John Millington Synge


1871

16 April: JMS born in Newtown Villas, Rathfarnham, County Dublin. Youngest of 8 children. His parents were part of the Protestant middle and upper class: his family on his father's side were landed gentry from Glanmore Castle, County Wicklow and his maternal grandfather, Robert Traill, had been a Church of Ireland rector in Schull, County Cork and a member of the Schull Relief Committee during the Famine. His father was a barrister.

1872

Father dies. Family moves to Rathger, in Dublin, next door to his maternal grandmother.

During his childhood JMS was passionately interested in ornithology.

JMS was educated privately at schools in Dublin and Bray, and later studied piano, flute, violin, music theory and counterpoint at the Royal Irish Academy of Music. He traveled to Europe to study music, but changed his mind and decided to focus on literature.

1888

The Synge family moves to the suburb of Kingstown (now Dún Laoghaire) in 1888.

1889

JMS attends Trinity College. Studies Irish and Hebrew, as well as music, and plays with the Academy orchestra in the Antient Concert Rooms.

1891

Wins a scholarship in counterpoint.

1893

Publishes his first known work, a Wordsworth-influenced poem, in Kottabos: A College Miscellany. His reading of Darwin coincides with a crisis of faith and he abandons Protestantism.

Goes to Germany to study music.

1894

Returns to Ireland.

1895

Moves to Paris the following January to study literature and languages at the Sorbonne.

Falls in love with Cherrie Matheson, a friend of his cousin and a member of the Plymouth Brethren. Proposes to her in 1895 and 1896, but is rejected both times because of their differing religious viewpoints.

1896

Meets Yeats, who encourages him to live for a while in the Aran Islands and then return to Dublin and devote himself to creative work. Joins with Yeats, Augusta, Lady Gregory, and George William Russell to form the Irish National Theatre Society, which later would establish the Abbey Theatre.

1897

Suffers his first attack of Hodgkin's disease.

1898

Spends the summer on the Aran Islands. He spends the next five summers on the islands, collecting stories and folklore and perfecting his Irish, while continuing to live in Paris for most of the rest of the year. During this period, he writes his first play, When the Moon has Set. He sends it to Lady Gregory for the Irish Literary Theatre in 1900, but she rejects it.

His first account of life on the islands is published in the New Ireland Review.

1901

His book-length journal, The Aran Islands, is completed (published in 1907 with illustrations by Jack Butler Yeats).

1902

Completes Riders to the Sea and The Shadow of the Glen. Both are based on stories he collected while in the Aran Islands.

1903

Leaves Paris; moves to London. The Shadow of the Glen is performed at the Molesworth Hall.

1904

Riders to the Sea is performed at the Molesworth Hall.

The Shadow of the Glen, under the title In the Shadow of the Glen, forms part of the bill for the opening run of the Abbey Theatre from December 27, 1904 to January 3, 1905.

The Shadow of the Glen was based on a story of an unfaithful wife and it was attacked in print by Irish nationalist leader Arthur Griffith as "a slur on Irish womanhood." Years later, Synge would write, "When I was writing The Shadow of the Glen some years ago, I got more aid than any learning could have given me from a chink in the floor of the old Wicklow house where I was staying, that let me hear what was being said by the servant girls in the kitchen."

This encouraged more critical attacks that alleged that Synge described Irish women in an unfair manner. Riders to the Sea was also attacked by nationalists, this time Patrick Pearse, who decried it because of the author's attitude to God and religion. Furthermore, JMS's audience felt that he did a disservice to Irish nationalism for not idealizing his characters. However, later critics would attack Synge for idealizing the Irish peasantry too much.

1905

The Well of the Saints is staged at the Abbey, again to nationalist disapproval, and again in 1906 at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin.

1907

The Playboy of the Western World performed at the Abbey.

The comedy centers on the story of apparent parricide and attracted a wide hostile reaction from the Irish public. The Freeman's Journal described it as "an unmitigated, protracted libel upon Irish peasant men, and worse still upon Irish girlhood." Egged on by nationalists, including Arthur Griffith, who believed that the theatre was insufficiently politically active and described it as "a vile and inhuman story told in the foulest language we have ever listened to from a public platform," and with the pretext of a perceived slight on the virtue of Irish womanhood in the line " . . . a drift of chosen females, standing in their shifts . . ." At the time a shift was known as a symbol representing Kitty O'Shea and adultery.

However, George Watson explains the real problem with the play when he says, "this heady mixture of English stereotypical images of Irish violence, of Irish resentment of those images, and of Synge's stress on violence, which for him is almost synonymous with vitality, is, far more than the word 'shift,' what made The Playboy so explosive." A significant portion of the crowd rioted, causing the third act of the play to be acted out in dumb show.

Yeats returned from Scotland to address the crowd on the second night, and decided to call in the police. Press opinion soon turned against the rioters and the protests petered out.

1909

Synge becomes engaged to the Abbey actress Maire O'Neill (formerly known as Molly Allgood).

Poems and Translations is published by the Cuala Press with a preface by Yeats.

24 March: Dies in Dublin. He is buried in Mount Jerome Graveyard, Harolds Cross, Dublin.

1910

Yeats and Molly Allgood complete JMS's unfinished final play, Deirdre of the Sorrows, and it is presented by the Abbey players in January 1910 with Allgood in the lead role



There is no language like the Irish for soothing and quieting.