by Brendan Clifford

PART SEVEN—Theatre & Life. Part Two.

Nicholas Grene, Professor of English at Trinity College, delivered a Thomas Davis Lecture on the subject of the Irish Theatre last year, and I commented on a particular feature of it in the last issue of Church & State. The date of the broadcast was incorrectly given as Poppy Day 1994. It was in fact Poppy Day 2004. And it was entirely in the spirit of the Poppy. The song of the Great War, which carried millions of men—including many thousand Irish—to kill and die among the poppies, begins: "Paddy wrote a letter to his Irish Molly O/ Saying if you don't receive it please write and let me know". Or am I mistaken in remembering that as the first verse of Tipperary?

Professor Grene spoke of the riots in Dublin against the early performances of The Playboy Of The Western World and The Plough And The Stars, describing both as "sectarian":

"Lurking here no doubt was class and sectarian resentment that an Anglo-Irish Protestant… should imagine that he knew the people from the inside".

That was about the Playboy riot. And the Plough:

"And here was O'Casey, Protestant that he was—though to be fair to his antagonists that was never used against him—denying the Real Presence."

I commented:

"Professor Grene suggests that the Playboy riots were “sectarian”, as were the demonstrations against the Plough, “though to be fair” the issue was never actually raised against O'Casey. If it was not actually raised, but Professor Grene still mentions it, he must have grounds for knowing that it was in the minds of the protestors but that they suppressed utterance of it. And, since he does not qualify his statement in the case of Synge, I take it that he has evidence that it was raised. I can only say that it is an allegation I have never previously come across."

I have since looked up Professor Grene and found that he has published a book about Synge: Synge: A Critical Study Of The Plays (Macmillan 1975). But I could find in it no evidence that the fact of Synge being a Protestant was raised against him in the Playboy hullabaloo. Nor could I see that in his his book he suggests that it was. I can only conclude then that the allegation in the Thomas Davis lecture that Synge was criticised on sectarian grounds crept into it unnoticed from the atmosphere of these times.

It became an axiom of the Spirit of the Age about ten years ago that Jews were persecuted in Ireland after it separated from Britain.

Of course an axiom needs no demonstration. It is therefore best left without demonstration. But the persecution of the Jews in the Irish state was illustrated in an RTE programme on the subject with a sketch from the cult novel, Ulysses, and I have seen that sketch repeated a number of times since. It is a scene on the steps of the national Library where one Dublin citizen asks another if he knows why the Jews were never persecuted in Ireland, and cackles the answer: "Because we never let them in! We never let them in!"

But who controlled immigration into Ireland on Bloomsday, and for many centuries before?

Anyhow, the idea that the Jews were persecuted in the Irish state, which began to operate about fifteen years after Bloomsday, became part of the cult of modernism in Ireland about ten years ago. And when David Marcus wrote an autobiography it was necessary that he should have experienced anti-Semitism. His memoirs would scarcely be credible if he hadn't. And so he did—even though he was a member of the Irish elite, the Irish Establishment.

And I suppose that it is now incredible that a Protestant who came under criticism in Ireland was not criticised because he was a Protestant.

I knew nothing about Synge beyond his plays until I heard Professor Grene's remark. But I thought it was very improbable that, if Synge had been attacked for being a Protestant, the fact would not have been broadcast from the housetops.

I didn't like the plays. They were set in rural Ireland. I was shaped entirely by life in rural Ireland, untouched by city life or educational institutions, and I could not see that they gave any expression to rural life as actually experienced. Possibly in some of them there was a groping for the qualities of the Greek drama. But in rural Ireland in my teens I took to the Greek drama. I believe it had formed part of the Hedge Schools (at least Homer had) and there had once been three Hedge Schools in the townland where I lived into my twenties. Perhaps there had been a carry-over of taste from those times to my time. Anyhow the Greek drama did not even strike me as exotic. But Synge's plays struck me as fake. And that was something that there was nothing to be done about, short of having cosmetic surgery on your taste buds with a view to becoming somebody else.

Lady Antonia Fraser liked the Limerick book, Angela's Ashes, until Roy Foster denounced it. She then apologised for liking it and set about re-ordering her taste so that she would not like it. But I'm not up to that kind of thing.

