Clerk of Clonakilty who ‘had been directed by the Urban District Council to ask me to receive a deputation with reference to asking me to open my grounds to the public on Sundays’ . . .

The Urban District Council, in proposing this resolution, ‘regretted that I had not followed the example of Mr Bence Jones’ (who had kindly thrown his most lovely garden open to the public every second Sunday) and one member, whom I shall not name but with whom I have had a little business transaction in the past, was of opinion that ‘I should have done so without waiting to be asked’. Now, during the past summer I have permitted every person, and at every hour, who asked leave at the hall door to go through to the strands. The result has been as usual in Ireland, disappointing, Gates were left open and of course my animals strayed away and people had to leave their work to hunt for them and the portion of ‘the public’ who considered asking for leave too much trouble, or perhaps, too derogatory, wandered over the land wherever they choose and papers, bottles etc, etc, littered the place . . .

Miss Hungerford, The Island, Clonakilty 1905

Mary Rose McCarthy, in her Ireland’s Own article, recounts:

. . . Locals felt they had a right to travel to the beach by an old roadway past Inchydoney House. Clonakilty UDC mediated but Miss Hungerford refused all approaches. A group of locals marched from town, tore down the gates, and asserted their right to travel to the beach. This gave rise to a local song – Who broke the island gates?, although the words were never recorded . . .

Mary Rose McCarthy, Ireland’s Own, October 2019

The author also notes that Margaret Hamilton (Miss Hungerford) wrote novels, the most famous of which – Molly Bawn – is mentioned by James Joyce in Ulysses; and also credits her with having coined the phrase ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’.

The most notable building on the Island today is the Inchodoney Island Lodge & Spa which – with associated apartments – commands a stunning view over the whole south strand. It replaces the earlier Inchydoney Ocean Hotel, built in the 1930s and famous for its ballroom – and the dances and fancy-dress parties held there, which always went on into the early hours of the morning. The postcard below, published by H Rosehill, Cork, shows the hotel in 1940.

The aerial view gives an idea of the extent of the present day building, and also shows how it relates to the principal subject of today’s post: Virgin Mary’s Bank. The legend of this promontory is best told through the pages of the Duchas Schools Folklore Collection:

. . . Situated about two and a half miles south-east of Clonakilty is Inchadoney island. It is now a peninsula of five hundred acres. About half of this is arable and very fertile.

In the southern side of the island there is a bank jutting out into the sea called the Virgin Mary’s bank. It is said that there was a ship coming in there once and the sailors saw a beautiful woman praying on the bank. She was as white as snow and she was kneeling on a knoll which bears the impression of her knees to-day . . .

All the sailors but one began to mock and blaspheme her. Suddenly a great storm arose and the ship was blown to pieces and all her sailors were drowned except the one who took no part in the mockery. When the storm ceased the lady went out and brought the drowning sailor ashore . . .

In olden times there was a flourishing convent on the island and the remains of which are to be seen to-day. Some people say it was one of the nuns of this convent but it is more likely that it was the “Virgin Mary” who saved the man from drowning . . .

Tim Cowhig, Duchas Schools Collection, Clonakilty 1936

If ever doubt was to be cast as to the veracity of this story, there – as clear as day – are the knee-prints on the rock! A tragedy on the strand in 1932 is commemorated by a carving on the flaggy formation, just below Virgin Mary’s Bank. In August 22-year-old Timothy O’Sullivan from Casement Street in Clonakilty and 19-year-old Joseph Santry, a plasterer from Clarke Street Clonakilty, drowned. Charles P Millar from Summerhill, Cork, managed to rescue a third man who was also in difficulty but due to rough sea conditions he was unable to save the others despite his heroic attempts.

A Wild Atlantic Way information board close to Virgin Mary’s Bank tells of another incident, in more recent times.

But note the paragraph They never made it, above. In 1642 around 600 Irish rebels were trapped by the incoming tide and drowned on the sands: a salutary warning, perhaps, for those who come to the beaches here and don’t keep a wary eye on the tide. Because of the wide, flat expanses of open strand it comes in at a great pace.

An all but forgotten Cork poet, Jeremiah Joseph Callanan (1795 – 1829), heard the story of the appearance of the Virgin Mary at Inchydoney and penned some verses which – according to local legend – all Clonakilty primary school children had to learn by rote. I have transcribed it from the Duchas Schools Collection record above, as the dramatic rendition is well worth quoting in full.

The Evening Star rose beauteous above the fading day,
As to the lone and silent beach the Virgin came to pray,
And hill and dale shone brightly in moonlight’s mellow fall;
But the bank of green where Mary knelt was brightest of them all.

Slow moving o’er the waters, a gallant barque appeared,
And her joyous crew looked from the deck as to the land she neared;
To the calm and sheltered haven she floated like a swan,
And her wings of snow o’er the waves below in, pride and beauty shone.

The Master saw Our Lady as he stood upon the prow,
And marked the whiteness of her robe – the radiance of her brow;
Her arms were folded gracefully upon her stainless breast,
And her eyes looked up among the stars, to Him her soul loved best.

He showed her to his sailors, and he hailed her with a cheer,
And on the kneeling Virgin they gazed with laugh and jeer;
And madly swore, a form so fair they never saw before;
And they cursed the faint and lagging breeze that kept them from the shore.

The ocean from its bosom shook off its moonlight sheen,
And up its wrathful billows rose to vindicate their Queen,
And a cloud came o’er the heavens, and a darkness o’er the land,
And the scoffing crew beheld no more the Lady on the strand.

Out burst the pealing thunder, and the lightning leapt about,
And rushing with his watery war, the tempest gave a shout;
And that vessel from a mountain wave came down with thundering shock,
And her timbers flew like mattered spray on Inchadony’s rock.

