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The Magic of Synge's 'The Aran Islands'

Updated: Jul 14, 2018

The Aran Islands are three isles located in Galway Bay in Western Ireland consisting of Inishmore (Inis Mór,) the largest island, Inishmaan (Inis Meáin,) the middle island and Inisheer (Inis Oirr), the smallest isle. Full of ancient forts, castles, monasteries, churches, the Gaelic language, horses and carts and traditional arts and crafts, these islands of karst limestone are full of inspiration. Irish playwright, poet and folklore collector John Millington Synge, visited these islands, living on Inis Meáin for periods of time between 1898 and 1902 and wrote about the simple lifestyles of storytelling, fishing, seaweed harvesting, poetry and a fascination with the fairies. He drew inspiration from a real life character of this island for his play ‘Playboy of the Western World’ and detailed his personal experiences in his work 'The Aran Islands,’ published in 1907.

The ancient burial site of Cnoc Raithní on Inis Oirr, which dates back to 1500BC.

'The Aran Islands’ is a beautiful work of writing depicting the people he connected with, the landscapes which captured his imagination and his fascination with a hidden culture, steeped in storytelling, mysticism and a strong relationship with the elements and elemental beings. I have tried to capture some excerpts which depict intriguing aspects of the collective of these islanders during this time.

In 'The Aran Islands,' J.M. Synge described how on the first day of his arrival, he met an old blind man on Inis Mór, called Mourteen, who spent much of his time telling stories about the fairies. On his last day before heading to Inis Meáin , Mourteen showed Synge one of the ancient beehive dwellings, used as hermitages, which was kept perfectly preserved and after crawling through on their hands and knees, Mourteen sat down in the middle of the floor and recited old Irish poetry.

J.M. Synge

“Old Mourteen is keeping me company again, and I am now able to understand the greater part of his Irish. He took me out to-day to show me the remains of some cloghauns, or beehive dwellings, that are left near the central ridge of the island. After I had looked at them we lay down in the corner of a little field, filled with the autumn shunshine and the odour of withering flowers, while he told me a long folk-tale which took more than an hour to narrate.

He is so blind that I can gaze at him without discourtesy, and after a while the expression of his face made me forget to listen, and I lay dreamily in the sunshine letting the antique formulas of the story blend with the suggestions from the prehistoric masonry I lay on. The glow of childish transport that came over him when he reached the nonsense ending -so common in these tales- recalled me to myself, and I listened attentively while he gabbled with delighted haste: 'They found the path and I found the puddle. They were drowned and I was found. If it's all one to me to-night, it wasn't all one to them the next night. Yet, if it wasn't itself, not a thing did they lose but an old back tooth' -or some such gibberish.”

In the Middle Ages, the O'Brien dynasty ruled the island and they were paid by the Tribes of Galway an annual tribute of twelve tuns of wine to protect the bay from pirates. This is a photo of a fourteenth century castle called O'Brien's Castle on Inis Oirr, which was captured in 1582 by the O'Flaherty's of Connemara. After the Cromwellian invasion in 1652, the O'Flahertys were defeated and the castle was partially dismantled.

During his time on the island, Synge heard many folktales and stories of fairies, giants and magical geese - which provided great entertainment to the islanders. One Sunday afternoon, having showed them all his photographs, he struggled to think of a way to entertain the locals and eventually showed them a trick with a piece of string which 'joined' itself together after being cut. Although one fifteen year old boy, who read Irish to him in the afternoons, was keen to state that he was not fooled. "These people make no distinction between the natural and the supernatural...In the evening I had to repeat my tricks here in the kitchen, for the fame of them had spread over the island. No doubt these feats will be remembered here for generations. The people have so few images for description that they seize on anything that is remarkable in their visitors and use it afterwards in their talk. For the last few years when they are speaking of any one with fine rings they say: 'She had beautiful rings on her fingers like Lady -,' a visitor to the island."

One evening, after sharing his fiddle music to a crowd of appreciative dancers, Synge was told a story about the fairy music - a man had gone looking for rabbits near the small Dun and after lifting his gun to shoot at one he heard some music. When he looked back for the rabbit it had disappeared, "then he looked over a wall, and he saw a rabbit sitting up by the wall with a sort of flute in it's mouth, and it playing on it with its two fingers!"

Cill Ghobnait / St. Gobnait's Church on Inis Oirr (11th century church.) Saint Gobnait was a female Irish saint who was born in County Clare in the 5th or 6th century. After a family feud, she fled to Inis Oirr where an angel told her that it was "not the place of her resurrection" and that she should look instead to find a place where nine white deer were grazing. She eventually found the deer at a place known as St Gobnet's Wood, an area of protected oak forest in County Cork.