Somebody must have told me a long time ago that Synge was adrift on the Continent, until Yeats told him: Go West young man and discover the primitives. My idea of Synge therefore was of an alienated intellectual who found a subject in a region beyond the mind and manners of his kind. Not quite an Irish Gauguin, because he did not actually go native, and because words are very much more difficult to grasp than appearances. But an Anglo-Irishman who made a gesture in that direction.

I have now looked through Professor Grene's book, which is in fact quite thoughtful, and a couple of others. In none of them is it suggested that the Playboy was attacked because Synge was a Protestant. In fact, the boot seems to be on the other foot. Synge came from a fundamentalist Protestant family of Anglo-Irish gentry, was alienated from his society through becoming Darwinist, but never overcame the Ascendancy distaste for the rising Catholic society that was displacing it.

The Synges were—

"middle-class professional people—barristers, land-agents, engineers. The Anglo-Irish were an Ascendancy not an aristocracy, including individuals of very different social standing, united by their common minority interests rather than by any class uniformity" (Grene p11).

But, though they were not themselves aristocracy, they had landlord cousins.

Another biography (J.M. Synge by D.H. Greene and E.M. Stephens, 1969—the latter being Synge's nephew and literary executor) tells us that Synge's mother was the daughter of Robert Traill, a fundamentalist Anglican clergyman from Co. Antrim who was the Rector of Schull in West Cork in the 1840s. Traill's excessive belief disabled him for a high-flying career in the Anglican Church. He occupied himself by translating Josephus's Jewish War. (I noticed when tracing the history of the Ulster Protestants that Josephus, the Jewish nationalist rebel against Rome, who was astute enough to survive a suicide pact made by the die-hards in the last ditch, and who went on to become a distinguished man of letters in Rome, held an eminent place in evangelical culture.)

Synge's brother, Edward—"…became land agent of the family estates in Wicklow in 1884, acquired the management of other estates in Cavan and Mayo, and in 1885 became the agent of the estate of Lord Gormanstown" who was a Catholic (p7).

"In 1885… Edward was busily evicting tenants in Cavan, Mayo and Wicklow. When Synge argued with his mother over the rights of the tenants and the injustice of evicting them, her answer was, 'What would become of us if our tenants in Galway stopped paying the rents?' To this he could find no answer and was forced to hold his tongue" (p11).

In 1887 Edward evicted Hugh Carey from a small farm in the townland of Ahowl, on Synge's aunt's estate of Glenore, for being behind with his rent:

"Edward Synge's technique was almost perfect, for he had learned it in the west of Ireland where the opposition was formidable. He first hired two 'emergency men', whose job was to hold houses from which tenants had been evicted… Edward's next step was to approach the farm by an unexpected route early in the morning, rout out the occupants and install his emergency men before the news had spread… What happened next usually depended on whether the farm was worth saving or whether another tenant was brave or foolish enough to move into a boycotted house. Is prospects were not favourable the house was frequently burned to the ground [by the landlord]" (p11).

Carey's house was burned. The eviction was reported in The Freeman's Journal. And Synge was upset. But:

"According to his mother, Edward Synge was not only acting in the best interests of his employer and his class but also according to what was morally right. Her theology, shaped by the evangelical movement, held that man was essentially wicked and, by justice at least, entitled to nothing but damnation. If he did not pay his rent he deserved eviction. To eliminate evictions was to traffic in the generosity of the landlords, and this was no time for landlords to relax their already precarious hold on the rights and privileges that gave them their power. She was also inclined to see the problem of landlord versus tenant solely in religious terms, as a conflict between Protestant and Catholic. Truth lay with her class and any weakening of one was a weakening of the other. Imagine her puzzlement and the dismay which swept over the Roman Catholic masses of Ireland when the Pope himself in 1888 pronounced boycotting, the only weapons the tenants had, to be unlawful. The Roman Catholic members of Parliament immediately condemned the papal rescript, and it had little actual effect upon Catholic Ireland despite the fact that the Pope confirmed his stand and was supported by one Irish bishop in Limerick… Mrs. Synge… was sure that some dark and mysterious motive lay behind the papal rescript and was unable to see that the Vatican could be used in the game of politics. Most Irish bishops saw it as just this, for they explained in the pages of their newspapers and from the pulpits of their dioceses that the Pope had been misled and that the decree was inapplicable…" (p12-13)

Although Synge had no solution to the problem of how there was to be an income if tenants were allowed not to pay the rent, it seems that he kept pestering his mother on the issue. He "talked her into changing her daily newspaper from The Daily Express to The Irish Times, which was unionist in politics but more liberal in its attitude to the Irish question. 'I took it to please Johnnie', she wrote to Robert, 'but I find it a rebel paper and praises O'Connell, so I gave it up'…" (p26).