Then loud from all the guilty crew one shriek rose wild and high;
But the angry surge swept over them, and hushed their gurgling cry;
And with a hoarse, exulting tone the tempest passed away,
And down, still chafing from their strife, the indignant waters lay.

When the calm and, purple morning shone out on high Dunmore,
Full many a mangled corpse was seen on Inchadony’s shore;
And to this day the fisherman shows where the scoffers sank,
And still they call that hillock green “The Virgin Mary’s Bank”.

Ireland 50 Years Ago: April 1971, JM Synge Issue

Back to Ireland of the Welcomes and this time to the March-April issue of 1971. This was a special issue, largely devoted to John Millington Synge, born April 16th, 1871, which means that next Friday is the 150th anniversary of his birth. These two photographs from this issue show Synge and the beautiful Abbey actor to whom he was engaged, Molly Allgood. Alas, JM died far too young, at 38, and Molly went on to lead a longer but unhappy life.

There’s a special connection to West Cork too – Synge’s mother, Catherine but known as Kathleen, was the daughter of the Rev Robert Trail, Rector of Schull. She is shown above with her children – JM is bottom right. I have written about the various roles her father played in this area.  During the Tithe Wars he railed against all protests, declaring that he “waged war against Popery and its thousand forms of wickedness”. He saw an outbreak of cholera after a huge rally as God’s vengeance on this who would deprive him of his income. He tried his hand at mining and established a considerable workings at Dhurode, the remains of which can still be seen – see Two Mines are Better Than One. It was doing well when interrupted by the Famine.  Finally, during the Famine, his better nature won out and he worked tirelessly to alleviate distress. He died of famine fever in Black ’47, universally mourned and honoured for his efforts to inform the public about the dire situation and to feed the starving people all around him. That’s Traill below in one of James Mahony’s sketches for the Illustrated London News – he had led Mahony to Mullins hut so he could witness and capture first hand the desolation, disease and despair.

That was in 1847 and Kathleen would have been 11. There is a contemporary account of how hard the whole Traill family were working to fill the soup pots, how difficult was the ceaseless onslaught of begging, how dangerous the fever-filled air. Her mother fled Schull as soon as she could after Robert’s death – she was later sent a bill for damage to the rectory caused by building a soup kitchen! Kathleen married a barrister, John Hatch Synge, and Edmund John Millington was their youngest child. Kathleen found solace from the trauma of her early experiences in her father’s stern fundamentalist faith – a faith that never wavered although it brought her into conflict with JM. Interestingly, that conflict did not destroy their mutual love for each other, and Kathleen (although looking stern in the photograph below) has been described as kind and generous.

JM grew up to be one of Ireland’s foremost dramatists and the writer of a unique and inventive form of English that set out to capture the idiom and cadence of Irish. And here’s where our second West Cork connection comes in – his Irish teacher in Trinity was none other than our own Canon Goodman (below), who spent half of each year in his parish of Abbeystrewry in Skibbereen and the other half in Dublin teaching Irish. He had no more committed or enthusiastic student than JM. 

For an excellent summary of the life and work of JM Synge I recommend you to the essay by Declan Kiberd in the newly-available-online Dictionary of Irish Biography. In this issue of Ireland of the Welcomes the major essay on Synge is by the distinguished Canadian Academic Ann Saddlemyer. Saddlemyer is now 90, an elected member of the Royal Irish Academy and a long-recognised expert on Synge, WB Yeats and the history of Irish theatre.

Another charming piece is by JM’s great-nephew, Lanto Synge, a fine arts and antique consultant, recently retired. His essay tells the stories that have come down through the family, including the great religious divide. He paints a portrait of a shy, nervous, intensely musical and engaging man, travelling and studying wherever he went, philosophically attuned to modern thought while immersed in an appreciation of an ancient language and way of life.   

The issue contains several extracts from Synge’s plays, poetry and prose, each one illustrated by photographs or drawings.* One thing I hadn’t realised  is that Synge was an early photographer. Although some of his photos are are reproduced in this article (two examples below), you can see better images at Ricorso. They show he had an ethnographer’s eye and an interest in the everyday lived experience of his subjects, such as the man threshing by hand and the two women spinning.

One of his great friends was Jack B Yeats and they worked collaboratively on several projects. Yeats illustrated his book on the Aran Islands (downloadable from archive.org – a site that is surely the greatest boon to researchers like us!). The two pictures below are from that source rather than the article. Synge and Yeats were of one mind, it seems, in what they chose to focus on.

But Jack B Yeats did more than illustrate The Aran Islands – he produced drawings for Synge’s three-act masterpiece, The Playboy of the Western World. This appears to have been an iterative process. We see a letter from Yeats to Synge, advising on the outfit a jockey might wear in the West of Ireland.

The finished illustrations are wonderful – this subject gave Yeats great scope to indulge his love of horses and horse racing.

Two of the horse racing sequences occupy the centrefold of the issue. It is obvious that both Synge and Yeats are intimately familiar with, and relish, this kind of occasion in the West of Ireland.

This issue of Ireland of the Welcomes does contain a couple of other articles, but I will leave it there, since the bulk of it is devoted to Synge and it is good to focus on and celebrate him on such an auspicious anniversary.

*Although individuals (some no longer alive)  are thanked for illustrations in the issue, it is unclear after all this time whether there are any copyright issues and so I have reproduced illustrations from the magazine, and from my downloaded copy of The Aran Islands, with gratitude to those who provided them. I will remove these images, or seek permission to retain them, if I am alerted to any infringements of copyright.