A bullaun stone at Cill Ghobnait (St. Gobnait's Church)

Yet Synge also encountered his own supernatural experiences whilst living on the island.

“Some dreams I have had in this cottage seem to give strength to the opinion that there is a psychic memory attached to certain neighbourhoods. Last night, after walking in a dream among buildings with strangely intense light on them, I heard a faint rhythm of music beginning far away on some stringed instrument.

It came closer to me, gradually increasing in quickness and volume with an irresistibly definite progression. When it was quite near the sound began to move in my nerves and blood, and to urge me to dance with them.

I knew that if I yielded I would be carried away to some moment of terrible agony, so I struggled to remain quiet, holding my knees together with my hands.

The music increased continually, sounding like the strings of harps, tuned to a forgotten scale, and having a resonance as searching as the strings of the 'cello.

Then the luring excitement became more powerful than my will, and my limbs moved in spite of me.

In a moment I was swept away in a whirlwind of notes. My breath and my thoughts and every impulse of my body, became a form of the dance, till I could not distinguish between the instruments and the rhythm and my own person or consciousness.

For a while it seemed an excitement that was filled with joy, then it grew into an ecstasy where all existence was lost in a vortex of movement. I could not think there had ever been a life beyond the whirling of the dance.

Then with a shock the ecstasy turned to an agony and rage. I struggled to free myself, but seemed only to increase the passion of the steps I moved to. When I shrieked I could only echo the notes of the rhythm.

At last with a moment of uncontrollable frenzy I broke back to consciousness and awoke.

I dragged myself trembling to the window of the cottage and looked out. The moon was glittering across the bay, and there was no sound anywhere on the island.”

One important activity on the island (aside from fishing,) was the harvesting of kelp - it was used as a fertilizer and burned to recover the iodine. It was burnt in low kilns on the shore and since the work required was considerable it was only undertaken according to the certainty of the markets - burning could take from 12-24 hours of continuous care.

“At the south-west corner of the island I came upon a number of people gathering the seaweed that is now thick on the rocks. It was raked from the surf by the men, and then carried up to the brow of the cliff by a party of young girls. In addition to their ordinary clothing these girls wore a raw sheepskin on their shoulders, to catch the oozing sea-water, and they looked strangely wild and seal-like with the salt caked upon their lips and wreaths of seaweed in their hair.”

The islanders shared a deeply respectful relationship with the elements which Synge believed had strongly developed their characters. Here he described one man's relationship with the sea. The curagh is an Irish name for a coracle - a small, lightweight boat.

Tarring a curagh on Inis Oirr, with O'Brien's Castle in the background.


“Looking out over the black limestone through the driving rain to the gulf of struggling waves, an indescribable feeling of dejection came over me. The old man gave me his view of the use of fear. 'A man who is not afraid of the sea will soon be drownded,' he said, 'for he will be going out on a day he shouldn't. But we do be afraid of the sea, and we do only be drownded now and again.' A little crowd of neighbours had collected lower down to see me off, and as we crossed the sandhills we had to shout to each other to be heard above the wind. The crew carried down the curagh and then stood under the lee of the pier tying on their hats with string and drawing on their oilskins.”

MV Plassy, or Plassey, was a steam trawler which was caught in a severe storm on the 8th March 1960 whilst carrying a cargo of whiskey, stained glass and yarn - it ran onto Finnis Rock on Inis Oirr and the entire crew were rescued by the islanders using a breeches buoy - several weeks later, a second storm washed her ashore.

Loch Mór (Big Lake) on Inis Oirr, located near the shipwreck.

In the following passage, Synge described a funeral on the island and the tradition of 'keening,' a form of grieving. In the old mythological text, Cath Maige Tuireadh, it was said that the Celtic goddess Brigid invented keening, which combined crying and singing, whilst mourning for the death of her son, Ruadán.

“All round the graveyard other wrinkled women, looking out from under the deep red petticoats that cloaked them, rocked themselves with the same rhythm, and intoned the inarticulate chant that is sustained by all as an accompaniment. The morning had been beautifully fine, but as they lowered the coffin into the grave, thunder rumbled overhead and hailstones hissed among the bracken. In Inishmaan one is forced to believe in a sympathy between man and nature, and at this moment when the thunder sounded a death-peal of extraordinary grandeur above the voices of the women, I could see the faces near me stiff and drawn with emotion.”

The red dresses of the women are often described by Synge who seemed to find great comfort and inspiration in their exuberance, particularly when the weather was bleak. Dyeing has been an old practise in Ireland - with the commonest dye-stuff being lichen which was collected from the rocks. Turf soot was used to produce black, being rich in iron and wild madder, found on the Burren, was used for the red petticoat.