The Synge family usually spent long summer holidays at Greystones. In 1892 they went "to Wicklow for the summer where his mother under police protection had hired a boycotted house" (p30), but I do not know the region and it is not made clear whether this was in Greystones. Anyhow, when they were on holiday at Greystones, Synge struck up a friendship with a girl called Cherry Matheson, and: "Cherry's father was a leader of the Plymouth Brethren and directed the religious activities of his family with a vigour even Mrs. Synge could barely rival" (p36). But Cherry was her father's daughter, and as it began to appear that Synge would not do very well here, and would do even worse in the hereafter (he remained immune to the influence of the religious tracts she gave him), she refused him and married a civil servant.

I had some knowledge of English Anglicanism, and of Anglicanism in Ireland in the 18th century, and vaguely assumed that by the late 19th century the religion of the Anglo-Irish Home Counties, or fractions of counties, was little more than a polite formality which served to establish a distance with the Papists.

Stephen Richards, with whom I am able to discuss the affairs of the world even though he is a North Antrim fundamentalist (as I am with Niall Cusack even though he is an actor), took me to task for saying that Anglicanism in Ireland was Calvinist in tendency. But even Calvinism can decline, or progress, into an empty form of manners. But here we find basic Christianity in full vigour in the old, genteel, West British Kingstown on the eve of the 20th century—and Plymouth Brethren in Greystones. It was very surprising.

And a propos the Plymouth Brethren, and also the problem of rents, I think it is a disgrace, both to Ireland and West Britain, that George Moore's Confessions Of A Young Man has not been kept in print. I have been intending to reprint it ever since I read Robert Lynd's priggish denunciation of it long ago. Moore had a problem about peasants not paying their rents about the same time that Mrs. Synge explained the morality of the question to John. Moore was a gentleman of Connacht who was bred to horse-racing but had a taste for aesthetics and decadence at a time when the two were probably the same thing. He was an artistic layabout in Paris when the Land League got going and one morning he got a letter from his agent informing him that his income was drying up. He describes with perfect good humour how the foundations of his world gave way and he had to step out of the character of a gentleman who received money gratis and become a money-earner thanks to the selfishness of his peasants. All he knew about was horse-racing and the world. So he wrote a novel set in the horse-racing world about a Plymouth Brethren girl who was seduced by a gentleman and was cast adrift in the world of English Victorian morality when she became pregnant. Esther Waters is, I think, the first English social realist novel of working class life that counts as literature. He also wrote social realist novels of lower middle class life in England and Dublin, aesthetic novels of Pagan life, novels of conversation which as far as I know are unique in English, and a novel about Jesus which assumes that he survived the Crucifixion (i.e. did not die) but retired to private life and let Paul found Christianity. And in a Preface to the latter he says that he overheard a conversation between his father and Archbishop McHale in which his father put to McHale that Paul was the real founder of Christianity.

George Moore was the last in a long series of George Moores who were Catholic gentlemen of Connacht. He declared himself a Protestant but the spirit in which he survived the revolt of the peasants was not that of the Protestant landed class. By ideological posture he was a Pagan, but his spirit was the spirit of the eternal George Moore, Catholic gentleman of Connacht. I assume it was his father of that name who kept a semblance of the Independent Irish Party in being between the fiasco of Sadleir and Keogh and the arrival of Isaac Butt; and a grandfather of that name who published a pamphlet in support of the Act of Union as part of a deal to save his brother from execution as a rebel, and because he saw the Union as an avenue of escape from the Protestant Ascendancy—and who, when sending his son to Oxford, wrote a book of philosophy for him to protect him against the insidious influence of Kant's philosophy, which undermined the certainty of naive realism a la Locke.

Canon Sheehan was driven to write novels by Moore's paganism. And I think the only real novels ever written in Ireland—by which I mean novels of the European kind as distinct form those of the Dickens kind—are the novels of Moore and Sheehan. And, as regards peasants, there are only Moore's. (It is a long time since I read The Story Teller's Holiday. What I recall from it is that it did not grate on me.)

Synge's peasants seem to have been a fantasy construct in which he found refuge both from the exterminating Ascendancy which was his inherited milieu, and from the new Catholic society coming into being through the failure of extermination, which he found repulsive.

