Synge got three Guardian articles out of Erris, each illustrated with one of Jack Yeats’ oddly haunting drawings of thatched cabins, empty roads and half-formed faces. One day, they drove to the village of Geesala and walked out along the edge of Blacksod Bay until they came to the hamlet of Dooyork. The houses they saw were poor and primitive, ‘broken-down hovels of the worst kind’. People stared from their doorways as they walked by. Women passed them bringing in heaps of seaweed or turf in great panniers slung across horses, often with a toddler perched on top.
They got back to Belmullet to find Carter Square heaving with humanity. It was Friday 23 June, the eve of the Feast of St John the Baptist, and as the sun went down bonfires were being lit all over the west of Ireland. ‘A relic of Druidical rites’, according to Synge, presumably referring to the fact that St John’s Eve was close enough to the summer solstice for it to be a dual celebration, with prayers said for God’s blessing on the crops and torches carried through the fields to sanctify them.
Carter Square boasted the biggest bonfire in Erris, and the celebrations were more exuberant. There was dancing and music and games, fire-play as boys leapt through the flames and hurled burning sods of paraffin-soaked turf into the sky and caught them and hurled them up again. Synge and Yeats stood in the square and watched the spectacle. Synge wrote of how small boys shrieked and cheered and threw up firebrands for hours together. Yeats drew the scene, and noticed how one frightened little girl held tight to his friend’s hand.
In January 1907, the Abbey Theatre hosted the premiere of Synge’s great work, The Playboy of the Western World. The story of how a rural community lionises Christy Mahon, the young stranger whom they believe to have killed his father, caused a riot.
Now, Playboy was set ‘near a village, on a wild coast of Mayo’. And not just any coast, but the coast of Erris. Christy locates the scene as he makes love to Pegeen Mike in a speech which James Agate described as more exquisite than anything in Romeo and Juliet:
Let you wait, to hear me talking, till we’re astray in Erris, when Good Friday’s by, drinking a sup from a well, and making mighty kisses with our wetted mouths, or gaming in a gap of sunshine, with yourself stretched back unto your necklace, in the flowers of the earth.
In his preface to the play, Synge referred to the kind of talk one could hear ‘in any little hillside cabin in Geesala, or Carraroe, or Dingle Bay’. When Christy’s father arrives on the scene and threatens to expose his son’s homicidal boasting, he is urged to ‘take the road to Belmullet’, while Christy is offstage and triumphing in mule races ‘on the sands below’.
That was enough for Geesala. As far as the village was concerned, the summer walk that Synge and Yeats took to Dooyork was obviously the source for Ireland’s greatest contribution to 20th-century drama. And myth and truth began to blur in that peculiar way they have, uncertain and yet eager to outdo each other. When we first arrived in Erris, I was told that a rusty, tumbledown shed on the road out of Geesala was where Synge had written Playboy; a notion later modified and qualified so that the shed became the shebeen where the play was set. The Erris Players put on Playboy down on Doolough Strand in 2013 ‘(in Tent)’, and they still perform Synge’s works. Riders to the Sea is the most recent.
A hotel was put up in Geesala in the 1980s, the biggest building in the village, and called Ostan [‘Hotel’] Synge. When it changed its name a few years ago to Abhainn Mhór, ‘Blackwater’, the connection was maintained in the name of its new bar, the ‘John Millington Synge’, which was decked out like an upmarket shebeen which the hotel’s owners claimed was ‘based on the world-renowned play’. Then it was shut down, turning the sanitised faux squalor into an empty stage set, without players or audience.
And is Geesala that village on a wild coast of Mayo? Was it in one of the broken-down hovels at Dooyork that Christy Mahon tried to lead Pegeen Mike astray in Erris?
Perhaps. It fits, and not just in time and place and biography. Masefield said that Synge’s place was always outside the circle, and Erris is nothing if not that. On the edge of things. But art and life rarely fit as neatly as we might like. The truth is that the Western World of Synge’s Playboy is more likely a composite creation of Kerry and Erris and the Aran Islands.
So what? If you look for truth, take this. Truth is a tall stranger holding a little girl’s hand to keep her safe in the light of flaming bonfires.