In 1905, The Manchester Guardian sent playwright, poet, writer, collector of folklore John Millington Synge (Playboy of the Western World), and artist Jack Butler Yeats (brother of W.B. Yeats) to travel a month in Connemara, Ireland, and report in 12 articles on distress in what was called “the congestive district.” The Congestive District Board was formed to alleviate poverty in the western counties addressing “overcrowding, poverty, relief work, emigration, and immigration; agriculture, fisheries and domestic industry.” (Historian Cormac O’Malley)
Later the pieces were published together in a volume called The Aran Islands, written by Synge with pen and ink illustrations (often turned into paintings) by Yeats who had carried sketchbooks. The author considered it his most serious work. “Both were Irish, but from far happier, more prosperous Dublin,” narration tells us. Synge’s oeuvre nonetheless concerned working class, rural Ireland, while Yeats declared “a painter must be part of the land and of the life he paints.” They were friends before starting the excursion.
Filmmaker Margy Kinmonth is half Irish. Looking for a story about Yeats in Manchester Guardian microfilm, she chanced upon the greatly unknown articles and was inspired to create a “road movie across the west of Ireland” that looks very much as if it was shot during the time depicted. With Patrick Laffan as Synge, Tom Hickey playing Yeats, and resonant narration by John Huston, we follow the genial, curious men on foot, horse cart and boat as they talk to locals and Yeats sketches. (Original artwork is shown.)
“All the young girls are goin’ to America at 17, but they don’t like the life and come home… Many have worked in factories and lose their health. Here girls are robust…” We hear methods for sheep shearing and watch Yeats show a child his sketches. Shops are old fashioned general stores selling “rosaries, saddles, honey, fine tooth combs, tobacco and nit killers.”
A thatcher describes his work. When he’s not creating roofs, “I do a bit o’ fishin. A man who wants a boat buys timber from someone in Galloway, then hires a carpenter to build it. The whole time the carpenter is workin’ at it, the other man must support him includin’ whiskey every day as well as standin’ around handing boards and givin’nails. A carpenter like that will work six weeks or more and gets paid two pounds plus materials. A dear thing for a poor man.” We watch seaweed dried and burnt to produce kelp valuable for the manufacture of iodine, a business less precarious than fishing.
“Sometimes I wish I hadn’t got a soul,” Synge wrote, “… the people are starving, but attractive and charming…When wandering very old islands, one seldom fails to meet some old sailor who has seen something of the world and returned. Often they go to America as a sailor at 20…”
A man is asked what brought him back. “I had two elder brothers that went to America. I had to come back for family. My wife died, potatoes went black, the cows died of disease of the brain. Here I am, no animals and young children runnin’ wild. If it weren’t for them, I’d be off this evenin’. I don’t know how I’m supposed to be livin’ in this place at all. I ask myself how poor people can go on executin’ their religion.” Government distribution of land after famine is a pervasive issue.
The daughter of another denizen just sent three pounds from America. “If a poor man like me has three daughters that send money every week…In America, I could be livin’ decently and earn my bread…” Locals are torn between promise and commitment. We see basket making, boats with homemade patchwork sails. “…better to have everyone stay behind to build roads and piers.” Synge and Yeats travel across river in a flat ferry with livestock.
“Their first feeling seems to be a dread of any reform that would lessen individuality, rather than any hope of improving well being. Perhaps it is part of the misfortune of Ireland that nearly all the characteristics that give color to Irish life are bound up to a soul condition near penury.” (Synge)
John Millington Synge died of Hodgkin’s Disease at 37. Jack Butler Years lived 50 years more.
There’s no attempt here to romanticize the sometimes poetic, frequently loquacious Irish, no scene that feels manufactured. It’s as if we were observant flies on a backpack. Narration makes the film a travelogue/ documentary rather than any attempt to depict low key protagonists’ characters. We’re left with what feels an extremely accurate a glimpse of time and place.
All photos courtesy of the film
Opening Photo: Patrick Laffan as John Millington Synge, Tom Hickey as Jack Butler Yeats
The Western World– An Irish Docudrama made in 1981
Written and Directed by Margy Kinmonth
Narrated by John Huston
Foxtrot Films (London); Turlough McConnell Communications and NY Irish Center
First Irish Festival
With the goal of “staying home and staying safe,” virtual offerings are available until January 31st in the 13th installment of this Irish Festival from Origin Theatre.
Visit www.origintheatre.org for additional details.