Professor Grene says, "it is absurd to judge his work simply as a representation of Irish life, and to condemn it out of hand if it is considered inaccurate" (p1). If this is a tacit concession that the plays do not give a realistic representation of Irish life, I can agree with the rest. Social realism is not the only worthwhile kind of literature or theatre.

Professor Grene continues:

"Yet it is not just accidental that Synge 'knew Irish life best', and his plays are more than incidentally Irish". quite so. Synge was born into a very Protestant segment of the Protestant Ascendancy at a moment when,

"With their Church disestablished, they felt, quite rightly, that they were fighting a last-ditch stand against the growing power of the Catholic nationalists. In an embattled situation, their political and social views tended to be rigidly orthodox".

Synge stepped away from the fanatical orthodoxy of a declining social caste whose economic foundations were rebelling, and being punished, too close to home for comfort. He studied Hebrew and Irish in Trinity, where his Irish tutor was an Anglican clergyman and his text was a translation of St. John's gospel made by a Protestant Missionary Society. His study of Irish did not follow from, or lead to, a sense of affinity with the Irish. He went to Germany and France and there tried to find something to be…But he failed to strike roots as a Continental intellectual, or aesthete, or musician. So he came home and found refuge in a fantasy world which he spun on a declining margin of Irish life, while hating and despising the development on which 90% of he Irish had embarked.

How, then, could he have failed to produce something that was hated by those whom he hated? Especially if, as Greene and Stephens say, it was intended to satirise them.

His plays were not performed amongst those whom they purported to depict. And he wrote privately about those who demonstrated against the Playboy:

"the scurrility and ignorance and treachery of some of the attacks upon me have rather disgusted me with the middle class Irish Catholic. As you know I have the wildest admiration for the Irish Peasants and for Irish men of unknown genius… but between the two there's an ungodly ruck of fat-faced, sweaty-headed swine. They are in Dublin and Kingstown [Dun Laoghaire] and also in all the country towns" (quoted in Greene & Stephens, p264).

In the same letter Synge records that the theatre charwoman was asked what she thought of the play (by Lady Gregory) and her opinion of it was much the same as that of the fat-faced swine.

Professor Grene quotes part of this letter, and comments:

"In one respect Synge's attitude was that of his class. There can be no doubt of the animus behind his remarks on the Catholic middle class… Synge's outburst is founded not upon any ideal, but on instinctive class hatred. Hence, for example, the physical nature of the abuse… which we also find in Yeats… Unreasoning hatred, of class as of race, focuses upon physical characteristics. The attitudes of both Synge and Yeats are conditioned by the historical background, by the fact that it was the Catholic middle classes who, at the beginning of the 20th century, succeeded in wresting power from the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy."

According to Greene & Stephens:

"The Abbey Theatre's usual audience consisted mostly of people who were Nationalist in outlook. Sometimes a party from the Viceregal Lodge was in the stalls, for the Viceroy's Liberal party advisers were anxious to show that the crown had no objection to purely artistic manifestations of Irish Nationalism. The Unionist minority, on the whole, ignored the Irish literary movement altogether" (p237).

A Unionist audience would presumably have enjoyed this play since it was not a manifestation of Irish nationalism but a ridiculing of it. But the audience that was present was the audience it had been written for. It was written for that particular theatre with its particular audience. The author hated and despised them, and they got his message.

Though an Irish scholar, he also "fulminated against the Gaelic League", as part of the nationalist development, hoping that "a nation that has begotten Grattan, Emmett and Parnell will not be brought to complete insanity in these last days by what is senile and slobbering in the doctrine of the Gaelic League" (Grene, p9).

He was commissioned to write a series of articles for the Manchester Guardian on the West of Ireland. I have not got around to looking at them. Professor Grene says they are thorough and conscientious and make suggestions for improving the social condition, while at the same time he was writing privately:

"the people are starving but wonderfully attractive, and in another place where things are going well, one has a rampant, double-chinned vulgarity" (p13).

Starving Ireland was his refuge—the wonderland in which he might spin his fantasy. It was being eroded by the upsurge of the double-chinned—who were the Irish when they became rich enough to eat.