"The simplicity and unity of the dress increases in another way the local air of beauty. The women wear red petticoats and jackets of the island wool stained with madder, to which they usually add a plaid shawl twisted round their chests and tied at the back. When it rains they throw another petticoat over their heads with the waistband round their faces, or, if they are young, they use a heavy shawl like those worn in Galway...Their skirts do not come much below the knee, and show their powerful legs in the heavy indigo stockings with which they are all provided. The men wear three colours: the natural wool, indigo, and a grey flannel that is woven of alternate threads of indigo and the natural wool. In Aranmor many of the younger men have adopted the usual fisherman's jersey, but I have only seen one on this island."

A collection of photographs by Francis Stephens housed at the Library of Trinity College Dublin can be found online depicting images of the Aran Islands which Frank visited during the 1920s and 1930s. His wife, Annie Isabella, née Synge was the sister of J.M. Synge who also took a camera with him on his journeys throughout the islands.

The collection can be found here:

A photo of Cáit Ní Fhátharta (Ceata Bheag) on Inis Meáin, Aran Islands (likely 1920) by Francis Stephens. The lady is wearing a petticoat over her head, a tradition described by J.M.Synge.

Main Ní Tuathaill, a 14 year old girl from the Claddagh, wearing traditional Claddagh dress, 26 May 1913. This photo depicts a woman from the Claddagh in Galway wearing a red flannel petticoat, protected by an apron called a praiscin, allowing them to carry baskets of fish.

A woman knits under a fuchsia tree in County Galway, Ireland in 1927. Photographer: Clifton R. Adams from the National Geographic.

Synge unearthed a deep peace living amidst the simplistic islanders of Inis Meáin and his depictions of the intriguing and down-to-earth characters are truly inspiring. "Each man can speak two languages. He is a skilled fisherman, and can manage a curagh with extraordinary nerve and dexterity. He can farm simply, burn kelp, cut out pampooties, mend nets, build and thatch a house, and make a cradle or a coffin. His work changes with the seasons in a way that keeps him free from the dullness that comes to people who have always the same occupation."

Although Synge spent much of his time on the middle island, he did venture out to Inis Oirr where he found there to be considerable differences in character. Synge described a sense of "intimate misery" of one man, calling them "strange men" and described tales which revealed a "curious jealousy that is between the islands." Yet he had good opportunities to collect many stories and songs from the storytellers of the Southern island including many tales of the fairies such as strange encounters at sea, fairy ships and mysterious flute playing. During one night at the pub, after sharing his own fiddle music, Synge collected poems and stories for nearly six hours.

One tale of a fairy rider was told by a man who also recounted poetry, as "he was chanting the old man kept up a kind of snakeskin movement in his body, which seemed to fit the chant and make it part of him."

However, he was also not keen to romanticize the men of Inis Meáin and described their violent fights, their lack of empathy for the sufferings of their animals, fearful superstitions and drunks found drowned. He visited the funeral of one young man who was found washed up on the shore - his grave was dug over the grandmother, whose bones were lifted out and his mother "came back to the coffin, and began to beat on it, holding the skull in her left hand...The young women were nearly lying among the stones, worn out with their passion of grief."

In the following passage, he looked out from Inis Mór across the sea towards Inis Meáin island. “It is hard to believe that those hovels I can just see in the south are filled with people whose lives have the strange quality that is found in the oldest poetry and legend...The charm which the people over there share with the birds and flowers has been replaced here by the anxiety of men who are eager for gain.”

Synge found that although art was unknown on the island, every item in their lives seemed to exude personal character, "Something of the artistic beauty of medieval life. The curaghs and spinning-wheels, the tiny wooden barrels that are still much used in the place of earthenware, the home-made cradles, churns, and baskets, are all full of individuality, and being made from materials that are common here...they seem to exist as a natural link between the people and the world that is about them."

It is hard to imagine the timeless ways of Aran. With no clocks on Inis Meáin, on one occasion Synge was served dinner at 3pm in the afternoon, which he refused and it was left to simmer until evening. Time was not entirely absent from my mind as I moved around Inis Oirr, as we needed to remember our boat schedule, but it was a lovely and relaxing day of seals, dolphins and beautiful scenes of boulders, stone walls, wild flowers and water. The island is now full of bikes and horse carts but it is possible to walk considerable distances and see the ancient forts, the shipwreck or spend time in one of the tea cafes, craft shops or the Áras Éanna art centre, where local artists had been encouraged to display their works and the Gaelic language flowed like the sea.

Tigh Ned pub - a cosy place full of historical photographs depicting scenes such as the lifting of horses at the pier.

Passing by the Cliffs of Moher on our way back to Doolin from the island, where we heard about the Irish legend of Hag's Head featuring Cú Chulainn and Mal. The cliffs are now designated as a Special Protection Area (SPA) for birds since they are home to 20 different species of seabirds including the puffin and whole cities of the guillemot bird.

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