The Aran Islands, by John Millington Synge. Publ. by Serif, London 2008

Perhaps it’s because I was recently on Achill Island for a few weeks that I found the descriptions in Synge’s book  The Aran Islands so vivid. And maybe it’s just because they are so clearly set down and as fresh today as when Synge wrote them over a hundred years ago. Colm Tobin is quoted on the cover as saying that ‘unlike most travel books of 100 years ago, it has not dated at all’. I haven’t read many tavel books of 100 years ago, but I’ll wager he is right. Again, it’s the freshness of the writing that strikes a reader immediately. There is no sense of time having elapsed. One feels he is talking to you now.

Of course he is not talking to you now. Lots of things must have changed since his time. I haven’t been to the Aran Islands  myself yet, but there were some changes I saw in Achill that were quite recent, and not for the better. Lots and lots and lots of new holiday homes everywhere, for instance. And no attempts made to keep the decor at one with the scenery. However, the scenery is so rugged and dominant that it remains largely unspoiled. Synge discovered the same type of wild Irish Island scenery on Aran, and his descriptions are wonderful.

‘[The rain] has cleared, and the sun is shining with a luminous warmth that makes the whole island glisten with the splendour of a gem and fills the sea and sky with a radiance.

I have come out to lie on the rocks where I have the black edge of the north island in front of me, Galway Bay, too blue almost to look at, on my right, the Atlantic on my left, a perpendicular cliff under my ankles and over me innumerable gulls that chase each other in a white cirrus of wings…’

It was W.B. Yeats that advised him to get out of Paris and go to the Islands:

‘Give up Paris … Go to the Aran islands. Live there as if you were one of the people themselves; express a life that has found never expression’.

And so he went and garnered the material for his plays. And the rest is … great literature.

This edition has the original illustrations by Jack Yeats (which first appeared in 1907) and they are truly marvellous and turn the book into something more than just a book. As Julian Bell says in his Foreword ‘The bold graphic work needs little commentary’. So that’s enough from me. Go out and buy this book. NOW!

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