John Millington Synge (1871-1909), the writer and playwright, epitomises the trend among artists and writers at the turn of the 20th century to look to the west of Ireland for inspiration and for an 'authentically' Irish subject matter. It was a trend that also saw the artist Paul Henry and his painter wife Grace travel to Achill Island in 1909 and, some decades later, was part of the attraction of his Mayo homeland for writer Ernie O'Malley. Both Paul Henry and Ernie O'Malley were readers of JM Synge, as was the English novelist Graham Greene before he travelled to Achill in 1947.
JM Synge was born in Dublin in 1871 to an upper-middle class Anglo Irish family. Synge's Ascendancy background was to have a substantial influence on the reception of his work in the politically-charged atmosphere of Ireland at the start of the 20th century. The fiercely Protestant Synge family had produced no fewer than five Church of Ireland bishops since settling in Ireland in the 17th century. The Synge family owned land in Co. Galway and Wicklow, including Glanmore Castle and estate in Wicklow. JM Synge's brother, Edward, worked as a land agent on the family estates as well as for other landowners, and earned notoriety for a particularly heartless eviction of two elderly and infirm sisters at the height of the Land War in 1887. Edward was also active in evicting tenants in Co. Mayo, where he was land agent for Joseph Pratt's 18,000 acre estate which was centred on Enniscoe House. Synge's grandfather the Rev. Dr Robert Traill, who died of famine fever in west Cork in 1847, was reportedly a fervent anti-Catholic bigot. And interestingly, one of Synge's uncles travelled to the Aran Islands in the mid-1850s as a Protestant missionary with the aim of converting the islanders away from Catholicism. He was run off the islands for his inflammatory mixture of evangelical fervancy and exploitative fishing of the sea-stock.
A sickly and sensitive child, JM Synge would grow up to withdraw from the excesses of his family's bigotry and the Ascendancy attitudes of his class. Educated largely by private tutors he went on to study at Trinity College Dublin and the Royal Irish Academy of Music. He turned from music to literature and in 1895 travelled to Paris to enrol at the Sorbonne with the intention of becoming a critic of French literature. In 1896 he met W.B. Yeats, who was in Paris to found a French branch of the Irish League. The atheist JM Synge further compounded the distance from his family's Protestant and Unionist beliefs by flirting with Irish nationalism, though his membership of Yeat's Irish League was shortlived. It was in Paris that Yeats, 'the strategist of the Irish cultural revival', issued this famous instruction to JM Synge: 'Give up Paris, you will never create anything by reading Racine, and Arthur Symons will always be a better critic of French literature. Go to the Aran Islands. Live there as if you were one of the people themselves; express a life that has never found expression.'