Jack B. Yeats and synge

Posted: December 22, 2013 in Uncategorized

WITH SYNGE IN CONNEMARA

I had often spent a day walking with John Synge, but a year or two ago I
travelled for a month alone through the west of Ireland with him. He was
the best companion for a roadway any one could have, always ready and
always the same; a bold walker, up hill and down dale, in the hot sun and
the pelting rain. I remember a deluge on the Erris Peninsula, where we
lay among the sand hills and at his suggestion heaped sand upon ourselves
to try and keep dry.

When we started on our journey, as the train steamed out of Dublin, Synge
said: ‘Now the elder of us two should be in command on this trip.’ So we
compared notes and I found that he was two months older than myself. So
he was boss and whenever it was a question whether we should take the
road to the west or the road to the south, it was Synge who finally
decided.

Synge was fond of little children and animals. I remember how glad he was
to stop and lean on a wall in Gorumna and watch a woman in afield
shearing a sheep. It was an old sheep and must have often been sheared
before by the same hand, for the woman hardly held it; she just knelt
beside it and snipped away. I remember the sheep raised its lean old head
to look at the stranger, and the woman just put her hand on its cheek and
gently pressed its head down on the grass again.

Synge was delighted with the narrow paths made of sods of grass alongside
the newly-metalled roads, because he thought they had been put there to
make soft going for the bare feet of little children. Children knew, I
think, that he wished them well. In Bellmullet on Saint John’s eve, when
we stood in the market square watching the fire-play, flaming sods of
turf soaked in paraffine, hurled to the sky and caught and skied again,
and burning snakes of hay-rope, I remember a little girl in the crowd, in
an ecstasy of pleasure and dread, clutched Synge by the hand and stood
close in his shadow until the fiery games were done.

His knowledge of Gaelic was a great assistance to him in talking to the
people. I remember him holding a great conversation in Irish and English
with an innkeeper’s wife in a Mayo inn. She had lived in America in
Lincoln’s day. She told us what living cost in America then, and of her
life there; her little old husband sitting by and putting in an odd word.
By the way, the husband was a wonderful gentle-mannered man, for we had
luncheon in his house of biscuits and porter, and rested there an hour,
waiting for a heavy shower to blow away; and when we said good-bye and
our feet were actually on the road, Synge said, ‘Did we pay for what we
had?’ So I called back to the innkeeper, ‘Did we pay you?’ and he said
quietly, ‘Not yet sir.’

Synge was always delighted to hear and remember any good phrase. I
remember his delight at the words of a local politician who told us how
he became a Nationalist. ‘I was,’ he said plucking a book from the
mantlepiece (I remember the book–it was ‘Paul and Virginia’) and
clasping it to his breast–‘I was but a little child with my little book
going to school, and by the house there I saw the agent. He took the
unfortunate tenant and thrun him in the road, and I saw the man’s wife
come out crying and the agent’s wife thrun her in the channel, and when I
saw that, though I was but a child, I swore I’d be a Nationalist. I swore
by heaven, and I swore by hell and all the rivers that run through them.’

Synge must have read a great deal at one time, but he was not a man you
would see often with a book in his hand; he would sooner talk, or rather
listen to talk–almost anyone’s talk.

Synge was always ready to go anywhere with one, and when there to enjoy
what came. He went with me to see an ordinary melodrama at the Queen’s
Theatre, Dublin, and he delighted to see how the members of the company
could by the vehemence of their movements and the resources of their
voices hold your attention on a play where everything was commonplace. He
enjoyed seeing the contrite villain of the piece come up from the bottom
of the gulch, hurled there by the adventuress, and flash his sweating
blood-stained face up against the footlights; and, though he told us he
had but a few short moments to live, roar his contrition with the voice
of a bull.

Synge had travelled a great deal in Italy in tracks he beat out for
himself, and in Germany and in France, but he only occasionally spoke to
me about these places. I think the Irish peasant had all his heart. He
loved them in the east as well as he loved them in the west, but the
western men on the Aran Islands and in the Blaskets fitted in with his
humour more than any; the wild things they did and said were a joy to
him.

Synge was by spirit well equipped for the roads. Though his health was
often bad, he had beating under his ribs a brave heart that carried him
over rough tracks. He gathered about him very little gear, and cared
nothing for comfort except perhaps that of a good turf fire. He was,
though young in years, ‘an old dog for a hard road and not a young pup
for a tow-path.’

He loved mad scenes. He told me how once at the fair of Tralee he saw an
old tinker-woman taken by the police, and she was struggling with them in
the centre of the fair; when suddenly, as if her garments were held
together with one cord, she hurled every shred of clothing from her, ran
down the street and screamed, ‘let this be the barrack yard,’ which was
perfectly understood by the crowd as suggesting that the police strip and
beat their prisoners when they get them shut in, in the barrack yard. The
young men laughed, but the old men hurried after the naked fleeting
figure trying to throw her clothes on her as she ran.

But all wild sights appealed to Synge, he did not care whether they were
typical of anything else or had any symbolical meaning at all. If he had
lived in the days of piracy he would have been the fiddler in a pirate-
schooner, him they called ‘the music–‘ ‘The music’ looked on at every
thing with dancing eyes but drew no sword, and when the schooner was
taken and the pirates hung at Cape Corso Castle or The Island of Saint
Christopher’s, ‘the music’ was spared because he _was_ ‘the music.’

Jack B. Yeats

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