A Syngean Adventure, by Sheila Spear
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…We left the harbor and set off across the stormy seas. It was a bit rough and one or two passengers were looking green, but nothing much, in my estimation. As we approached the island the boat went straight on as though to bypass, then turned and swung into the jetty – oh thank goodness, we are going to make it. We came close, then closer, then backed up, and after several attempts it was clear that the swell made it impossible for the boat to line up against the landing. Twenty feet – we could have jumped. But the boat pulled away. Hearts sinking, we looked back at the receding island, then reluctantly turned to the one fast approaching, only a short half-mile away.
Even here the swell was rough, so that only a few people could disembark at a time, the ferrymen muttering about turning back. Eventually about 30 people disembarked, then stood around wondering what on earth – or on this small island piece of it – we were supposed to do next. There were no signs, nothing to tell us where we were or where to go. Some wandered off immediately in different directions, as though they knew where they were. About a dozen of us stood around for a while, but the down-pouring rain and the biting wind made that an unpleasant way to pass the time. Since we had planned to sleep on Innis Oirr after the performance, Tom and I thought about heading to our B&B. But, worried about getting cut off from any source of information, staying with the crowd seemed a better idea.
A vehicle of sorts stood nearby. Drawn by a tractor, it bore some resemblance to a bus but even more to a converted farm cart with windows and a roof – it was a windowed box on wheels. The driver, whose language we could barely interpret, was friendly and seemed intent on taking us all somewhere. Since the roof at least provided a welcome refuge, we piled in. Reassuring us that there was no charge and that we would be at the hotel in just a few minutes, the driver set the vehicle in motion, and we meandered down a narrow, sandy road.
Inside the ‘bus’ we began to exchange snippets of information. ‘The ferry will be back for us. After all, we have to get there somehow.’ ‘There is a plane service to Innis Meain, maybe we can get that.’ ‘There’ll be a phone at the hotel, we can call the theater.’ ‘What the heck, we’ll sort something out together.’ The ride lasted all of two minutes before the cart pulled up at a long low building, little more than a shack, on which a sign proclaimed “Ostan Inis Oirr”. ‘Ostan’ might be translated as ‘hotel’ but this was the local pub. We found ourselves in a large low-ceilinged room, a bar along one side, a roaring fire opposite. Several of the walkers were here already, drinks in hand and beginning to dry out by the fire. Though we didn’t realize it right away, this was to be our base for the next twelve or so hours.
The group of playgoers began to hang together. We were, after all, all in the same boat – or rather not in any boat at all, nor yet on the island we had aimed for. We shared questions, information, hopes. Can we get to Innis Meain by plane? Will the ferry try again? Will the show go on? Soon we learned that in this gale there was no chance of a small plane leaving the island. Someone called the Druid Synge company in Galway, who contacted the performers on the island, and then called us back to let us know that the performance would be delayed for an hour to allow us to get there on the later ferry. After all that excitement, we were more than ready for lunch – a fine selection of Irish pub food.
While the storm raged on beyond the thin walls of the pub, the travelers began mingling in earnest. Moving from group to group, we devoted time and attention to getting to know each other, tell our stories. I met Mary and Margaret and Evelyn from Galway, while Tom got to know Patrick and John, one of whom was a journalist. Mary (one of the seasick, and now slowly recovering by the fire) was principal of a ‘very good’ boys’ school. She had been hospitalized recently and was sure she recognized Evelyn as one of her nurses – sure enough, indeed she was. Margaret was my find: she was the onsite coordinator for the study abroad program at the University of Wales, Galway. I had sent numerous students to UW-Galway over the years so we had much to share.
We were told that an article on the plays in the Irish Times had mentioned three Americans who were traveling to the islands just to see the show. Being two of the three, Tom and I looked for the third. Sure enough, there she was, Nancy Milford, from New York. Nancy was the author of a biography of Zelda Fitzgerald, and another of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Her next subject was to be Rose Kennedy, mother of JFK, Bobby, and Teddy. It was Synge’s focus on the tragedies of Irish mothers that had prompted her coming to the islands. In Riders of the Sea in particular, a woman loses all her sons to the sea.