I now find that there is a new biographer of Synge: Fool Of The Family by Prof. W.J. McCormack, the Anti-Casement man. He gives some further examples of Synge's private comments on the Irish who were not starving—"the groggy-patriot-publican-general shop-man who is married to the priest's half-sister and second cousin once removed of the dispensary doctor"—and comments:

"Not content with his condemnation of 'rampant double-chinned vulgarity', Synge pressed home the political analysis: 'This is the type that is running the present United Irish League anti-grazier campaign while they're swindling the people themselves in a dozen ways and then buying out their holdings and packing off whole families to America'.

"It is possible to assign this unambiguous detestation of William O'Brien's political initiatives to Synge's socialism, but only the detestation is unambiguous. While Michael Davitt's schemes for land nationalisation might seem to have anticipated the dangers inherent in O'Brien's, there is no evidence that Synge gave much thought to Davitt, and, in any case, he was strongly opposed to state intervention on issues of unemployment. The League's opposition to 'big farmers' and graziers offended Synge's lingering attachment to the landlord system, and while he recognised the historical redundancy of landlordism he disliked what was taking its place" (p227).

I don't understand this at all. The landlord system had been deporting people wholesale to America for generations. The graziers plied their trade on lands which had already been depopulated. And I cannot see how O'Brien's success in transferring the land from the landlords to the tenant-farmers was a cause of emigration. Peasant ownership stabilised rural life for a number of generations. By "accumulation" is presumably meant the buying out of small farms to make large capitalist agricultural enterprises. I suppose that is the inevitable tendency of a market economy, but it happened very slowly under O'Brien's scheme (and his purpose was to retard it), so that Ireland retained a high rural population during the 20th century, and was regarded as abnormal for that reason.

Regarding the Playboy, McCormack says its audience was undergoing a "formative trauma". the occasion of the trauma—

"had been the defence of, but more dramatically, the destruction of C.S. Parnell, the Synges' neighbour in Wicklow and more recently the Uncrowned King of Ireland. After the crisis of citation in the divorce courts as Mrs. O'Shea's lover, the hunted and hounded leader had suffered the indignity of having a 'shift' thrown in his face…Unwittingly, Synge's choice of one word had revived a bad conscience to self-defensive fury". Being "subliminally reminded of their own hounding to death of Parnell (as now Christy is hounded), the audience broke up at the word 'shift'" (p313).

I know nothing of the conventions of literary criticism, but on a factual level it strikes me as far-fetched.

In these books the fall of Parnell is misconceived. He was not broken by Catholic Ireland because of the divorce court evidence. He was broken by the Liberals on religious grounds, and by his own reckless political response (which indicated that he had taken the Uncrowned King rhetoric for substantial reality). The Liberal Party, with the last generation of believing Protestants filling outs its ranks, gave an ultimatum to the Irish Party that Parnell must stand down or there would not be another Home Rule Bill. O'Brien suggested that Parnell step down as leader in Parliament for the time being, remaining leader of the party. Parnell rejected any appeasement of the Nonconformist Conscience. When a majority in the party refused to support Parnell at the expense of the Home rule alliance with the Liberals, he set himself against the party and tried to destroy it. It was only then that popular feeling in Ireland turned against him. (I have given some account of this in The Cork Free Press, and also of O'Brien, Davitt and the land reform.)

Professor McCormack quotes a paragraph from Synge's book on the Aran Islands in which Synge tells how on his first landing there an old man saw him and said to himself "if there is a man of the name of Synge left walking, it is that man yonder will be he". It seems that another Synge had been on the island as a Protestant missionary forty years earlier and the old man recognised the resemblance. But Professor McCormack's comment is: "Here is the urge towards a theory of biological identity which so attracts the nationalist" (p22).

This comment strikes me as a total absurdity. That facial resemblance runs through families is not denied by those who deny biological theories of nationality. And, in my experience (and I am an unreconstructed product of Irish national experience), Irish nationalism was not biological in its understanding of itself. It took itself to be a product of the mixture of Celt and Norman and Viking, with a dash of Cromwellian Saxon mixed in after the fall of Cromwellianism.

Editorial Note: This series on the theatre will continue in the next issue.


Part One:—A Wanton Dissipation Of Spirit.

Part Two:—Whores, Adulterers And Fornicators.

Part Three:—Hollywood And Humanism—Cars And Courtesans.

Part Four:—Sweeney Among The Fifth Monarchy Men.

Part Five:—Of Prods & Gods & Dancing Girls; Of Censorship & Things.

Part Six :—Theatre & Life; Part One.

Part Seven:—Theatre & Life; Part Two.

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