We were so busy passing the time – drying out, chatting, sharing – that we barely noticed that the time for the afternoon ferry had come and gone without its leaving the mainland. At some point we heard that the performance had begun without us, while we were stranded on the wrong island till the storm abated. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the plays faded from our thoughts, our absence from them began not to matter. An unspoken realization dawned: we were having our own “Syngean” experience. Here, in the simple setting of the local pub, surrounded by locals talking in a dialect hard to understand, we were experiencing the power of the elements to interfere with life’s plans. But since we are now and not then, we were not facing a struggle over life and loss, hunger and hardship, merely an inconvenience. In fact, we heard, we would all be able to see the performances on Sunday, so our disappointment was muted, and we could enjoy our adventure with little heartache.
Mid-afternoon, in a lull in the storm, we ventured outside. While some walked briskly across the island to the various sight-seeing spots, Tom and I strolled slowly up towards the castle – a looming pile of grey rocks skillfully layered into impenetrable walls – then down to the strand, where we inspected a couple of ancient looking lobster boats and the islanders’ fleet of upturned boats made in a local style known as ‘curraghs’. Tom went so far as to crawl underneath one to examine the interior construction more closely. Stopping at a gift shop we examined but did not buy Arran sweaters – for a moment I regretted having central heating at home. We meandered back to the pub to pick up our belongings, then on to our B&B. Besides having the tiniest en-suite bathroom I have ever seen, our room offered a fine view of Innis Meain – so near yet today so far away.
We went back to the pub for dinner, where the choice was limited, but the cooking was wonderful. The wine, on the other hand, was perhaps not the best choice in an Irish pub. Asked what wines he had, the landlord responded: “two: red and white”. Undaunted, we drank several of the small bottles. After dinner the gathering of the no longer disconsolate play-goers re-formed. The singing and story-telling began in earnest, to continue till the wee small hours.
Saturday in Connemara
Despite our anxiety, we passed a peaceful night, and woke to a grey but calm day, the gale force winds abated. Another fine Irish breakfast, then we headed for the jetty where the ferry was ready and waiting. Greeting our fellow thwarted playgoers, we exchanged notes and plans. Some would leave the boat at Innis Maan, to explore and await the plays on Sunday. Others had to return whence they had come and abandoned thoughts of seeing the performance. Tom and I headed for Connemara, intending to return, weather permitting, on Sunday.
Connemara is a picture postcard – lonely moors and peat bogs, lakes and cloud-capped mountains, churches and monasteries, isolated crofts and grey stone villages. This was the country of James Joyce, and we sucked it in, stopping every few miles for a new view, wandering through tiny villages and ancient stone churches. At the end of the day I caught my first glimpse of a Galway sunset, though the Bay itself was out of sight.
The plays at last
The sun dawned bright on Sunday. We greeted several of our Friday companions as the boat set off from Ross na Mhil. The sea was calm, the boat covered the distance swiftly and we landed safely. With two hours to spare before the performances began, we toured the village. We found the cottage where Synge had lodged during his summers there – a small stone dwelling, its street-facing wall whitewashed, and a thick, rough thatch overhanging the door. Some of the other cottages were not as well-kept and showed signs of poverty and neglect. The island itself was barren and bare but for mile upon mile of dry-stone walls, artfully stacked in neat but precarious looking designs. Dividing the terrain into fields scarcely bigger than a pocket handkerchief, the walls told of the work of generations of farmers, who cleared the stones and hauled seaweed up from the shores to create the soil on which meager crops would grow. It was a life of long, hard labor, with few rewards. This was what Synge had learned and written about. The sea and the land – both deadly taskmasters in this place.
But to the plays. The first two performances – Riders to the Sea and Shadow of the Glen, took place in the Village Hall. The hall was small and unadorned, the stage little more than planks on some sort of foundation, the chinks in the wall allowed the afternoon light to shine through. Nothing more than minimal props were needed to convey the atmosphere of the lives the plays portrayed. The first was about the hopeless struggle of the islanders against the relentless cruelty of the sea, the second told the story of an unfaithful wife – again incensing Irish nationalists by its “slur on Irish womanhood.”
Dispatched on a short walk towards the church for the next performance, we could lean on a wall overlooking a field, or sit on the grass in the field itself. The Tinker’s Wedding is a farce, in which the bride and groom having induced the priest to carry out a wedding by promising a can of alcohol, are undone by the bridegroom’s mother who consumed it before the ceremony.
For the intermission we walked up the hill to the ancient fort, little more than a ring of stone walls, from where we could see far and wide across the island’s tiny fields with their myriad stone walls, and across the bay to the stark angles of the Cliffs of Mohr. But inside the fort and surprise awaited us. This was no ordinary intermission. To the people of Galway an event of greater importance than the rest of the play cycle was be integrated into our entertainment. Two large screen televisions and batteries of speakers were placed strategically amongst the lunch tables. Before we knew it we were watching Galway’s county team making a very rare appearance in the Hurling ‘Super Bowl’. Hurling, for those not familiar with it, is something of a hybrid of lacrosse and hockey, with the passion of the Irish thrown in for good measure. For those of us not used to it, it contained almost as much violence as the seas in the Synge plays. This being a day for tragedies – Galway lost.
Back to the original purpose of the day, and a return to the Village Hall, to see Synge’s most famous play, The Playboy of the Western World. I had always thought the title referred to the British Empire at least, but no, merely the west coast of Ireland. Set in a public house in County Mayo, it concerns the return of a young man who had run away from home after claiming he had killed his father. The locals, having romanticized him over the years, welcome him back as a famous son, and become murderously enraged when the father turns up alive and well. This play, based on a true story, was also reviled by Synge’s contemporaries – “a vile and inhuman story told in the foulest language we have ever listened to from a public platform” was one comment – and led to reactions strong enough to be dubbed ‘the Playboy Riots.’
By the time the “Playboy” was over, the afternoon light was fading fast. As we made our way back up to the fort for the final performance, I finally caught sight of the setting sun over Galway Bay. It was much like a thousand other sunsets around the world, but nevertheless one to make an exile long for home.
We watched two more plays as darkness fell, within the stone walls of the fort. The Well of the Saints is a comedy of a blind man and a crippled woman, cured by an interfering saint only to discover that they are not after all the most beautiful people in the world, and demand a return to their disabled state. The final performance, Deirdre of the Sorrows, was also Synge’s last play – he died before it was complete. Drawing on an old Irish myth from the 12th century rather than the daily experiences of islanders, it is a play of betrayal and loss nevertheless, and our evening ended with the death of the heroine.
By now nearly midnight and turning cold, we were reluctant to leave, but our boat to Innis Oir was not going to wait for us. We raced down the hill from the fort, through the village and to the jetty, to board the boat once more. A peaceful night, awake much earlier than we wanted in order to catch the ferry back to the mainland, and our extraordinary experience was almost over.
To see the Synge plays in one cycle was an experience to remember. To see them in the island settings – the field by the churchyard, the ring castle on the hilltop – was much more, a once-in-a -lifetime dream-come-true. Yet … for us … the Synge experience took place on Friday, as we sheltered from the storm in the pub on Innis Oir and shared life experiences with our stranded companions. An Irish adventure to treasure, and recall, and tell tales of for years to come.
In a final irony, we were strolling past the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis a few months later. Imagine our surprise to see that the Druid Synge cycle was on tour in the United States, with a week’s run at the Guthrie. What an adventure we’d have missed had we known before we flew to Ireland.